Happy books?

Do you think about the (relative) happiness or sadness of books when you choose to read them? I’m thinking of this because I recently read Hepzibah’s post in which she describes people telling her to stop reading so many depressing books and to read something happy instead. And reading that post I remember how some of my students voiced mild complaints about the depressing stories I chose for them to read. They wanted something uplifting.

I was surprised when my students said this, because it really hadn’t occurred to me to think about whether what I’ve read or asked my students to read is sad or not. Perhaps what I put on the syllabus is affected by a taste for sad stories I may have (this is a class where I teach students how to write about literature, so I can choose whatever literature I want), although I’ve never thought of myself as having such a taste, but my first response to this complaint is to think that much of really great literature is sad because that’s the way life is, and there’s nothing to be done about it. In fact, I’m guessing that what my students would consider “uplifting,” I’d consider cheesy and overly sentimental, and if I ever feel “uplifted” by literature, it’s when an author has said something bracingly difficult but true about life.

But maybe this has to do with how I read — with the fact that although I get caught up in stories I don’t tend to believe in them or get involved with them to the extent that what I’m reading affects my mood. I rarely feel sad, much less get depressed, when I read a sad book, so to call books depressing doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I mean, reading something beautifully well-written can make me feel happy or reading something shoddy can make me feel irritated, but if I read a story where everybody dies or the marriage breaks up or a character fails to reach her dreams or whatever I’m not bummed for the rest of the day.

But maybe my students are? I do recall treating some of the violence in a Flannery O’Connor story lightly (not that this violence doesn’t carry significant meaning, but she does find humor in it sometimes) when that violence shocked my students. I wanted to tell them … but, but, it’s a story! Don’t take it so seriously! I mean — take it seriously, definitely, but don’t get upset about the violence! No one is actually dying here!

So, am I callous, or are they overly sensitive, or is this an age and experience thing?

20 Comments

Filed under Books, Reading

20 responses to “Happy books?

  1. I had the same reaction when I recommended We Need to Talk About Kevin to my book-club. Ooh no, they couldn’t read that, it was far too gruesome/depressing/negative. I come away, like you, slightly puzzled, thinking “but it’s a great book, beautifully written with challenging and interesting ideas”. Yes the subject matter may be gruesome, it may be describing a certain kind of violence that has actually occured, but as you say it ain’t real, folks.

    On the other hand, I have a far more visceral reaction to movies – I cry more, I cringe, I feel terror and horror. Perhaps my training in literature allows me to read at a remove, whereas like a child, I watch films and get swept up in the vast emotions.

  2. LK

    I wonder if they have more of an expectation that literature should entertain, rather than enlighten…what do you think, Dorothy?

  3. i’ll read a good story, depressing or happy. but i’m also someone who loves happy endings over a sad one any day.

    when it comes to people who don’t read regularly, i think they enjoy happy endings better because they’re reading to be entertained, not depressed.

    http://sulz.daria.be

  4. Cam

    I think it is, as noted by Sulz & LK, that people expect to be entertained. I think some people don’t like to read because books don’t have a laugh track like tv shows. Now, that’s depressing!

    I agree with you; even if the topic is sobering, I find well-written books a joy to read.

    I think it must be hard to write something cheerful that isn’t sappy & sentimental. Reminds me of the saying about difference between opera (which I love) and musicals (which I usually can’t tolerate): a musical’s plot is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back; an opera’s plot is boy meets girl, boy loses girl, girl kills herself.

  5. I never think about whether a book has a happy or sad ending either. The stories don’t depress me but finishing a really good book that I never wanted to end, that depresses me. But I’ve been in book groups that refused to read books that were “too depressing” or didn’t have a happy ending and I know people who choose books with those things in mind too and I am always baffled by it. It may be as others have suggested that people think books should entertain, but people are entertained by sad movies so why not sad books? I think there is more to it than the entertainment factor, what that more is, however, I have no idea.

  6. This is a good question. I don’t mind the occasional happy ending at all, but I realize that most stories/ a lot of stories aren’t going to end happily–that’s a reflection of life, and don’t writers write about life? Well, maybe most of the time anyway? Sometimes I do pick up fluffy books that I know are going to be happy endings, because that is what I am in the mood for, but I don’t read that type of book exclusively. I read for a variety of reasons and that in part is to be entertained (I hope I don’t sound shallow). But to be entertained means a good story, well drawn characters, good writing–many different things again. Out of curiosity–can you share the books that you teach for this course? Maybe it is a matter of the students being young and not yet having had to deal with a lot of life’s problems? I’ll have to think about this as I work my way through the second half of Hardy’s Tess, which has not been a terribly uplifting book (but which I am greatly enjoying nontheless–despite its heavy themes).

  7. I’m closer to Danielle on this, I think. I do get rather involved in some books but, besides the fact that I’m that reading type, my reaction depends on the author’s writing style. There are some authors who write with such sympathy and feeling that I can’t help but be thrilled or saddened by a read; but I could read similar events, a killing for example, and the author’s absurd or detached style would effectively keep me distant, if still involved.

    I do occasionally pick a book because I know it will be “lighter” and avoid others at a particular moment because it deals with genocide or the slave trade. But for me to have a truly “uplifting” experience with a novel it has to be because of the writing and what the book is about will often have little to do with it. Oh, and I’m also warier of what may be conventionally called sad or “depressing” novels because contemporary authors seem to treat those as synonyms for “serious” — so setting their book during the Holocaust or what have you is easy street to literary credibility.

  8. Happiness has no story, is the old adage. I have a suspicion that they are after the ‘feel good factor’ that comes with more entertaining reading (as other commenters have shrewdly noted). sounds like you need to teach them the merits of the dark side, Dorothy! But in any case, it would be the basis for a fabulous class discussion. The question involves everything – why we read, what we expect to get out of it, what gives us meaning, what constitutes engaging narrative.

  9. Oh, sad books definitely do affect me. Especially in certain situations. Like long distance plane travel. Last time I flew from my childhood home in Australia back to England the novels I was reading made me feel like my life was falling apart. And it wasn’t. It’s not just about endings – it’s the tone of the whole thing. 1984 gave me a physical headache and made me feel numb. Reading loads of Dostoevsky (although I adore him and he usually has happy endings) definitely attuned me to a darker point of view. I know I’m easily emotionally affected, and I have to carefully distinguish between thoughts I’m having because of the novel I’m reading, and thoughts I’m really having.

  10. ps. Just because it’s more difficult to write an uplifting book without being cheesy, I still think writers should try.

  11. I’ve been thinking about this some more and I read Hepzibah’s post and then it came to me that I had read something similar somewhere else recently. Jenclair just wrote about a book of essays having to do with fairy tales (and authors responses to them–many of the essays were on the darker side)–and in her post or in the comments someone said that they were disappointed (am paraphrasing from memory) by the saccharined versions of Disney’s fairy tales as not all childhoods are happy ones. Perhaps these fairy tales served a purpose for children who also had unhappy lives. I think literature probably serves a purpose beyond entertainment (though maybe we don’t necessarily see it when we are reading)–it’s a way of understanding our own lives or relating to others–maybe knowing we are not so different? I’m not really articulating it very well–but you probably get the idea. Like Litlove said a happy story is not really a story–there has to be some difficulty or turmoil thrown in as well.

  12. Like Charlotte, I am not overly affected emotionally by books but movies and TV hit me harder. My son is always shaking his head and telling me that I’m too sensitive when I physically recoil and/or whimper at a scene on TV (and it can’t even be TOO graphic if I’m letting my kids watch!). And I don’t watch that much TV, or see many movies. Maybe people who have more screen time become desensitized, and maybe people who read a lot become similarly desensitized?

  13. Hmm…I wonder if what you voice here isn’t what of the disparities that exist between
    Ph.D. and M.F.A. students? Most ph.d.’s I know voice similar experiences with texts to yours, ie, being able to remain mostly objective and not letting it effect their mood, while many M.F.A.’s i know become emotinally engaged with the texts they read.

    It’s funny because lately I’ve actually been thinking I need a ‘happy’ book simply because the last five have been quite sad and yes, sad stories definitely influence my mood. Most especially, The Road really left me depressed for over a week so even when I moved to a new book i couldn’t move on. The sign of a good book? Absolutely. But it’s also the sign of an easily influenced reader. I certainly feel when I read that I am wholly IN the book, so to speak – I’m so caught up in the world that it’s practically a visceral experience.

  14. hepzibah

    Happy books? Are there such things? I always wonder. I find that I am emotionally attached to every novel that I read and I can’t seem to seperate myself from the novel/stories, maybe I am an overly senstive and emotional person, but when I read, I am always enlighted by other people’s struggles, and in so many ways, reading what some like to call “depressing books” — somehow provides me with a newfound conviction, to continue living my life, despite other issues, and to keep trying for the things I want. So, reading is a way of life for me, I guess, and without words, hearing others, I don’t know where I’d be.

    Also, thanks for bringing other bloggers to my post!!

  15. Oh this is a great post and I’m enjoying the comments. In one of my book groups this discussion comes up every so often because it seems that most of the books we read are not happy-ending type stories.
    I wonder if it’s because many think of reading as a way to escape life and all of its muckiness so when they read they want fun, everything is happy and all is okay in the world type stories.
    I don’t really have a preference but I do know that if I’m going through a lot of stress, etc. then the books I chose tend to be more of the comfort read variety.

  16. Interesting comments! I find myself responding more strongly to movies also — and to listening to books on audio — I’ll laugh or cry much more easily if I’m watching images or listening to sounds. I guess I’m not sure if this is just the way I am and others are different, or if it’s a matter of training and familiarity.

    As to the entertainment question — whether my students wanted to be entertained, not enlightened — I think that’s part of it, or it’s the case for some students. Others, though, were good readers and serious students and with them it’s something different. In this case, the students DID seem to want enlightenment, but they thought of enlightenment more in terms of moral teachings or inspiring messages. So with these students, I think the thing to do is try to complicate what it is they look for in literature, if possible (although how to do that???). Or to complicate what it is they see in literature. Danielle, you’re making me think that their reactions have to do with their way of looking at the world (which sometimes connects with age, although sometimes not — one of the students who mentioned the depressing stories was older than me) — do they see it as fundamentally dark and difficult? Or are they more optimistic and hopeful and wanting to focus on positive and uplifting things?

    As to what I teach — we do A Doll’s House (now is the ending of that play happy or sad?), a bunch of stories by people like Faulkner, O’Connor, Hemingway, Chopin, Richard Wright, Joyce Carol Oates. And then we do some poetry too, although we hadn’t done it when they made the comments.

  17. I’m very emotionally affected by what I read (the sort who gets to the end of something like a John Irving novel and mourns the loss of the friends she’s made while reading it), and I choose books according to my moods. In high school, one of my biggest criticisms was that teachers made us read the most depressing stuff they could find, and it bothered me, because being a teenager was depressing enough. That being said, I think what I really wanted wasn’t necessarily “happy endings,” but just something that occasionally made me laugh. At this point in my life, I’m very aware of the fact that all the novels that make me laugh the most tend to be the saddest. And I don’t mind at all reading “depressing” or “bleak” books, especially when I’m in the right frame of mind.

  18. Ditto to what everyone said about books affecting the mood. This is why I only read pleasant books in bed. If I read something political or violent I can’t get to sleep!

  19. Hmm. Now I have to think about this some more. Maybe it is my own ideas of the world that I am thrusting upon what I think your students mean. Sometimes the world *is* dark and difficult. I was talking to a coworker today about the author of The Kite Runner. She has read that and his new book. I have not yet read either. She was describing a scene in the book where a young girl is married off to an older man–who doesn’t like her cooking and makes her chew rocks as an example of what he thinks her rice is like. I found that horribly disturbing. I am not sure I can read this book. I know it is a story, but it is so close to what is probably the truth, that it is really hard to think about. We have a special Afghan collection in my library and so we talk about the situation over there often. Of course strangely I don’t always classify contemporary fiction the same was as classics. Classics are easier for me to read (if they are “dark and depressing”) than a contemporary novel. So I guess in the end I am not really answering your question at all. I think the authors you teach are definitely serious, but not necessarily depressing. Of course these authors may talk about subjects that are not happy, yet they are also real (I haven’t read all the authors you teach, but I have a good idea of their work)–maybe the students don’t want to be reminded about the unhappy aspects of life. I wonder what books they would choose if they could pick out the books they would use for the course!

  20. Dorothy – it might be easier not to complicate what they look for, but to complicate what they think they’ve found. It may well be possible to find all kinds of morally uplifting meaning in books that are ostensibly sad.

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