In my fiction class the other day, we were discussing Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a short story collection that is a class of the genre written around 1919. It’s a good book–I highly recommend you read it if you haven’t–but it is a little depressing. It’s a portrait of small town life in the form of different vignettes of different characters.
My only critique of the stories–and I shared this in class–is that they don’t really have any sort of brightness to contrast with the air of isolation and futility that hangs over the whole town. Most of the class disagreed with me, but we discussed it for a bit.
Now, this was interesting in conjunction with what we talked about earlier in the class. My professor posed the question to us, “Now, do you like happy stories? What do you think about happy stories?” The implication was that, of course, we weren’t supposed to like happy stories. Clearly, happy stories have nothing to offer and are not legitimate literature, are not truthful in their portrayal of human life.
I’m not sure whether he thought he was being subtle or not, but he was shepherding the class into reaching the above conclusion about happy stories. Instead, I was reaching my own conclusions, but about his mind rather than about the nature of fiction. I’ve had him once before in a fiction class, and it really seems to me that he believes there is no true joy in life. Why else would he so single-mindedly advocate fiction that highlights human misery and loneliness as being the only true art?
I know I’m somewhat uncommon in my approach to writing. I’m a chronic optimist, something that is pretty unusual amongst us artistic types, as evidenced by the high instances of substance abuse and general lack of mental health. But, as I sat in my class defending the ending of A Christmas Carol, I couldn’t help but wonder what got someone like him into writing in the first place. I write because I can’t not write. I write because there is too much inside of me to stop from bursting out. Now, sure, plenty of that is frustration and sadness and loneliness and confusion. But a lot of it is wonder and awe, curiosity and joy. Those are the things that I want to share with people.
The thing is, I know there’s a certain kind of beauty inherent in the problems with being human (see my last post), but I’m not even certain he sees that. It doesn’t seem that way. It seems more like he thinks he’s reached a higher truth, that in highlighting the futility of life he’s admitting to a greater reality than others are willing to concede.
I’ll be honest. I reject that paradigm of art. I understand finding the beauty in loneliness, in sadness, in expressing the human condition, in acknowledging the brokenness inherent in us all. But to believe there’s no chance for redemption, and to, for lack of another word, evangelize that, seems worthy of pity. How can you be an artist when your life is devoid of light or beauty?
So I will admit that I love A Christmas Carol, I like happy endings, and I think fiction that isn’t tragic is still worth reading. But I also like Winesburg, Ohio, and I hope that someday, my fiction professor will find something that is so beautiful he just has to write about it.