G is for Gloomy and Similar Depressing Literature Taught in High School (Greene)

What I read: Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party by Graham Greene.

Graham Greene is one of those writers whose names I knew but about whom I knew absolutely nothing. In some recess of my brain, I think I thought he was a Southern writer, like Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor.

He's not. He's English. But the comparison to O'Connor may not be totally off. The story by O'Connor that always sticks with me (it's probably the only story by O'Connor that I've read) is "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," a super depressing short story about human fallibility and random acts of violence. "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is often located in anthologies alongside another depressing story, "The Story of an Hour" by Kate Chopin. "The Story of an Hour" is the sort of the story that gives feminism a bad name: so much poignancy resting on the poor woman's fragile nerves--yes, I know the ending is ironic, but I still stand by the fragile nerves description. (On the other hand, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's fragile nerves--"The Yellow Wallpaper"-- don't bother me, mostly because Gilman's fragile nerves are so darn interesting and Gilman herself so potentially constructive rather than self-pitying. Chopin just strikes me as self-pitying. "Oh, get over it; life is hard for women in any age; at least you weren't married at 12 and aren't dying from plague" is my usual response.)

Chopin is also Southern.

Not that that means anything necessarily. O'Connor is an excellent writer, and I quite like Faulkner (I love "The Bear"--it's one of the few novellas I own).

But this type of depressing short story is the type of short story that made me detest High School English--and made me promise, "I'll never write a sad ending!" (I haven't kept that promise, by the way.) In any case, Greene reminds me of all those classic writers I disliked reading in High School.

Just to clarify--I don't mind tragedy: MacBeth, Hamlet, Lord Jim--or weird funness: "A Rose for Emily," "Roman Fever" (Edith Wharton). It's depressing angst I dislike. I clarify the difference in this way: tragedy or weird funness is about sad events; depressing angst is about how pointless and stupid life is.

The former I can handle. The latter seems . . . kind of pointless.

By its very nature, writing is an act of construction. I suppose every generation has to have one writer who postulates that creation achieves nothing and has no purpose but since the position is obviously contradictory (since millions of English students everywhere are immediately put to the constructive task of providing the writer's work with meaning), I think it is rather self-indulgent.

And boring. And surprised angst (I can't believe how fallible human nature is!) is even more boring--well, exasperating and boring.

This is a very long-winded way of saying that this was my reaction to Graham Greene.

I read Doctor Fischer of Geneva or the Bomb Party. It's very well-written. I read the entire book (it isn't long) in about two hours. I didn't lose interest, and I found the character delineations interesting. But not exceptionally so. I did not discover that Greene has a "gift for exploring the deeper recesses of human nature" as the flap claims. I've learned more about human nature from watching Star Trek. Writing a depressing book about greedy people doesn't make it automatically profound, even if the book is pretty good. To be fair, the actual reading of Doctor Fischer isn't boring, but Greene's insights aren't exactly fodder for a thousand dissertations (besides, I think he is wrong: human pride/self-image is a far stronger variable than money although the two can be related).

Sometimes, I think the study of literature suffers, not because it isn't respected (which I think it should be) but because people who write about it are so darn gullible. They always insist they've located the Holy Grail when they've really just found a very nice mug.

Books I Read in High School That I Deem Depressing Angst

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
The Pearl by Steinbeck
Tess by Hardy
Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya
A Separate Peace by John Knowles

Books I Read in High School That I Deem Sad but Not Depressing Angst:

Lord Jim by Conrad (voluntarily)
Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (voluntarily)
Shakespeare's Tragedies
The Crucible by Arthur Miller (which I LOVED although I don't much care for it now)
The Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne (which I've since reread--interesting book: Is Dimmesdale a jerk or a to-be-pitied guy?)
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (I'm iffy on this one: I'm not sure if it is angsty or not, especially since I don't care for it. It's short though!)
Lord of the Flies by Golding (voluntarily, in the summer--amazing book; too violent to be depressing)
Tale of Two Cities by Dickens (I adored Sidney Carlton--ooh, la la. I don't read any Dickens now. Way too much exposition.)



mike said...

I too have major issues with the theme "Life Sucks." A tragic or sad ending that actually teaches something about sacrifice or honor, or something meaningful, I have no problem with. But when an ending sucks only to be realistic, because "that's how the world is," and I'm ticked.

Speaking of Star Trek, how did you like it?(or did you not mean the new one?)

Jennifer said...

I have never agreed with the idea that a story must be depressing to be realistic. Life has its ups and downs - the writer has the option of choosing where to end the story. The downs, the difficult parts, that is the stuff that makes a story - ending the story before the upswing occurs always seems to me like ending halfway through. Something bad happens. So? What happens next? How do your characters go on to deal with this? Don't stop in the middle. Tell me how they responded, what they learned, how their and other people's lives were changed by the bad thing that happened. (Assuming the writer has let anyone survive.)

The assumption of some writers that life is just full of bad times, with happy incidents as the occasional bright nugget quickly swallowed up in darkness, strikes me as not only unrealistic, but inexperienced, even immature.

Kate Woodbury said...

I completely agree! A heroic death is one thing, but I've always considered the "everybody dies/everybody's families fall to pieces" ending to be a cop-out: an easy way to appear profound (pseudo-profound) without the hard work of, as you say, figuring out what happens next.

"How my characters endured" is SO MUCH more interesting (and much harder to write) than "look at my pathetic characters."

Mike: I haven't seen Star Trek (the movie) yet! I plan to see it in the theaters--it is definitely not a "Oh, I'll wait for the DVD" movie.

Joe said...

Decrying "The Hollywood Ending" is a common past time among the elitists of the world, but especially film students. While some "Hollywood endings" are indeed quite horrible and contrived, I completely concur that in many ways the alternative is even more contrived and definitely as lazy. I'll even go one step further and unequivocally state that most "high brow" art, be it movies, plays, books, etc., is far more cliched and much easier to make than the normal, popular stuff. (In moments of candor, even Hollywood intellectuals admit that making a good comedy is far harder than making a great drama.)

mike said...

You know, a great visual for all this is "stranger than fiction," which actually tries to determine whether it is a tragedy (the hero dies) or a comedy (he gets hitched) during the course of the movie. Really Clever... AND even though a sad ending seems inevitable, they some how pull off a happy end anyway. (although, now that I think about it, even the sad ending falls within that category of acceptable sad, not sad for the sake of sad).

Also- I hope you get a chance to see trek then... I really enjoyed it, it's alot of fun, and I enjoyed the effort the writers made to reconcile this "reboot" with the continuity of the last 35 years or so.