Arifa Akbar: Happiness doesn't write white - it saves lives

The week in books

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month