Does truly great literature have to take after Darth Vader? Does it have to come from the dark side? Do we need to examine sorrow, adversity, the underbelly, the river of tears, the filth and the madness before we can be taken seriously? Books of the ‘light and fluffy’ kind will never be considered literature.
Conflict of course is core. Without conflict there is no story, without obstacle. And we by instinct feel obstacle to be a negative thing, a shadow. But it is also a fence we climb over and the view from a fence can be quite lovely and the bounties that open out before us absolutely glorious. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a fan of the triumph over adversity book or the Hollywood ending. What I really want to talk about here is nuances of shadow and light.
This topic is something I have often thought about and this post was prompted by something Dan Holloway of the Year Zero Writers said recently “Writing, and especially reading, is not about smiley. It’s about reaching deep deep down, pulling out something deeply ugly and bringing it screaming into the (candle)light.”
I am taking his phrase out of its original context and plonking it down here but it made me think about whether there is a place for ‘smiley’, comedy, light and joy in well respected literature.
I am a fan of Monty Python and the Coen brothers and the terrific children’s TV show based on the books by Terry Deary; Horrible Histories. The scenes and sketches can often be grim, grotesque, based in grisly fact. The juxtaposition of humour and darkness creates a discordance that elevates the joke further. Beckett’s dark humour was applauded and he remains a literary giant to this day.
This is one area where darkness and light work together. My personal philosophy and one that filters through to me as a writer is that darkness and light are two sides of the same sphere, loss is on the reverse side of love, laughter holds the echo of tears, summer the remembrance of winter. As I have mentioned before I wrote a personal book/journal The Book of Joy when going through a difficult period in life. It could just as well have been called the Book of Utter Devastation or the Book of Grief. The grief was documented and the Joy that became the title of the book was found in the shadow of that grief. I described beautiful things, people, places that gave me solace while the pain still remained.
Sometimes its cool to be dark, sometimes it seems that the mud of life is more real than anything else, more worthy of elaboration. And writing about blood and mud and guts is wonderful when done beautifully. But its where there is the absence of any kind of glimmer of light that I find it relentless, hard to take. I was going to say ‘and not in essence, true’ but yes, of course there are aspects to life where situations are irredeemable, darkness permeates. What writers on the dark side are doing is embracing the murk and elevating it through their carefully crafted attention, the beauty of their phrasing. But in most situations, even the most dire moments of self-loathing there may be a wisp of optimism, a pulse of outward looking, love, remembrance. Even if it is fleeting, flares up and dies, it is real, it is what brings the other side into sharp relief (ironic phrase there).
Recently I was developing an idea for a novel. It would be on the literary side of mainstream, lyrically written. It involved someone’s search for identity, exploring the choices we make in life and what is lost along the way. I developed the idea, wrote passages, became passionate about the book and couldn’t wait to start. As November 2009 approached I also began to jot down amusing phrases that came at me quite randomly, I envisaged some strong main characters and began to feel the guts of a comedy sci/fi fantasy rising out of the stew of my unconscious.
When the novel writing challenge Nanowrimo arrived I found myself drawn to starting the comic fantasy novel rather than the more serious one. The wry style of writing gave me back the energy I needed to keep going to write 50,000 words in the space of a month. I read it over now and I laugh out loud. This is quite thrilling and surprising since I already know the jokes! In many ways I was exploring the very same themes in this book as I had envisaged doing in the more literary version. Was this in fact the same book being told in a completely different style? And will the style prevent it from being taken as seriously as the first novel might have been, should it of course gain readership.
It has often been said that a comic piece is difficult to write well. As a general principle it is often difficult to find a humourous novel. One of the most memorable moments of my reading life was when as a young teen I was moved to tears by a passage in Dicken’s ‘Dombey and Son’. I couldn’t believe that a book had had the power to make me cry. But a book that can make you laugh out loud is a terrific thing. But not laughter in a vaccum, rather that wry laughter that is a counterpoint to the less than wonderful things that may be happening to characters in the book or indeed to you in your life.
After my comic novel, I may go back to my more serious novel with its undercurrent of loss, inevitability of death and all the other very nigglely human things we carry with us. But if I do not juxtapose it with comedy, I will use beauty. My main character may feel a fist around her insides and escape outside where the air is round and cold like newly scooped ice-cream and the pink streaked cirrus are breathing.
Should darkness be allowed to stand alone, without beauty and light? Can a humourous writer ever hope to be considered literary? What do you think?