Why is literature so miserable?

Between reviewing, critiquing, research and work commitments, it seems like I rarely get to read a book just because I want to. But every now and again I get the desire to read something purely for pleasure. And quite often when that happens, I want to read a book that I might loosely describe as ‘happy’ or ‘warm’. Something with a sense of humour, an intriguing plot, deep characters and most of all a positive worldview. But I still want all those literary qualities I generally demand of a good book.

(It has just been pointed out to me that I am basically describing a grown-up, literary version of Sesame Street, which may very well be true.)

Maybe I am hard to please (actually there is no maybe about it, I am incredibly hard to please) but ‘warm’ books of this kind are hard to find. It’s not that there aren’t great books in the world, but so many of them tend towards the maudlin, negative, pessimistic and downright miserable.


Is it something in the lives of great prose writers? Are they fundamentally sad people who express that in their work? Or do we think that to say something profound we must adopt a cynicical worldview? Or is it in the nature of good fiction, that its internality leads inevitably to a certain misery? Or do we simply live in a terrible world about which it is impossible to say anything both meaningful and cheerful?

In other places less angst ridden…

Jeffrey Ford has a blog. Go and read it.

Some people won Nebula Awards, and John Scalzi is the new president of the Science Fiction Writers of America.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

9 thoughts on “Why is literature so miserable?

  1. I think that part of the reason why people tend towards dark and dire in their prose has little to do with their own lives, and more to do with wanting to be taken seriously. Especially if you’re a woman, if you write something that’s mostly happy and/or funny, you can have it decried as nothing but chick lit, and therefore ineligible for awards or serious criticism.

    Clarion 2007


    1. Being taken seriously is certainly part of the issue. Seems like a challenge then to write something happy that is also serious.


  2. Try childrens books, that is where I find all the imagination and the ‘warmth’ you speak of to be. Not Harry Potter, as that is actually quite bad but it did open the flood gates for a lot of really quite good, clever, well imagined and well written books for younger people that can be read by older people, if you look for them. The self imposed limits that writers for the older market work under can be set aside and we/they can hark back to the sense of fun, adventure and wonder that adults feel duty bound to suffer without. A few to be going on with… the Skulduggery Pleasant series, the Artermis Fowl series, Troll Fell, the LarkLight series, Amulet of Samarkand, and many more.
    Why writers for older markets [I am trying to avoid saying ‘Adult’ books as that gives a very different connotation] labour under these self imposed restrictions on attitude, viewpoint and story I don’t know. I wish it was not so but it is.


  3. It’s a short-cut to the appearance of profundity. There are some books out there that are just pleasure. Uncle Petros & Goldbach’s Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis is one that springs to mind. But if you think literature is bad, you should try the philosophers. Gloomy as hell, the lot of them. Do you know Calvino’s “Six Memos for the Next Millennium” – it’s a kind of manifesto for books that are light, fleet-footed, and pleasure giving.


  4. I know how you feel. Currently reading Richard Herring’s How Not to Grow Up, but the happy part is way off. Still extremely funny though.

    Can’t wait to read Jeste De Vries’s Shine SF anthology to see what writers have done with the brief of ‘be optimistic’.


  5. Dan – I’ve read a few of those titles when I was organising a teenage fiction award. You are right, lots of warmth there.

    Will – I have not heard of the Calvino essay, but intend to look it up.

    Donna – The Shine anthology is a mixed bag, but there are some jems within.


  6. Well-said! Sometimes — er, wait — *many* times I find myself wanting to scream at an author, “You don’t have to take everything so damn seriously! Lighten up, will ya?”


  7. I believe it’s easier to involve a person in a miserable story than in a positive one. Being positive and light-hearted can come off as corny, unsophisticated and even groan worthy. Plus, right now, people want to read about characters, who more miserable than themselves… If that makes sense.



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