One of the most common complaints I hear in my undergraduate courses is how depressing literature is. And in my creative writing classes this translates to: Why do we have to write literature that is so depressing? Doesn’t anybody get a happy ending?
The challenge, most of the time, is that the writing we’re doing—essays, short stories, poems—is, by definition, short. And all, or almost all, of it has to start with conflict to get a reader’s attention. So how, in a short space, do you believably get from conflict to happiness?
In my classes, I like to use “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin as an example. The short story follows two brothers, an unnamed narrator and his younger brother Sonny, who are in conflict most of their lives, but in the last scene have a believable moment of connection. So how does Baldwin pull it off?
- Baldwin creates an achievable goal—not that the brothers get along generally, but that the narrator learn to listen to Sonny.
- He creates two characters capable of change—who want change.
- He covers a long period of time during which movement towards change can occur.
- He shows the brothers trying repeatedly—and failing—to change.
- He has each character first go through a major life event—the kind of thing that might trigger other changes.
- It’s not a huge change, and is, therefore, a plausible one.
- There is no happily ever after—there is merely a moment of understanding that bodes well for the future.
Now key to his success is Baldwin’s amazing manipulation of time (well documented in Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction), but still, at least we see it can be done.
So maybe literature doesn’t have to be so depressing after all?