Can Great Books Be Optimisitc?
Literary critics and English professors will no doubt smile smugly and shake their heads at what I’m about to say, but frankly, I don’t care about their opinions. And despite their belief that they know what constitutes great literature and will try to convince anyone within listening distance that they are right (and consequently only their opinions are correct or matter) I know one thing: a great story is about optimism.
Perhaps that’s an Americanism. I know citizens of the good, old U.S. of A. have been accused of that before. As if older cultures have discovered that wisdom is all about the cynical and depressing. Certainly, even a lot of American writers fall into that trap and come to believe it. And they are rewarded—their beliefs are reinforced—by critics who then hail them as the best writers of their generation.
Sorry—they’re wrong. Great fiction isn’t about cynicism and pessimism. It isn’t about the “we’re all going to die, horribly and miserably” even if that’s what the literary establishment would have you believe. We all know how difficult life is, how it can grind you down, how it can make you into something you wish you weren’t. Or show you things you wish you’d never seen, like cruelty and all the –isms. Does anyone really need a book to point out man’s inhumanity to man?
I think not. I know life is brutish and short. When I read a book, what I hope to get out of it is a reason to hope. A reason to believe that we can triumph over our difficulties—vanquish evil—even if only for a while.
Why am I thinking about this? Two reasons.
Just finished Duma Key by Stephen King and I’m sort of surprised that it has not received the fame it deserves. In fact, I’ve heard very little about it and that’s very sad to me, because in many ways I think it is one of the best books he’s written. Because while it’s a horror story, it’s a horror story done right. Horror shouldn’t be about how much blood you can spill, how much gore you can spatter, how many gruesome ways you can think of to prove man’s (or evil’s) inhumanity to man. It’s creeping horror about loss, life, recovery, and trying to find the good out of the worst possible circumstances: I can do it. King does what he does best: draws characters you love, you sympathize with, facing terrible adversity. And the very thing that helps them may be the thing that kills them or the ones they love.
But above it all, is the strong, perhaps uniquely American sense of: I can do this. And that is what makes the story great. It’s what makes it a keeper—one to be read again and again. It’s what has made King’s books sell millions and why so many other horror writers never seem to quite “get it”. Probably 90% of other horror writers make their stories about the gore, not about the characters. And most of them kill everyone off by the end. What’s the point in that? What is your reader to get out of that? That life sucks, end it now? Come on, give me a break.
So many novelists believe that in order for a story to be great, everyone must die. What’s great about giving up? About cynicism? About letting evil win? About leaving your characters wrecked and on drugs (a few—L. Block is one who loves to leave characters sinking in the sewer of life). Many writers in both crime and horror genres seem to choose that route—and get lauded for it. But their books are not the sort I want to read again—or at all. They don’t leave me with anything except a feeling that perhaps I ought to find a straight razor and slit my wrists because why not? What’s the use? And who the heck would think it romantic to have one drug addict make a drug addict of their lover to drag him or her down to her level? Not my idea of great fiction or a great story.
So hum-bug and fiddle-sticks. Literature like that is just so much artsy-fartsy junk that weepy-eyed critics and professors love because it confirms their belief that the human species is the worst thing that ever happened to planet earth and we all deserved to be wiped off of it in as many cruel ways as possible.
So…enough ranting…back to my second reason for thinking about this topic on a bright, Saturday morning (in addition to the fact that thinking about it lets me put off my chores a little longer). My second reason is a book I’m writing that is giving me fits on the editing. I’m having the worst time with the heroine. She’s been through horrific experiences and is now doubting herself. And I started to make her, well, nearly suicidal. Then I read King’s Duma Key and realized what I was doing wrong. Yes, she can have these terrible feelings, doubts, and even guilt, but ultimately, she has to believe in herself. She was kidnapped, brutalized, and then killed her captors to escape. Over the years, she’s starting to wonder if she was wrong to kill them. It’s a terrible moral dilemma for her. But ultimately, her character is strong and she did what she had to do to survive, and she must come to realize that. She must find the courage and strength to move forward.
Because that’s what great literature is. Not that my humble book is great literature or has any pretentions along those lines. It’s pure genre, escapism fiction. But the lessons still hold true: it’s strength of character and her will to succeed, the “I can do it,” that really makes a story great.
So critics…blow it out your collective ears. Call me naïve. Call me anything you want. You’ll still be wrong, and I’ll still be right.
I can do it.