Elisabeth‘s response to my post about writing when feeling “endangered” reminded me of an interesting discussion I’ve been having with one of my tutors, the delightful Lee McGowan.
Having read literally hundreds of literary short stories this year, I’m a little fascinated (and perplexed) by the preponderance of emotionally “troubled” stories. I’m familiar with the idea that a short story captures some moment of significance – often a turning point – in the protagonist’s life. But the vast majority of short stories seem to focus on fear, doubt, loss, loneliness, alienation, betrayal, cynicism, failure, or despair. Why so few that touch on wonder, joy, renewal, hope, or triumph? Do all these writers genuinely see life as negatively-loaded? Are “happy” emotions considered the preserve of Hallmark and Disney, a no-go zone for the serious writer?
Or is it just harder to write an engaging, believable, interesting story in which the protagonist has positive experiences? Long ago, as a theatre reviewer, I was struck by how much easier it is to write in a funny and entertaining way if you don’t like the production. If you’re happy to pan things, you can be hilarious. You can also get a pretty good energy flowing if you absolutely adored the production. If, however, you just liked it – if it had its good and bad moments, if the young company seems to be moving in a promising direction – well, it’s very hard to put that in non-yawnworthy terms.
We seem to embrace the stirring, the heart-warming, the life-affirming, in films and novels. Why not in short stories? I’d be really interested to hear other people’s thoughts on this.
Lee, by the way, didn’t seem to have noticed. He has a penchant for “realist” short stories which are invariably gritty, bleak and depressing – that’s their sociopolitical mandate – so maybe he wasn’t looking for anything else. We both went off searching, though, and had to report back that “happy” short stories were thin on the ground. Lee pointed to Raymond Carver‘s “Cathedral” as a story that probably invites a positive interpretation. The winner of last year’s Hal Porter Short Story competition, Keren Heenan‘s “Beyond the Bay”, ends on a note of hope, but it’s a faint and trembling one at the end of a delicate, brooding story (you can read it at http://eastgippslandartgallery.org.au/uploads/pdfs/BeyondtheBay.pdf).
Anyone care to share some of their favourite short stories? Comment on how you see the emotional journeys of the characters in your own short fiction? Got a preference for “happy” or “sad” when it comes to novels and films? I’m keen to hear some other people’s views.