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It Only Hurts When I Write About It

January 25th, 2011 · 10 Comments · Uncategorized

I know this hardly makes us unique as married couples go, but my wife Tessa and I rarely agree on what movies to rent from Netflix. Not, as you’re probably thinking, because I like testosterone-driven action flicks and she prefers romantic comedies, but because T has this thing for films that depress the living shit out of me. She’s very much the realist, my wife, so movies that dare to gloss over man’s inhumanity to man strike her as a missed opportunity to be reminded of same. Why settle for the fleeting warmth of a ridiculous fiction like THE EXPENDABLES when you can have your heart ripped out of your chest for days at a time by the gripping authenticity of HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG?

It’s not that I don’t appreciate a well-told story dealing with the darker aspects of this thing we call “life” from time to time. I do. How could any fan of crime fiction do otherwise? But books and films that seem to exist for the sole purpose of basking in the cold, black light of human suffering are a mystery to me, like people who drive nails through their eyebrows for reasons strictly cosmetic. Sure, there’s no law against it, but what exactly is the point?

Some would ask that very same question about noir, I know. Noir is, after all, a genre dedicated to the proposition that losers and criminal types inevitably meet the sad end they so thoroughly deserve. Nobody in their right mind ever picks up a noir novel expecting to feel better about the human condition after having read it (which is why I so rarely dabble in the genre, as I’ve posted previously). And yet, for all its disdain for happy endings, noir is rarely, if ever, sad, because nothing bad ever happens to a noir character that he or she did not have coming. They make their bed and they wind up laying in it, and that’s not heartbreaking, it’s poetic justice.

No, the kind of downer fiction I object to is the kind that features decent people like you and me being dragged through a gauntlet of pain and humiliation just so things in the end can get . . . worse. The end is often just the implied beginnings of more of the same for whatever surviving characters are left behind to pick up the pieces. Because that is the author’s personal world-view, after all, and the only message (such as it is) he or she cares to convey: that life is just a continuum of random, predominantly unpleasant experiences completely out of our control. We suffer through it and then we die. Happiness is an illusion, no more real or long-lasting than a mirage.

Give me a break.

Yes, as a crime writer, I occasionally write about terrible things happening to good people. Innocent blood is spilled, hearts are broken. But these things are never the sole point of the exercise. They are simply the necessary accoutrements to the kind of gritty and suspenseful stories I like to tell. I neither downplay these elements nor glamorize them; I treat them with the respect and level of attention realism demands, and no more.

Some might say my inclinations toward redemption and hope make me soft, and my fiction less than fully hardboiled. But I would disagree. I don’t believe realism and optimism are mutually exclusive. I think it’s possible to end a hard-edged crime novel with at least a pinhole of light at the end of the tunnel for one’s characters to see without lapsing into fairy tale, and that doing so is more of a challenge than simply writing everyone off the cliff you’ve propelled them toward from Page One.

In a recent issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, Jacob M. Appel, a literary author who teaches writers workshops in New York City, wound up an article profiling Kevin Brockmeier—who apparently writes beautifully constructed, “heartrending” (of course) stories about people dealing with great adversity—with a few lines about the ways Brockmeier has influenced his own writing and creative ambitions:

“What I will be doing is attempting to conjure up metaphors of my own in a way to capture with precision the poignancy of human suffering.”

Say what? This is the goal to which you will dedicate your life’s work? To “capture with precision the poignancy of human suffering”?

Well, okay. Different strokes, and all that. But I don’t get it. Of all things to set one’s literary sights on, why choose human suffering? Why would anybody consciously decide to make the examination of pain and heartbreak the very focal point of their work?

It beats the hell out of me.

I’m sure I’m oversimplifying both Mr. Brockmeier’s talents and Mr. Appel’s professional ambitions. The former is an O. Henry prize-winner several times over and, based upon his Writer’s Chronicle article alone, the latter seems more than capable of writing “poignantly” about a great many subjects. Still, if “human suffering” is in fact as highly prioritized in their work as Mr. Appel would appear to suggest, I can’t help but wonder why.

And hope to God no work of either gentleman is ever adapted to a film my wife Tessa can come across on Netflix.

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10 Comments so far ↓

  • Paul D Brazill

    O, the misery guts entertainments- and they are simply entertainments- are a nice comfort zone. I may not be able to gaze at the abyss but if I squint it won’t sneak up and get me!

  • Jeff Mariotte

    Doesn’t the life of a freelance writer come equipped with enough poignant human suffering for any one person? Waiting for an acceptance (or rejection) and then waiting for that check to finally come (or not) is poignant as hell at dinnertime.

  • Timothy Hallinan

    Good for you, Gar. I am personally sick of depressive fiction, which is one of the reasons I generally prefer us (crime fiction/thriller writers) to them (literary novelists). I see no reason to read, or for that matter see, if it’s a movie, a story that gives new meaning to the word bleak — ending on a deserted, foggy beach as a lone gull shrieks in the sky and the drowned child’s bright sneaker washes up on the sand.
    Fuck it.

  • Gar Anthony Haywood

    Yes, Tim. You’ve described the kind of dreck I’m talking about here perfectly. There’s an audience for it, God knows, but I just don’t understand the attraction.

    And I think I should clarify that I’m not painting all of literary fiction with this brush. Just the subset that has no meat on its bones other than misery.

  • Theresa de Valence

    Interesting post, Mr. Haywood. I think I shall look for one of your titles now–you give me faith.

  • Jen Forbus

    Gar, you always make me smile. This is such a great post. Personally, as a reader, I want to have some hope for humanity after reading a book. It doesn’t have to be all sunshine and roses, but a little hope is good. Hopelessness for everyone makes you want to jump off a bridge.

    Hope you have the Netflix plan that allows you to rent more than one movie at a time.

    Cheers!

  • Gar Anthony Haywood

    Jen, we do have a multiple-title Netflix plan, and I do what I can to control the damage Tessa’s selections would otherwise do to my delicate psyche. I go into our account on a regular basis and re-shuffle the queue—happy stuff on top, sad stuff on the bottom. So far, I’ve been getting away with it.

    And curiously enough, you always make me smile, too.

  • Kate Bulman

    Thank you for this. Sheez, do I agree. I try to avoid books or films that portray only bleak, hopeless pain and suffering. Once in a while, I get suckered in and feel like I’ve been wading in feces. All I can think is that old “misery loves company” line – well, count me out. I feel manipulated. To the point where I am apt to laugh, sort of like farting in church.

  • Keith

    My problem with that stuff is it’s no more realistic than the happy endings.

    I used to play keyboards with a totally improv electronic/spoken word group. We recorded all our shows, and sometimes I’d go through and grab a section I liked, make it into an MP3, and stick it up on the web somewhere. What really struck me was how even though it was an hour of solid music, sometimes, the tone of the MP3 was completely dictated by where I chose to start and end my grab. Like cropping a picture–it’s all about what part of the bigger picture you want to show.

    I think those who say life is really THAT WAY, MAN! are just cropping down to where they can wallow in their own muck without the distraction of light and joy. Not that I want nothing but light and joy, either–I’ve got enough Dora the Explorer books already–but life’s full of both. It’s all just where you crop. If I let the MP3 go another second after that last brooding, dark, beautiful note rings all the way through its reverb, there’s me blowing a duck call and the vocalist cracking up. If you’re dead set on hopelessness, you have to fade it before then.

  • Gar Anthony Haywood

    Your “cropping” analogy is a good one, Keith, except that a lot of the authors I’m taking to task here stretch their message of gloom and doom across the entire lifespan of a character, and sometimes even beyond (generation after generation). There’s nothing wrong with sad stories that are clearly intended to be episodic — snapshots of singular moments in time not meant to represent all that came before in a character’s life and, worse, all that is guaranteed to follow — but those that leave a reader no alternative but to conclude that everyone in these stories is fucked, always has been and always will be, because hey — isn’t that what’s true in the real world? — those stories are a monstrous drag. And I’ve got no time for ‘em.

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