Thursday, September 30, 2010

Jessica Treadway on What's Uplifting About "Depressing" Fiction

In the 47th in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Jessica Treadway, author of Please Come Back to Me (University of Georgia Press), discusses why books that seem grim to some readers can yield an exhilerating experience for others.

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out why a lot of novels and stories some readers find “depressing” (which is the the word people always seem to use) are ones that fill other readers (like me) up – books that exhilarate us, take us over, and make us feel less alone in an often confusing and complex world.

Take Olive Kitteridge, for example. That book took my breath away, quite literally, when I first read it – having received the lucky assignment to review it for The Boston Globe – and it still does. (I checked before sitting down to write this, just in case something had changed in the meantime. Not only had nothing changed, but even knowing what was going to happen in each story didn’t blunt the way Elizabeth Strout’s characters and images made me have to close the book on my finger and look up, in order to absorb the power and the poignancy of what I had just read.)

But the reason I felt the need to look at the book again was a Facebook post by my old friend Jane who said she was “halfway through Olive Kitteridge… so far I’ve found it well-written but distressing, depressing about the human condition.” I wrote to ask her why. She didn’t see any hope in the book, she wrote back. It made her feel that the book’s message was that “it’s pointless – life is hard, and then you die."

“This isn’t my worldview,” she added.

Well, it isn’t my worldview, either. So why did I feel roused by Strout’s book, and stimulated to feel energetic empathy for the characters, instead of emotionally depleted by the losses and pain they suffered along the way? I asked another friend of Jane’s and mine, who’d also loved the book, and she said she had been “comforted by reading another person’s truth.”

That summed it up for me, I realized. When I read a book like Olive Kitteridge or like Richard Yates’ The Easter Parade -- which warns away, in its first line (“Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life”) people who want to avoid being “depressed” by the book they’ve just opened -- I feel gratified by the privilege of bearing witness to those characters’ pain, as well as to their moments of triumph and joy, fleeting though they may be. It’s like being honored and entrusted with the most private confidence, being able to inhabit characters as they experience their deepest feelings, including distress.

In college I read Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir, whose heroine, Gervaise, wants only two things from life: not to be beaten, and to die in her own bed. At the end (spoiler alert!) she doesn’t get either of those things. The final lines belong to the undertaker as he carries her out from under the stairwell where her body has been discovered: “There, there, you’re all right now. Night-night, my lovely!” More than 25 years later, I still remember the electric surge of emotion I felt when I read those words – and it was positive emotion, not negative. Of course I felt grief for Gervaise. I wouldn’t wish her life on anyone I cared about. But I think what I relished was being there at that final moment, along with every other reader who’d made the journey with her; somehow, our presence gave meaning to her life – and her death. (And though I’m not sure I care to spend much time exploring my own psychology in this regard, it’s possible that by extension, I’m hoping that if Olive and Gervaise and the Grimes sisters have sympathetic company in whatever suffering life holds for them, then so will I.)

In my new collection, Please Come Back to Me -- spoiler alert again -- some people die. Most if not all of the characters have ended up with lives other than the ones they expected and wanted for themselves. I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone how to feel after reading my stories, and I won’t be surprised if my friend Jane finds them “depressing.”

But I hope others will understand that this wasn’t my intention. I’m pretty sure I have no interest, either conscious or hidden from myself, in inflicting misery on anyone under the guise of writing stories I hope will hold some meaning. I only want to write what feels true, and maybe touch a few readers who, like me, find resonance – even, sometimes, radiance -- in the dark.