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.

a.akbar@independent.co.uk

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone