August 5, 2011
I had a student ask me once why literature is depressing. “Almost everything we've read, quality literature, but depressing as all hell.” It's a fair question. I can't remember what I told him, but I hope it was this: Yes, most of good literature is depressing because it is about suffering. And there is a lot of stuff in suffering. Happiness and contentment is fairly straightforward. Suffering is always unfolding, facet upon facet. Suffering and all its stuff, is about transformation and transformation is growth and I have to believe this is why we're here, plopped down on this planet and all its head-scratching experiences, to evolve spiritually. There is this great scene in the movie Little Miss Sunshine where the characters discuss suffering. Here it is:
Dwayne: I wish I could just sleep until I was eighteen and skip all this crap-high school and everything-just skip it.
Frank: Do you know who Marcel Proust is?
Dwayne: He's the guy you teach.
Frank: Yeah. French writer. Total loser. Never had a real job. Unrequited love affairs. Gay. Spent 20 years writing a book almost no one reads. But he's also probably the greatest writer since Shakespeare. Anyway, he uh... he gets down to the end of his life, and he looks back and decides that all those years he suffered, Those were the best years of his life, 'cause they made him who he was. All those years he was happy? You know, total waste. Didn't learn a thing. So, if you sleep until you're 18... Ah, think of the suffering you're gonna miss. I mean high school? High school-those are your prime suffering years. You don't get better suffering than that.
Suffering also allows for empathy. We recognize in others what we have felt ourselves and this produces immediate community. No, I am not alone with these dark thoughts and here's the proof, right here in this book. Great literature is true empathy that exceeds the confines of time and space. It helps us change, and by this, it moves humankind to a higher plane. This is why it is more important than religion, because religion tends to divide. Great literature breaks down barriers. Great literature spans borders and unveils the same human experience, albeit in different shapes in colors, but that's what makes the fabric of life so interesting, yet not so foreign, we cannot recognize it. I think of the muslim poet Rumi; he lived thousands of years ago, in a different country, a Muslim and a man. I am a Christian woman living in the twenty first century and I see myself and what I know of humanity in his poems. That's success in literature right there, when a writer and a reader connect like that.
This is also another argument agents should not get so caught up in plot. They're always looking for a plot that sells (they may tell you they are looking for strong characters, but that's hogwash). Look, agents, there's only so many plot lines out there. We got the coming of age plot line, the person in a bad marriage plot line, the love story plot line, the demented killer plot line, the missing persons/mystery plot line yada yada yada. And yes, these plot lines degenerate into genres, but only if the characters are lacking. It's characters that connect us, not plot lines. And good characters make good literature. They get us thinking about our own lives, they may even set our course.