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The short story collection Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins has gotten quite a bit of attention in the past few months and it was one of the books on my holiday list that showed up under the tree. (Yea for books for Christmas!) There are several very powerful stories in this collection, most notably "Ghost, Cowboys" about her father's membership in the Manson Family, but the overriding theme is that of disappointment. A lot of people die in Watkins's world, a lot have horrible relationships, a lot find only dead ends personally and professionally and pretty much overall every single story in this collection ends with a whimper of grimness.

It's not exactly a vision of a bold new day in America.

Please don't think I'm picking on Battleborn however, because there is nothing different in this book then a lot of others I've read lately. Heck, I'm the person who wrote a book with "Dead" in the title, so I'm as guilty of pessimism as the next person. (Though writing about aviation without writing about crashes is pretty much impossible.) What struck me about Battleborn though was that the unhappiness is not due to a sudden change in circumstance - an accident or unplanned twist of misfortune - but rather to the choices made by the characters and their unwillingness to make other choices then to change the situation.

You have a young man who visits a bordello in Nevada and falls for a prostitute, foolishly thinking he is in love. The story is about how she is willfully manipulating him in the hope of financial gain and how the manager of the facility is horribly lonely. No one is happy in this story and no one knows how to be happy.

In another a woman breaks up with her unpleasant boyfriend only to discover she is pregnant and then meets her former boyfriend (the nice guy whose baby she aborted) and thinks about having this new baby. No one is happy in this story either. (Except maybe her sister but she's not the point.)

There is a couple who goes camping and the wife is trying to figure out if she is happy as a wife and mother, the pregnant teenage girl who is discovered in the wild after a drunken party and might be impregnated by her father (I really wasn't sure) but goes back with him anyway and obviously is not happy. (I really couldn't figure out why the cops weren't called on this one but I was too busy being glad the dog didn't die to dwell on it.) And there's the woman who tells her lover about how she peer pressured a friend into having sex with multiple guys they did not know when they were in high school and how the two of them stopped being friends afterwards and the other girl ended up in an abusive relationship and clearly did not live happily ever after. (This was probably the saddest story ever because the whole thing happened out of manipulation bred by boredom - they could have gone to a damn movie instead.)

The story I had the most trouble with was a historic one about gold mining brothers. One plans to get rich and return to marry his girl, who will wait for him - of course. They nearly die getting to the gold fields, lose all their equipment, struggle to find any gold, the girl doesn't write, the brother goes mad, innocent people are killed (bonus - they are Chinese killed due to their ethnicity!) and the sane brother flees without ever knowing what happens to the crazed sibling he left behind. Jack London and everybody else did this already and better, but the point is clear - no one got happy trying to get rich in the gold fields and the girl will never wait for you. (Really - is there a story where the girl EVER waits like she promises?)

Again, in all these stories the writing is powerful, the characters well drawn, the sentences elegant. It's all the good stuff you expect in literary fiction. But honestly, when I was done reading this book I couldn't reach for a fluffy romance novel fast enough. I was tired of all the negativity and it was really wearing me down. I needed something hopeful stat.

What bothers me about so much contemporary literature is that it seems that serious work has to mean unhappiness. We have turned so hard against unearned happy endings (the princess model) that to get respect you have to show the failures of the American dream - the ways in which life beats us up again and again and again. No one just meets the person of their dreams and buys a nice little house and loves their job and enjoys themselves. Can you think of a non-genre title where this happens? Can you think of something lauded as serious literature where just nice pleasant things happen to the characters*? Are we so jaded we don't even want make believe people to be happy?

Am I the only one who wonders about this or still believes that happily-ever-after is an okay thing to think about?

*The only one that comes to mind for me right away is Glaciers by Alexis Smith, the wonderful novella from Tin House. It's thoughtful and written with great care but contains a definite measure of happiness that really makes it heartwarming.

comments

I don't have anything to add, except that this really put into words so much of my discontent with what's perceived as serious literature. I'll stick to my YA and genre fiction, where as Elizabeth Wein recently said, "There's hope for the soul if not the body."

I haven't read Battleborn but I do appreciate where you're coming from. I'm not sure where or when the weighty topic = literary fiction rule became cast in stone, but I don't think it serves either weighty topics or literary fiction particularly well. I love a book with a dark subject matter but why does it have to be so serious. And I adore lush and literary writing but I love it even more when it's in the service of something other than despair.

I think one reason I have stuck to middle grade and younger with my stories so far is that a child, in response to difficulties of all kinds, works it out in play. So I'd rather play on the page than bleed eloquently. It can be done for older readers though. My family read Cyrano de Bergerac over the holidays and it was a hoot! Fabulous language, action, intrigue, romance, combat, and a tragic ending. Did we cry at the end? Sure. But along the way we giggled and gasped with amazement and got out the nerf swords and acted out a few duels. So where is the YA equivalent of Cyrano? I'd read that!

I feel very similarly. I find myself disliking very particular pieces of serious, lauded lit which (I think so at least) depends on its unhappiness for its worthiness, or where critics almost luxuriate in its unhappiness (an unhappiness which maybe feels manipulative rather than true). Does that makes sense? For example 'Alone in Berlin', 'The Tiger's Wife' and 'The Post Office Girl' are all desperately unhappy books which see few ways out for their characters, but they feel true and I don't feel weighed down by their insistance that the world is not exactly nice/life isn't going to work out happily. There were other novels where I feel they force the sad and it comes off false, maybe even smug. Like, the author is super happy to point out other people's flaws and judge us all doomed, almost like they're rooting against the majority of their own species.

But anyway if you're looking for non-genre fic which has been judged srs and where nothing terrible happens can I point you at Tove Jansson? The translation of 'The Summer Book' was big news a while ago and I enjoyed it very much, but just finished 'Fair Play' which came out in translation to less fanfare. It is important and serious, but with plenty of pleasantness. Also 'Breaking Away' by Anna Gavalda is another recent translation, judged as serious work and another book where nothing terrible happens.

@bookgazing - thanks for the recs!

Battleborn does read as very true but yes, it seems like only unpleasantness exists in the characters' worlds - all of them. It's all "hardscrabble existence" from one page to the next and it just got...wearying. I don't think we all have lives this way. Bad things happen but so do good things and yet the good stuff seems to be cast aside in these serious literary works.

I wonder sometimes if we either don't know how to be happy or feel like we shouldn't be happy. Either way, that's pretty dang sad. (Hmmm - maybe I should write a short story about that! ha!)

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