Saturday, November 03, 2007

Simple Division

I've been pretty busy lately, too busy to get to grips before now with this fact which has been knocking about in the back of my head: the fact that while people can't seem to get enough of misery memoirs we can't as a culture seem to stand what are termed 'dark novels'.

It's the 'miserable' nature of Anne Enright's The Gathering which seems to be the focus of those who have reacted to it negatively, and I know I'm not the only author to have had to abandon a novel because it was termed 'too dark' for the current market. Last spring Julian Gough seemed to demur: his Prospect article took as its premise that it's comedy in literary fiction against which we are prejudiced, and that we privilege instead the 'serious' and, he seemed to be implying, the miserablist. Gough presumably had in mind those highly established literary authors, such as Ian McEwan, who are allowed to go on writing in their own vein, while others - even Doris Lessing, it seems - must conform to the 'market' or be turned down, but in any case Gough thus contributed, in an otherwise excellent article, to a false division and an oversimplification of the issues.

Firstly, what do we mean by these terms 'tragedy/comedy', 'serious', 'miserablist'?

Tragedy, in literary terms, is the serious representation of a tragic human situation, but as I have said before it can be uplifting and need not be be 'miserablist'. And comedy - as Gough agreed in a comment on one of my posts - can be the most serious of literary modes.The Greeks, whom Gough used as his model, did indeed subscribe to an unbridgeable gulf between tragedy and comedy, and, he avers, valued the positivity of comedy over tragedy - but, he says, because so many of the Greek comedies were lost, Western civilization subsequently picked up the wrong idea, that tragedy is the proper mode for serious fiction. I do certainly think Gough is onto something in this last, but I also think it's at the root of his own collusion in a cultural error of opposition. Even if we were to accept those oppositions between tragedy and comedy, we should remember that while the Greeks may have seen comedy as a higher form, they didn't exactly dismiss the cathartic usefulness of tragedy which Anne Enright appealed to at her recent Whitworth Gallery reading. But the fact is that since the Greeks we've have a whole lot of stuff going on - not least Freudian concepts of the doubleness of our human psyche which can't so easily be divided up into clear oppositions, and a whole literary history of dark comedy which fuses both aspects of our experience, the tragic and the hilarious. Yet our cultural responses do still seem rooted in those oppositions: Gough can dismiss our literary heavyweights as miserablist; people can overlook the comedy and wit in Anne Enright's novel.

Is this, I wonder, why people can take - no, crave for - miserablist memoirs, when they seem to have such a distaste for serious novels: the fact that such memoirs, as apparent 'fact', are psychologically simpler, and thus easier to read for a culture still rooted in that divisive psychological error; whereas novels, forcing human tragedy through the hopeful and redeeming tropes of fiction are more psychologically complex and demand something more complex from the reader?

Or is it that the miserablism of these memoirs is not after all fundamentally serious, tending towards a wallowing in human misery which borders on a distasteful kind of enjoyment?

(Or simply, as I have often suggested before, that the universality of novels forces readers to identify in a way that memoirs, which are after all only the experience of identifiable others, don't, whatever Oprah Winfrey may say?)
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