Misery Lit: Have We Had Our Fill?

I recently read that Daisy Goodwin, Orange Prize chair, was bothered by the unrelenting “misery” going on in the books eligible for the prize. In case you’re not familiar, the Orange Prize is awarded to a woman writer of any nationality for a novel written in English. After reading 129 novels, Ms. Goodwin told the Guardian, “There’s not been much wit and not much joy, there’s a lot of grimness out there…Pleasure seems to have become a rather neglected element in publishing.” She went on to say, “I was surprised at how little I laughed…and the [books] where there was humour were much appreciated, I can tell you.”

What really struck me was I how much I agreed with her. My book club had just read Shanghai Girls, by Lisa See. Most of us felt that while the book was well written and had compelling moments, it was also unrelenting in its misery. (We’re all fans of Snowflower and the Secret Fan and Peony in Love, BTW.) I can’t speak for everyone, but personally I felt it could have used some lightness—humor, romance, wit…anything to relieve the grimness of the story.

YA lit has its share of misery right now, too. Suzanne Collins, in her post-apocalyptic novels, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, while making every moment gripping and often terrifying, somehow managed to instill a bit of hope. Maybe it’s in the quiet way Peeta loves Katniss, or in the way each wishes to save the other. I wish other writers of dystopian fiction would work a little harder at taking the edge off the hopelessness with a bit of joy. Find something to celebrate in all the bleakness. Something with a human connection.

I know we’re living in a scary, crazy world, and modern fiction reflects the concerns and anxieties of writers, and readers, too, I suppose. But I do wish all the horror, hopelessness, and mayhem could be interspersed with some offsetting moments of happiness. Isn’t that more reflective of life?

To quote Daisy Goodwin again, “I’m more of a light and shade person and there does need to be some joy, not just misery.”

What do you think? Are you longing for a little joy and humor in your reading?

4 comments on “Misery Lit: Have We Had Our Fill?

  1. This is a great point. I find it interesting that during these troubling times we are drawn towards misery, but during past economic downturns people have looked for cultural levity. Comic books became popular during the Great Depression, as did film comedies. I’m doing research on the Civil War right now about popular fiction, and am finding that the most popular books were sentimental romances and swashbuckling adventures. It seems natural to use culture to escape a bad situation, and I’m not sure what it says about us that we are interested in wallowing rather than escaping. I know I could use a swashbuckling adventure story right about now, or a Kinglsey Amis novel. Anything besides the constant stream of news about all the awful things going on that I can’t do a thing about.

  2. I say read a couple of Dave Barry books if you want a laugh. Carl Hiaasen is also good for laughing, and he has a brand new one (Star Island). Not exactly literature, but very cathartic!

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