Arifa Akbar: Happiness doesn't write white - it saves lives
The week in books
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books, 2013.
Friday 30 March 2012
Happiness writes white" is the old cliché, invoked to banish the well-adjusted to the creative desert for the bland. The idea is that cheerfulness doesn't make for interesting storytelling in the way that anguish does – a view which comes with its own kind of inverted snobbery.
So it's one in the eye for miserablists to hear that The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series of novels by Alexander McCall Smith are being prescribed to depressed patients by psychotherapists. McCall Smith tells me that he has had letters from therapists, particularly from America, and would-be suicidal readers thanking him for the therapeutic benefits of his series (of which the latest, 13th installation – The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection – has just been published).
"I have had several letters from psychotherapists who have prescribed my books to their patients, people who have been very depressed. And I've had more than one letter from someone who said they were so low they wanted to end it all, and then (the series' protagonist) Mme Ramotswe came along. Sometimes, the letters are very moving. I've had letters from Botswana from people who have had sadness in their lives – often they have lost someone – and the series has helped them. It's a wonderful thing to know and it's very kind of them to tell me."
If you haven't encountered Precious Ramotswe, she is the large, large-hearted woman who sets up shop as a private detective in Botswana and conducts her investigations in her own seemingly naïve, wholly intuitive woman's way. She brushes up against all kinds of brutality, but her greater faith in good always wins out to a happy ending. The series is often described as uplifting, so it's unsurprising, in a way, to hear Ramotswe's been mending readers' hearts. The mental image of GPs prescribing books instead of anti-depressants, and patients medicating themselves in Waterstones, is also a refreshing one (maybe this is the way to revive the publishing industry).
The "uplifting" narrative arc is sometimes dismissed as anodyne or sentimentalised. The misery memoir, the dark novel, the tragic ending, have the opposite kind of kudos. Yet as much as a corrective as McCall Smith's revelation is, it pushes certain, unreasonable, responsibilities on the novelist.
McCall Smith admits that he would think twice about taking a darker turn in his Botswana series (though it would be hard to imagine a nihilistic, gun-toting Ramotswe) given the letters he's received. "I'm very conscious of the responsibility. I don't feel a need to strike a dark note in these books but if I were to do that, I would need to remind myself of the implications, and that would put me off."
It is clearly not the job of literature to provide therapy, or save lives, but the best stories do offer their own kind of solace, even the very sad ones. That's why Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar is so well-loved. Sad stories tug at something essential, make us feel less alone, more alive. Anna Karenina or King Lear might not raise a warm smile but they make us feel with intensity, which is uplifting, cathartic, life-affirming, in itself.
Myslexia, the quarterly magazine, recently conducted a poll which found that women writers were twice as likely to suffer from mental illness than non-writers. What does this tell us? That art can be one outlet for painful emotions? Yes, though surely the primary purpose of a novel is to tell a story, not your story. That's why "happiness writes white" is such a nonsense. It suggests that it is not happy stories in themselves, but happy authors, that makes for boring yarns. Or that happy people are simply not inspired to write because they're too busy being happy.
Yet the happiest of writers have imagined the bleakest of stories. Iain Banks, when speaking of the dark imagination that led to his debut, The Wasp Factory, and his subsequent SF dystopias, has said that he feels free to explore the bounds of misery because he had a well-adjusted childhood. Other writers have spoken about being temporarily immobilised by depression. So it's not just happiness that can write white, but misery too.
Sense and Sensibility? Whatever!
Joanna Trollope, who is busy writing a contemporary version of 'Sense and Sensibility' in between chairing the Orange prize, calls the task of updating Jane Austen "a game of literary Sudoku". Trollope, who has read Austen's novel four times and written half of her own, says she is "vastly enjoying it. It's the most wonderful game." The philandering John Willoughby no longer rides a horse but drives an Aston Martin ; Margaret, the youngest of the Dashwoods, is glued to her iPod and says "whatever" a lot; yet the emotions and the wit are unchanged, says Trollope. Marianne Dashwood's's central romance, she adds, is a very modern one indeed.
How literary fiction lost the plot
Where has the plot gone? Tim Lott asks the question of literary fiction, where he has found it most wanting. Lott, whose latest novel, 'Under the Same Stars', is reviewed on page 25, says that he suspects snobbery to lie at the heart of this lack of pace: "I'm a bit of a stickler for plot but there seems to be some sort of prejudice against it in literary novels. It's considered somehow low brow. It almost counts against you to have a plot. I don't agree. I've been reading Chad Harbach's 'The Art of Fielding' which is a very good book but relies very heavily on observation and character. I wish he would get on with it a little bit." Similarly so with John Lanchester's 'Capital' (according to Lott's wife). Lott thinks it's not the case that literary writers simply don't do plot - it's that they can't. "There are not many good English novelists who write plot in the way writers can on the other side of the Atlantic," he says, citing Philip Roth, John Updike, Jeffrey Eugenides. The lack of plot as snobbish British literary device: discuss.
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