Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Friday, November 06, 2009

Is "Real" Life Depressing?

by Kerry Blair

My oldest son is taking a class in creative writing at Arizona State. He is more into the whole "writing thing" than I ever was -- or could ever be. Because Scott is as analytical as he is creative, he calls or writes after every class to discuss the whys and wherefores of the craft. Frankly, he hasn't changed much over the years. As a child, he couldn't just watch mutant teenage turtles execute impossible ninja moves, he had to verbally explore the concept of good vs. evil in the sewers, discuss character motivation and development, and enlist my aid in dissecting every plot line. (That last thing wasn't too hard, what with them all being pretty much the same.) When he wanted to know what the big rat represented, metaphorically speaking, I locked myself in the bathroom until the series ended and he moved on to Babylon 5. (Finally! Modern electronic lit worth talking about!)

Recently, he has been exposed to a great deal of short fiction that he's found rather depressing. Since he's about to give up on me for spirited conversation -- let alone insightful, intelligent response -- he suggested that perhaps I open the issue up to blogdom in hopes that some of you would discuss it all with him. He wrote:

Realistic fiction short stories (especially in my writing class) tend to have negative endings. I asked my teacher why and she decided that would make a good class discussion. She wrote: Scott brought up an interesting question, and I'd like us to consider it as a class. In response to some of the stories we've read for class and to many of the stories written for workshop, Scott wonders, Can realistic fiction be written with generally upbeat characters and end "and they lived happily ever after?" He says, "It bothers me that I can't remember any attempts or examples of realistic fiction stories that help the reader hope, love, or just generally be happy." What do you guys think? Do you agree with Scott? Are stories generally sad? Why or why not? Can you think of a "happy" story? Is it easy to apply these labels to stories? In thinking about this, it might help to reconsider why we read fiction, or what you think stories try to do/express."

With about a third of the class responding thus far, no one has been able to come up with a single example of "happy" realistic fiction. Instead they've written things like "One forgets his sorrows in weeping for another." (William Butler Yeats)

Me again. So, what think ye? Let's not only consider short stories -- there aren't enough published to really discuss -- but fiction in general. Over the last twenty years I've watched a broad swath of mainstream young adult fiction take a nose dive into depressing "realism." While Janette Rallison (bless her!) has been Playing the Field, and Taking the Ex Out of Ex-Boyfriend -- and others have turned our thoughts toward magic -- many highly acclaimed writers have been exploring date rape, depression, teenage pregnancy, incest, and suicide. What with it being almost impossible to pull "happily-ever-after" scenarios out of those topics, they mostly don't try. What are they trying to express to the youth of the world, do you think?

And, not to further depress myself, but don't you sometimes think there is a growing tendency in our market to lean toward the Yeats camp? How often is popular LDS fiction -- even that dealing with sensitive issues -- dismissed as "fluff" because of "sugar coating" or endings of "unrealistic" salvation and/or hope? Must novels be "edgy" to also be "real"? If man is to have joy, and we know that, why are we then suspicious of it when we find it in novels?

Final questions: Why do we read fiction? What do we hope to accomplish in writing it? Scott needs to know. And I'm a little curious now myself.


At 11/06/2009 12:20 PM, Blogger Don said...

The last 20 years or so has taught me to be a guardedly optimistic cynic. "Happily Ever After" doesn't really work for me in fiction.

But that doesn't mean I like my fiction depressing. I prefer a "Better Than At The Start" ending to the books I read.

As for short stories, I believe the expectation is they will pack some kind of punch - either humorous, scary, or dramatic. When it comes to drama, I think it's probably easier to drag someone down emotionally than it is to build them up, especially in the limited space of a short story.

At 11/06/2009 12:46 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

I have to be careful here, because I have a tendency to rant. (Breathe, breathe. Rein it in, Annette . . .)

As an English major, I heard this kind of argument all the time, and I never did buy it.

Here's the thing: there's a reason that an entire literary movement is called the REALIST movement. It happened almost parallel with the Naturalist movement, which was even harsher. Those writers believed basically that the world was out to get you, so their stories were beyond miserable and unhappy--in other words, "realistic." (At least, in their twisted minds.)

But that was ONE LITERARY MOVEMENT. One period of time.

Just like the Romantics were one period. Just like the Neoclassicists were one period. The Victorians. And so forth.

The Realists and Naturalist don't have a monopoly on good literature. In fact, they're long dead. (THANK HEAVEN!)

In my mind, any book that portrays life in a way that rings true, with characters that the reader can imagine walking into their home, a book with real problems and conflicts, IS by definition, realistic.

(I don't need REALISM. Realistic and Realism are different things, thanks.)

So in that sense, even Little Women is realistic. Sure, we have moments of "isn't this sweet" and a bit of making sisterhood a little more sugar coated than it might really be. But in the end, Jo's book is burned and Beth dies. That's harsh and real and realistic.

Rilla of Ingleside, my favorite of the Anne of Green Gables books, deals with the brutal realities of what life on the homefront was like during WWI--and how scary it was knowing that your country might fall to German rule, finding out your brother died in battle, and so on. Yes, in the end, there is a happy ending, but it can't be *entirely* happy, because her brother's still dead, and so forth. It's a realistic book. She goes through some really hard times, just like real people do, but she comes out the other end. JUST LIKE REAL PEOPLE DO.

Another example: Mark Twain wrote pretty darn good fiction that was very realistic to the time period, yet much of his work is HAPPY. I could list many more examples, but this is already becoming an essay.

If a book is all sugar coated, sure, that's not realistic, and I'll roll my eyes at it.

But if it's all depressing misery, that's JUST as unrealistic.

If a book HAS to end with sorrow and tragedy, that is just as fake as insisting that a book can't end happily.

Real life has BOTH joy and sadness, so good literature should reflect both--and that includes in the endings.

Wow, Kerry. Gotta be careful when you ask this kind of question and a loud-mouthed English major is paying attention. :D

At 11/06/2009 12:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It’s hard to answer these three questions separately: Why do we read fiction? Why so many negative stories? And why is LDS fiction sugar coated?--may be bound together as tightly as the questions should be.

Why do we read fiction?

To be amazed. To go where no man has been before. To infinity and beyond. To be entertained. To be shocked. To be grossed out. To learn. To explore our past, our present and possibly gain a glimpse of our future. Or at least a future we think we may enjoy glimpsing (or hate, or fear). To let someone else try on that risky behavior for us (or lazy behavior, or oppressive behavior, or arrogant behavior, or covetous behavior, or compassionate behavior, or loving behavior), so we can explore the outcomes and avoid the resultant failures or be more sure of our success. To avoid pain. To learn from the mistakes, triumphs and miserable wallowing of others.

Why do most stories today have negative endings?

It may be because society embraces an increasingly secular view of the world with the pre-requisite ideology that all people are flawed and since there is no repentance, no redemption, and no refining or ennobling force, essentially no perfecting influences of the atonement, there is little hope that people will ever be anything more than the naturally flawed men that they are. In a secular world, is it any wonder that negative stories flood the market today, where fifty years ago they were only a trickle, a drop in what was once a very large positive-story-outcome bucket?

Why is LDS fiction dismissed as fluff, sugar coated or unrealistic?

All stories are spiritual. Even the negative ones. They are about redemption and salvation, and, regretfully, damnation. In other words, all stories are essentially about change. If characters don't experience some sort of change, they’re not realistic. The author must select the point on the continuum between depravity and perfection where they will begin the characterizations of the actors that people their stories. For shock value, or voyeuristic value, or intrigue value, most choose the point on the continuum that falls a little (or a lot) below accepted social mores, and then the author allow us to experience the character’s rebirth into a new self through some change, usually portrayed in a change in their behavior. LDS authors often choose the point on the continuum that is more closely aligned with socially acceptable mores and then they explore a change that moves their characters even further toward the refining, ennobling, and perfecting end of the continuum. In a world enraptured by secularism, should we be surprised that showing a redemptive character change that places your actors above the social norm of morality will be criticized as fluff, sugar-coated or unrealistic? A story about a righteous Nephi's admission that he is beset by weakness will get critics howling the fluff verdict. A righteous, enduring-to-the-end, prophet Enos praying for days on end for sanctification will elicit the unrealistic judgment in ten shades of red ink.

Why do we read and write LDS fiction that has such a fluffy, unrealistic, sugar coated, positive outcome? Because that’s the story of our lives. It’s the end of our creation. It is the purpose of this earth and the goal of our Heavenly Father, to bring to pass our immortality and our eternal lives.

Any other fiction would be a lie.

At 11/06/2009 1:05 PM, Blogger Melanie Goldmund said...

When I first saw the question, can "real" life be depressing, my gut reaction was, "Heck, yeah!" Then I realized we were talking about books.

I don't know if I know enough about the mainstream market to support the theory that the majority of it is depressing. I'm afraid I tend to read only genre fiction that looks likely to have a happy end.

Why do we read fiction? Well, my real life is pretty boring, so I'm looking for something exciting, such as sci fi, fantasy, or a cosy crime. We can't always control what happens to us in real life, but we can choose books that give us the satisfaction of a happy end, which is what I do. I think I do tend towards the idea that "realistic" fiction might not give me what I want, so I turn up my nose at the sections labeled for instance, "women's literature" or YA "issue" literature and very rarely read anything from those categories. On occasion, I have picked up a highly-lauded book from those shelves, read it, and sat back with a feeling of, "Huh. Oka-a-a-ay ... Where's the fantasy section, I need something else now."

If I ever get a book written, I'd like to entertain and uplift, and mostly just leave people feeling glad that they read my book. I don't want to be too sickly sweet, but if "realistic" equals "depressing," then I'd rather err on the sweet side.

At 11/06/2009 1:07 PM, Blogger Daron D. Fraley said...

Kerry, this is a very interesting post because it is something I have thought about quite a bit in my own writing.

I must admit that I sometimes find it easier to breathe life into my prose when I am dealing with examples drawn from the difficult experiences which I have had.

"Life is like an old-time rail journey — delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed. The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride."--Gordon B. Hinckley

I have choked on the dust and smoke, coughed on the cinders, and been sore because of the jolts. Those memories are easy to use in my writing because I have felt them so deeply. And they are common.

I would also have to agree with President Hinckley that the vistas are occasional. Perhaps that is why writing about the extremely positive things is more difficult--even harder to put into words because of their powerful, yet occasional nature.

I know that you read my short story "WATER" and liked it. I think the message there and especially the ending, leaves the reader with a very positive feeling. In fact, the purpose of that story was to share some of the awe and power that I have felt in my life because of the Savior.

If Scott would like to read it as an example of a short story which ends on a very positive note, or the other short about a homeless man which I posted up on my website, point him to and tell him to click on READ. I have both stories there.

At 11/06/2009 2:55 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

Don: A kindred spirit! That is almost word-for-word what I told my son when we first discussed this.

Annette: Thanks SO much for paying attention! This is precisely the sort of response Scott hopes for: intelligent, insightful and open-ended for further discussion. You're far and away my favorite English major!

Melanie: I didn't mean to imply that I think the majority of mainstream fiction is depressing. Not at all! In fact, the last few years have seen a definite upswing of optimism and compassion IMHO. Critically-acclaimed literary fiction still sometimes paints life in greys, but the most popular books are anchored in love -- romantic and filial -- and hope.

In fact, the only newly-published short fiction I could find at a glance in B&N was a compilation of stories by Stephen King. I've read three thus far. All have been as realistic as ghost stories, extra-sensory, and 'slasher tales' get, and two of the three are indisputably upbeat. :) Just goes to show that you CAN pack a whole lot of emotion -- as well as thrills, chills and despair -- in a very few words and STILL leave the reader with a feeling of hope and well-being. (If you know how to do it, of course. King does.)

Daron: I will refer Scott (and everybody else who enjoys a good, relevent read) to the stories on your website.

Anonymous: Amen. And Amen. If there's one unknown that can always be counted on to know, it's you, my friend.

Everybody else: Will you please comment if I PROMISE not to write another treatise in response?

At 11/06/2009 3:02 PM, Blogger Debra Erfert said...

I feel for Scott, because I asked the very same question of my English professor after being frustrated at the depressing, sometimes disgusting, short stories we were required to read for our class discussions. These stories were intentionally compiled together for a reason. They followed the same morose theme.

I believe realistic fiction can be and have been written with upbeat themes, but when you’re in college, students are trapped with the liberal attitudes of the institution, and in order to earn a degree, you have to take the bad along with any good. As you might have figured out, I didn’t go to BYU.

If given a choice, the fiction I read have the metaphoric “happy endings.” While they may have tragedy laced throughout, I’d much rather believe that in the end the characters triumph over whatever adversities they face, and be happy. I would write the same way--with hope. It’s as simple as that.


At 11/06/2009 3:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a Creative Writing major, i agree that most of the literature studied in the academic field is pretty much depressing. Why do we study this in college? I'm not sure. For some reason, creative writers think that in order to get their work out there, it has to be different from anything that has been written before, different from all the stories that end happily ever after. It's a trend that society all together is facing today, in art, music, drama, and literature. Another interesting factor is that more and more people tend today to become more depressed and face a lot of interesting situations, and writing for many writers is a way to get those out of your system, especially when the society around you declares that there is no such thing as hope, God, or even morality.
LDS fiction is often dismissed as fluff because it has all the themes, messages, and other stuff that society doesn't care nor want to hear about.

At 11/06/2009 3:15 PM, Blogger Mr. said...


There must needs be opposition in all things.

Happy endings to happy stories don't generally make great literature because they can't represent the truth Lehi taught. Happy endings can occur, but they require some pain in the journey to hold any meaning. And not tacked on pain, but real, human suffering.

Real life, of course, never ends. So "happily ever after" is necessarily a lie. The happy and the sad keep coming. So an ending that pretends otherwise will not resonate as strongly as a more ambiguous ending.

But I don't agree that an ambiguous ending = a sad ending. I don't think "and life went on" is a sad ending at all.

ps: there are lots of short stories published --- many are excellent; I recommend a subscription to One Story

At 11/06/2009 3:20 PM, Blogger Th. said...


Sorry. That was me.

Also, it's one of my missions (in part because I'm in favor of correct attribution and in part because I know President Hinckley was bugged by this specific example, but the train-ride metaphor originates with Jenkins Lloyd Jones.

At 11/06/2009 3:53 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

I've thought about this myself, after reading anthologies of short stories. My guess is that stories with less-than-happy endings are more thought provoking. Happy endings are nice and leave you feeling uplifted (and all is right with the world, right?) It's a little less satisfying if it's a contrived ending.

Why do we read fiction? Why not just ask what the meaning of life is, Kerry? ;) The short answer is: it depends. I read mysteries because I enjoy the suspense of not knowing everything, and ultimately, in discovering how/why/who done it.

At 11/06/2009 4:28 PM, Blogger Kerry Blair said...

I ask why you read fiction, Jon, because I already KNOW the meaning of life. :) (And when I falter, I can always ask Anonymous.)

Mr.: Just when I think I know all the best websites, somebody comes along with another blessing. Thanks so much! One Story zoomed right to the top of my Christmas list.

People can major in creative writing? Who knew. Good for you. Glad to have you here.

At 11/06/2009 5:42 PM, Blogger Daron D. Fraley said...

Thank you Theric for the correction on the credits pertaining to the Train Ride quote.

At 11/06/2009 6:07 PM, Anonymous Scott Blair said...

A couple nights ago I listened to Caitlin Horrocks (one of this year's O. Henry winners) read her most recent work of literary fiction. It was very well written. I walked out thinking about what of her style I'd like to emulate and why I didn't like her story. I think it's the same reason that I don't often enjoy chick-flicks.

First I thought it would have been better with a secret spy trying to poison the pitas. Then I reconsidered. Sometimes I want to see the spy (i.e. be entertained) sometimes I want a glimpse into someone else's world.

I find too that when I'm in the mood for entertainment I'll put in a season of The Simpsons. When I want more I'll open a book.

The more I read and research this question, the more I think that I like my reading to be complex. I suggest reading "In the Cemetery Where Al Joson is Buried" by Amy Hempel ( - - - - direct link to a pdf version of the story - - fare warning, it is sad).

This is a good example of a complex story with both happy and sad elements.

So, in my reading I guess what I like more than a happy ending is a hopeful one. Seeing people "stuck" at the top, or bottom, of emotional swings isn't why I read. When I want to see the top I watch The Simpsons. When I'm in the mood for something more, I look for something hopeful, even if it is literary fiction.

At 11/06/2009 9:12 PM, Blogger Adam K. K. Figueira said...

My turn to write an essay. :)

"What are they trying to express to the youth of the world, do you think?"

Seems to me that more youth are forced to confront "date rape, depression, teenage pregnancy, incest, and suicide," as well as other unpleasant issues earlier in life and in a much more brutal manner than we've typically seen in bygone years. It may be that these authors are trying to prepare the youth for that (by warning them, perhaps), to demonstrate empathy, or simply to deal with things that kids have to deal with.

I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt here. It may also be that writers just want to sell more books by invoking the appeal of the forbidden, morbid curiosity, or some other such sentiment. This movement mirrors a similar phenomenon in music and art (particularly digital art), which proves that this stuff sells, and it's reflected in the fantasy of the day. Whether this kind of writing/music/art created the social obsession with darkness that seems prevalent among youth these days or the other way around is a rather chicken-or-eggish question to me.

If you'll allow me a quick diversion from strictly realistic fiction, (although the point is related to your questions), I would say that the world, as I've observed it, is increasingly turning to darkness to explain itself, and consequently is creating or expanding a popular mythology in which darkness reigns and spawns gods, devils, heroes, villains, and everything in between. Rather than offering redemption from darkness, this mythology makes darkness the eternal element from which all things come and to which they return. I don't think I need to cite examples of how this has been done in popular fiction, both LDS and otherwise.

Getting back to reality, While some writers use fantasy to do this, others use characters and situations that can occur in real life, but represent only the most horrifying ones imaginable. Sure, those things really happen, and it's useful to know that, but

But we Saints choose to live in the light. I like Mormon's take on his heavy task of writing about dark, real things:

And now behold, I, Mormon, do not desire to harrow up the souls of men in casting before them such an awful scene of blood and carnage as was laid before mine eyes; but I, knowing that these things must surely be made known, and that all things which are hid must be revealed upon the house-tops— And also that a knowledge of these things must come unto the remnant of these people...therefore I write a small abridgment, daring not to give a full account of the things which I have seen, because of the commandment which I have received, and also that ye might not have too great sorrow because of the wickedness of this people.

I also want to echo Theric's statement that life goes on. He beat me to it, but I would say that's a big reason why "happily ever after" and "miserably ever after" don't work so well.

At 11/08/2009 11:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are so many thoughtful, wise, and smart comments on here, I will leave it up to them to speak intelligently for me.

As for how I feel, I think that fiction needs both. We need both light and dark, bitter and sweet. Just like I don't like to eat the same thing everyday, neither do I care to read the same things all the time.

At 11/09/2009 1:09 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

This has been a thoughtful discussion and I'm glad Kerry and Scott brought it up. There have been some great thoughts expressed. I, too, think that much of LDS fiction is more uplifting and positive because that's what we believe in; it is our reality. Some LDS fiction is fluff and that's okay because that is the escape some readers need, but it isn't all fluff and I applaud those who without being preachy remind us there is hope and that life is about growing through facing challenges.
When my oldest daughter was in high school and was required to read a long series of depressing books and stories followed by writing an essay about the lessons gleaned from these books and short stories, she wrote about the high incidence of suicide among high school students and placed a portion of the blame on the requirement to read so many depressing, hopeless books. Her teacher was incensed and gave her a D, the only D she collected in high school or university. It was actually a very good paper. It's true no one gets out of this life without some cinders and dust, even a wreck or two, but I think books like life are more realistic if the hero faces problems, gets scratched up a bit, then conquers and is ready to conquer the next problem, a little stronger and a little wiser. By the way, I always read "happily ever after" as a temporary ending, one that just lasts until the next mountain has to be climbed.


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