A recent Asylum review of a John McGahern novel ends thus: ‘“But why had things to happen as they did,” wonders the son early on, “why could there not be some happiness, it’d be as easy.” But who needs happiness, when glumness can be so invigorating?’
I do (need happiness).
Most of the writing I get sent is glum: it’s about deprivation and abuse (lots of varieties of that) and madness and the like. Partly to blame are the Romantics: suffering, that’s what we like to read/write about, and what we take as a short-hand measure of a writer’s seriousness. Of course written (painted, composed) by the greats, glumness can be invigorating. But by the not-so-greats, it tends to be just glum. And anyway, a diet made up exclusively of glumness, however protein-rich, cannot be healthy.
I’m not asking for bluebells all the way. Not happiness-lite. And I’m averse to most so-called comic writers (the manipulative effort they put in to making me laugh). But it seems that, for example, for many fiction writers the default thing to do with their characters is to bring them down: lose their loves, miss their opportunities, taste defeat. If the writing is very good, then moving, even heartrending – but, as the McGahern character wonders, does it have to be this way?
It’s possible the McGahern character is wrong when he suggests that happiness is ‘as easy’ as glumness. It’s possible that happiness does tend to write white. But the fact that death is always the finishing line doesn’t mean everyone has to be doomed. Mortality is what makes happiness what it is, and more than worth writing.
Summer reading, if I ever get away from this desk for long enough: Rabelais, I think. First line of the inscription above the entrance of the Abbey of Thélème: ‘Grace, honour, praise, delight.’ And lots of bawdiness too.