I’ve just finished reading The Gathering, which is a bleak Irish family saga from bleak Irish novelist Anne Enright. It’s excellent—clear-eyed without being cold, emotional but not sentimental, fearless rather than brash, a pearl of a book accreted around a dirty little hidden secret. I highly recommend it. The fact that it won the Man Booker Prize this year feels like a personal vindication of sorts, not because of all the help I did not extend to Anne, who hasn’t the faintest idea who I am, but because audiences increasingly seem to reject anything that makes them feel at all uncomfortable, especially if “it’s depressing”, which is usually to say, takes an unflinching look at truth. This seems rather unfair to the book in question.
As one of those readers who absolutely adore depressing, I like to imagine that Enright’s success avenges all the books that regularly get shafted by critics for being depressing, as opposed to poorly written, or badly thought out, or horribly structured. I remember watching Akhil Sharma’s wonderful novel An Obedient Father, seven years ago, crash and burn in the flames of depression-discrimination.
I’d go even further and say that the darker a book, the more I’m likely to enjoy it. Nor do I believe that this confirms me as a literary crazy (I make no claims here about any other kind of crazy). As far as I can remember, none of our really great works of literature or inherited cultural myths are particularly Pollyannaish. They’re about broken hearts, loved ones lost, happiness smashed to bits, abuse and exploitation, murder and suicide, war, abject poverty, crippling disease and disability, natural calamity, exile, brutality, alienation, political oppression, terrifying uncertainty, and hard luck in general.
Take the Bible, for instance—how do you think it feels to get pitched out of Paradise without a stitch of clothing, and be told that the holiday’s over and you’ll now have to slave for your food, and that you’ve blown it not only for yourself but for all of your descendants, everywhere, forever and ever? But you don’t hear people say, “Oh, I didn’t like that Book, it was so depressing.”
Or the Ramayana and Mahabharata, both full of the most godawful humiliations and deaths, not to mention rape and duplicity and the kind of equivocation that would give a moral philosopher the shakes? Nobody turns them down for being depressing.
Yet, that’s how many readers react to books that deal with almost any subject you could put under the rough heading ‘real life, warts and all’. While some tortured artist strives to hold a mirror up to nature, readers are busy measuring the quality of the work by how good it makes them feel—and somewhere along the line, we’ve lost the ability to feel good about feeling sad, because being sad seems to be more undesirable today than it has ever been. Literary culture seems to be inclining towards some adolescent desire to deflect discomfort, demanding that while art should move one, it had better move one up the comfort scale, not down.
Unfortunately, as Tolstoy pointed out, happy stories are all boringly similar, while each unhappiness has its own excitingly special character. (Some people will, of course, suggest that Tolstoy said this more elegantly.) If you want shiny happy comfort, get Photoshop and a bean bag. If you want great art, you’ll have to take it to heart, and on the chin.