Sunday, November 8, 2015

Sticking up for Downers

I need to vent about a disturbing trend. Frequently, the same tiny publishing houses willing to read unsolicited work also seem to want the work they receive to be "life-affirming". (The other variable at play here is I'm often sending work to gay publishers, but I've noticed it's started to bleed out into the mainstream as well.)

Where did this phantom obligation come from? I understand and accept my responsibility to be entertaining, to pull my reader's face down the page. I understand and cope with the fact that in our whiz-bang, lookey-here, squirrelly little world, the moment my story gets too info-dumpy or formulaic, people will be off to play Candy Crush or watch Youtube videos where cats do fun shit. And I understand the need for some kind of takeaway-moral-life lesson-theme-point.

But who says it has to be happy?

Disney and Pixar have to be happy (though admission of sadness played a big role in deepening "Inside Out"). Not even young adult literature exists under this burden. Why are so many of the gateway publishers asking newcomer authors to be artificially bubbly? There's a whole mask on the theater symbol dedicated to frowning. Tragedies are all over the canon.

In the gay publishing world, there's logic behind it, even if that logic is flawed. The idea is we can't be downers because we're already asking our readers to deal with gay, and their tiny little minds can't possibly do two things. But every talented author I've ever talked to about this, gay or straight, has always operated under the assumption that their readers, by virtue of being readers in an instant gratification culture, are fairly sharp people. Like these veteran authors, I'm disinterested in writing for dumbasses. They have coloring books, T.M.Z., and Trump. They're all set.

The music of Joy Division, Depeche Mode, The Cure, The Smiths, and Nirvana has endured, in part, because sadness is a thing. The tragedy-twinged music of The Wombats, Atlas Genius, and Anberlin is likely to endure for the same reason.

Gillian Flynn's books, and books like "We Need to Talk about Kevin" and "Brutal Youth" are sad as hell. They are indispensable specifically because of their attempts to wrestle with truly scary emotional material. Depression and suicide aren't by-products of exposure to sadness, they are by-products of pressure (internal and external; real and imagined) to hide sadness. Sad work often finds a "life-affirming" message via a back road. If a reader can learn from the success of a hero's virtuous choices, it stands to reason they can learn from the mistakes of weak and even vile characters. The assumption that readers can't handle the long road is cynical and destructive.

So gatekeeper publishers, please open your minds a bit more to characters who don't overcome, settings with all the inherent joy of Snake Mountain in "He-man", and endings where the hero bleeds out while reaching for the magic whatever. This joy requirement thing is anathema to creativity, and ultimately that type of damage to the form can't benefit the bottom line you might think you're protecting.