(This post originally appeared on Rebecca Rasmussen's wonderful site for authors and writers: thebirdsisters.blogspot.com. Her first novel, The Bird Sisters, is due out in April 2011.)
More than any other genre, I have long believed that the best fiction asks its audience to extend its empathies to others unlike themselves, to lives that may otherwise seem suspect, unlucky, unimaginable. Of course, nonfiction can do the same, as can poetry, but the narrative element of walking an audience through another person’s footsteps allows prose both its gifts and annoyances. However heartrending, this walk in fiction is nonetheless invention, granting the audience the essential step back in order to reflect on the experience and make use of it.
This two-step dance—one to witness; the second to reflect—is in fact what the old fairy tales used to do for children before the tales were fussied up by Hollywood and bleached of their necessary terrors. In his now famous The Uses of Enchantment, psychologist Bruno Bettleheim writes:
There is a widespread refusal to let children know that the source of much that goes wrong in life is due to our very own natures—the propensity of all men for acting aggressively, asocially, selfishly, out of anger and anxiety. Instead, we want our children to believe that, inherently, all men are good. But children know that they are not always good; and often, even when they are, they would prefer not to be. This contradicts what they are told by their parents, and therefore makes the child a monster in his own eyes.
Interestingly enough, for Bettleheim this extension of empathy begins with ourselves—with the very childlike belief in all of us that despite our best intentions we are loathsome creatures. But in our every day lives, what use are monsters? Better to keep them in our fictions. To note that they are our mirrors. To forgive ourselves, to attempt some improvement, and then to get on with our living.
I am writing this post because my novel, The Quickening, has been noted by more than a few readers for its darkness. I based portions of the book on my great-grandmother’s journal, a farmwife who jotted down her story only after she had lost her husband of over fifty years. “And now here I am in February 1950,” she wrote in the last year of her life, “broken hearted and sick in mind and body, begging God every day to take me to him or heal my afflicted body and show me what to do. I don’t want to stay in this world. It is not my home, but for some reason I am left.” I couldn’t, in all fairness to the novel’s inspiration nor to this common experience of loneliness and abandonment, twist my story into an Oprah-Winfrey ending. But that hasn’t stopped some readers to wish I had done so.
Of course, they have every right. In my favorite review so far, a fair and pragmatic Carl H on LibraryJournal offers the book three out of five stars, writing, “I found this story a bit depressing. But since it is set during the Depression, that should not be surprising.” I laughed about the truth of this one for days. Others have taken a harder view. Two stars: “Iowa farm setting, and it's well-written, but too depressing to finish. I suppose life might have been that grim for lonely farm wives between the wars.” One star: “Willa Cather this author isn't.... The theme really was less about pioneering and more about lousy personal choices.” Ouch! Still, poor Willa may rest assured of her own special genius in her grave. Of course, others have gifted me the opposite. During a recent appearance at the stupendous Next Chapter Bookstore in Mequon, WI, one attendee raised her hand with a certain giddiness: “Our book group only reads depressing books,” she announced. “We love them.”
Love them? Why? In this time of economic turmoil and war, what can we possibly gain by looking toward darkness as much as we look toward light?
Pleasure, that’s what. Or so Aristotle contends, the “dude” of modern storymaking, as I tell my students. In Francis Fergusson’s introduction to Poetics, Fergusson explains: “The pleasure we find in the fine arts, but the special quality of our pleasure in tragedy… comes, says Aristotle, from the purgation of the passions of fear and pity.” For a tragedy to be truly pleasurable, Fergusson continues, an audience must respond with “pity and fear together.” For Aristotle, we feel pity for the sorry fate of others. To feel fear, however, we must find in others a reflection of our own selves. Only when we fully identify with a character can we fear that the same sorry fate might happen to us.
This of course is an uncomfortable position, but a necessary one. As Fergusson explains:
Pity alone is merely sentimental, like the shameless tears of soap opera. Fear alone, such as we get from a good thriller, merely makes us shift tensely to the edge of the seat and brace ourselves for the pistol shot. But the masters of tragedy, like good cooks, mingle pity and fear in the right proportions. Having given us fear enough, they melt us with pity, purging us of our emotions, and reconciling us to our fate, because we understand it is the universal human lot.
The universal human lot, or as Bettleheim puts it “life isn’t always sunny.” True tragedies purge us of our fears by allowing us to witness them played out on the safety of a stage (or between the pages in a book). We may fail, yes. But we do so merely because we are human. To write characters who do not suffer or who all too easily overcome their suffering through will-power alone (or by getting married, publishing a bestseller, or winning the lottery) seems to ignore our humanity altogether. Of course, we can praise resourcefulness, responsibility, and strength. But must we also condemn those whose marriages end in divorce, whose bestsellers lead to family lawsuits, or who drown in the world’s materialism? What about characters who triumph again and again through will-power alone only to lack the strength to overcome one last blow? We may wish such stories didn’t exist. That’s what comedy is for. But we cannot ignore those who suffer them despite our distaste. We cannot pretend their stories don’t deserve to be told. Despite our best intentions and our most lauded of strengths, we are still at the mercy of chance. None of us are gods after all.
In truth, I have failed. Despite my admiration for the form, I don’t consider my novel a tragedy, nor do many of my readers. For Aristotle, a playwright achieves tragedy only when the protagonist breaks down altogether, when the best of his character has been destroyed, ie. the proud King Oedipus gouging out his eyes (ouch again). My book contains no gouging (not of persons, at least, though my farmers did have to prepare their supper). Nor does my cast collapse together in Hamlet-like death throes after having been poisoned, stabbed, or overly horrified. The core identities of my two female protagonists do not destruct in any way. The first, Enidina, a willful woman with deeply-set beliefs in land, work, and her own physical strength, races toward her utmost desire through the last page. The second, Mary, despite past behaviors, may just as well earned the room she desires and a window through which she might see a loved one returning. Neither character ends in suffering, at least not according to her own perceptions. Both retain hope about their fate. And in my mind, no matter what darkness hounds them, that’s what matters in the end.