Feeling Artists

on putting emotions in fiction

“You should write something that makes people feel,” is one of my mother’s (unprompted) bits of publishing advice. “Like this book!” she’ll add, holding up some bestseller with a title like The Somnambulist’s Daughter or Where the Stars Refuse to Sing. I always wrinkle my brows a bit. Don’t all stories, even mine, provoke feelings? Isn’t that what art does? But then I do know what she means. Not make people feel weird or discombobulated or bored or even angry or horny. She means make people feel really sad or else really happy. And she’s not wrong. Sad and happy books tend to be what sells. And if we’re talking literary fiction, we’re probably talking sad.

Today on Twitter Lauren Groff kicked off a discussion—or as we say now “the discourse”—by noting how depressing most short stories are.

Groff rightly points out that novels tend to accompany a wider range of keys, but I’d still say that in general literary fiction of any length tends to have an overall note of melancholy or sadness. In the replies, there are a lot of speculation about why this is the case ranging from craft (“conflict” requires problems, “change” implies loss) to economics (short stories don’t have the commercial pressure to appease readers with happy endings) to philosophy (“life is sad,” someone quotes Susan Minot saying.)

I think the answer is probably a little different. We expect fiction to have “literary weight” and our culture simply thinks that tragedy is more weighty than comedy. That sadness and seriousness are more artistic than playfulness and lightness. There are exceptions of course. A satire that concerns itself with a vital social issue can sometimes win a literary award. Paul Beatty’s (brilliant) The Sellout is one recent example. But by and large it’s sadness that gets the acclaim.

This is by no means specific to literary fiction. When I was in my MFA program, I took one film class hosted by the late legendary film critic Andrew Sarris. The class consisted of watching a film and then listening to Sarris on stage charmingly rant and ramble until the bell (metaphorically) rang. I’m not sure I learned a ton in that class to be honest, but the rants were enjoyable. I do, though, always remember the class we watched The Apartment and Sarris said something like, “They never give an Oscar to comedies! I think they should give the Oscar to a comedy every year. Comedies are so much harder to make!”

Whether or not you agree that humor is harder to make, it certainly does seem less universal. Comedy is largely contextual and culture dependent. We relate to Shakespeare’s tragedies more than his comedies. Hollywood comedies almost never do well in foreign markets (and vice versa). And even with people in your own social circles, you’re likely to have wildly different senses of what’s hilarious.

If we’re going to break down this question of feeling in art a bit further, we probably have to separate the question of what makes a story “depressing” into at least two categories: tone and content. I’d add a third too: narrative arc. These three things often overlap, but they can also be different. The first story that popped into my head when I tried to think of a joyous story was Donald Barthelme’s “The School,” which is a playful romp that ends on a literally happy note (“the children cheered wildly”)…. but that’s also entirely about death.

And this is one way to approach the situation. Write about topics of literary weight with levity.

Thinking about the question more, I wonder if short stories, especially very short stories, actually have more room for playfulness and levity than novels. The postmodern playfulness of Donald Barthelme, the fabulist cheerfulness of Italo Calvino (in say Cosmicomics), or the joyous language of Diane Williams all put me in a very good mood. Indeed, it was writers like these who made me want to write in the first place. I didn’t want to be sad on the page. I wanted to have fun.

And I also wonder if things are changing. The playfulness of the 60s postmodernists feels like it is coming back among many authors of my generation. Writers like Amelia Gray, Rion Amilcar Scott, Carmen Maria Machado, and Charles Yu are a few who come to mind who I think use plenty of playfulness and lightness even when dealing with serious issues. It strikes me that most of these authors have a toe (or a whole leg) in genre. I don’t think that science fiction, fantasy, and horror are more prone to comedy per se. But these genres perhaps get a certain “literary weight” or at least readerly interest from their concepts, which frees the authors up to play around with tones and arcs.  

A couple years ago I published a story in The Paris Review called “A Feeling Artist” (an homage to Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”) in which “feeling art” is a common artform and artists practice “Sadness,” “Anger,” and “Joy.” My narrator is a somewhat pretentious character who looks down on people who “multi-feel” and cares about the integrity of his artform, and so of course “Sadness” is his preferred mode. It opens:

Onstage, I’m thinking about the postman who was so overwhelmed by the amount of mail he had to deliver that he threw it all, and then himself, into the sea. I’m thinking about the agoraphobic grandmother who refused to go outside, even when the fire started on the floor below. I’m thinking about crying mothers, refugees fleeing crumbling cities, and infinite human hatred. It isn’t working, but I’m weeping anyway. It’s just muscle memory at this point.

This story is in part a parody the standard “depressing literary fiction”…and I think it’s pretty funny! Yet the story itself probably still falls squarely in the “melancholy” camp, if I’m being honest. At the very least it ends on a “minor key.” (I personally think my preferred mode is “existential confusion” rather than “sadness,” but that’s still a kind of minor key.) This is the hardest thing to avoid, for me at least. The urge for a minor key to anchor the end of a story.

Nothing wrong with this of course! It’s the most popular ending for a reason. But since publishing that story, I’ve been working on an interlinked connection and have been making a consciousness effort to add different kinds of arcs. Arcs that swing up, joyously at the end and fly away. Or swerve sideways off the highway into some strange, moss covered forest.

Because ultimately fiction can do any and everything. Why must it be sadness for literary work or happiness for commercial fiction? The job of the artist is to make people feel. But sadness and happiness aren’t the only two emotions. Why not more angry work? (Thomas Bernhard’s whole oeuvre fits here.) Let’s try everything. Confusion, boredom, schadenfreude, ennui, horniness, contempt, adoration. Writers are feeling artists. There’s a lot of ways to make people feel.