Feel-good fiction with substance

An upbeat reading list for people who often find serious novels depressing

Literary fiction doesn't always have to be downbeat

Chicago Sun-Times, November 27, 2005 

Midway into Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer and Heartland Prizes for fiction, I became conscious that something felt different from the usual literary novel. Was it the letter-to-my-son style of the narrative? The point of view of a small-town preacher?
         No, the difference wasn't the book, but my response to it. I felt happy.
         That realization suggested an answer to a puzzling question: Why is it that someone who presumably loves to read fiction has been having trouble finding novels she wants to read? Could it be because literary fiction
the term used to distinguish serious fiction from the commercial variety is often grim?
         Consider, for instance, the overriding element in some selections of my book group: Suicide in Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road. A lonely death in Balzac's Pere Goriot. Cynicism in Voltaire's Candide and Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts. Brutality in Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. Perversion in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. Bleak satire in Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust. Alienation in Albert Camus' The Stranger. Even a novel by Barbara Pym
an author who was my suggestion and whose novels are considered high comedies — left me feeling sad about the underlying loneliness of her characters.
        "Literary fiction," says a Web site I came across as I was searching for some possibly upbeat titles, "rarely has a happy ending." When did this become literary dogma? Maybe it was always so. Shakespeare could be plenty gloomy. But he also wrote comedies.
        Great literature and happy endings aren't incompatible in Jane Austen. So I read and reread the six Austen novels, and then I read critical interpretations of them.
        When I've exhausted Jane Austen until the next time, I read mysteries, which have the happy ending of sorts
everything is wrapped up. But, like dessert, mysteries are enjoyable in the consumption but offer little sustenance; I want more character development and wisdom about life than they generally afford.
        Why can't serious literature have a positive outlook? There is joy in life as well as sorrow, laughter as well as tears, hope as well as despair. I'm not looking for novels without moral dilemmas, loss, struggle, and conflict; I'm looking for novels that leave me feeling that there's reason to go on living.
         What a pleasure, then, to read Gilead. An indisputably serious novel, Gilead has a thoroughly good narrator for whom we want the best. No one is hopeless; even the character with the most questionable past turns out to be more misunderstood than villainous. The book isn't painless; there is an abolitionist grandfather who may have blood on his hands; a prodigal son whose sin is a mystery until the end; an abandoned young mother and her young child who dies; the imminent death of the narrator, which will take him from his much loved and much younger wife and child. But there is transcendence in the goodness of ordinary people and the celebration of everyday life. There is love of spouses, friends, parents, children, and God. There is forgiveness and hope. Change, the book is clear, is possible.
         It isn't just personal taste that drives my quest for hopeful fiction. I am prone to depression, along with more than 10 percent of the population, if estimates are accurate. Does it make sense for people like us to take Prozac and struggle to keep a positive attitude, then turn around and read fiction that presents life as even worse than we've feared? Does it make sense to put down Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking and pick up Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird?
        And so I've been cruising the Web, putting words like "upbeat" + "serious" + "fiction" in the search box. I haven't found a lot yet, except for a list compiled by a North Carolina librarian. (Google on "Positive Literary Fiction" and you'll find it on several sites.) Titles such as
The Kind of Love That Saves You, by Amy Yurk, The Ladies of Covington Send Their Love, by Joan Medlicott, and The Answer Is Yes, by Ellen Cohen, certainly sound promising.
        The list's recommendation of
Bachelor Brothers' Bed and Breakfast, by Bill Richardson, a Canadian humorist, was right on the mark; the book is funny, warm, and cleverly written.  So I'll keep reading through the few dozen books on that list, even though the names of most of the authors are unfamiliar to me. In other words, these aren't the world's greatest novels. I think that will be OK. They will be good enough -- reading them will feel good and be good for me



Some time ago, the Chicago Sun-Times published a freelance piece of mine titled "Literary fiction doesn't always have to be downbeat." You can go to the link or read the article at right if you care to. I've had a few indications since that I'm probably not the only person looking for stories that leave me hopeful about humankind. A coworker's sister wanted something upbeat to read as she recovered from surgery. A librarian commented that she was looking for "positive literary books" that her mother "would actually enjoy reading." A British survey by the organizers of  World Book Day in 2006 found that 41 percent of 1,740 readers polled were "overwhelmingly in favor of" novels with happy endings. The search isn't just for books, either: Making the news were a DVD club that mails its members uplifting films, and a web site, HappyNews.com, that reports what its name says.

With all that evidence, I decided there was an audience for a web site that would help readers find fiction that's both serious and upbeat. Thus, positivelygoodreads.com was born. As I read a novel that was labeled upbeat by a reviewer, allreaders.com, or an acquaintance, I write a short summary for this site. The upbeatness of some of the novels isn't always apparent to me, but to keep the list growing and to let you decide for yourself, I'm not excluding anything for now. The list will expand as I keep reading and, I  hope, entice my writer friends and others to contribute minireviews.

If you've come to this site, you love words and reading, so I trust you'll not be put off by the plain-text appearance. This site is a first effort and will develop. If you find it useful, please let me know and let your friends know about it. I'd love to get book recommendations from you, too. Happy reading!

Marianne Goss


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