Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Let the sunshine in

Daisy Goodwin was the chair of this year’s judging panel for the Orange Prize. She spent the last few months reading more than a hundred novels from women authors.

Her prognosis?

There is no joy in Mudville.

“There’s not been much wit and not much joy, there’s a lot of grimness out there,” Goodwin tells the Guardian. “There are a lot of books about Asian sisters. There are a lot of books that start with a rape. Pleasure seems to have become a rather neglected element in publishing.”

“I was surprised at how little I laughed,” she adds.

Goodwin has a good point, and it’s not limited to women’s fiction. Where is writing’s Stevie Wonder. Who is the author who derives their virtuosity from joy?

Writers have been wringing genius from tragedy since Sophocles; but, let’s be honest. Death is easy. Comedy is hard.

Goodwin says in her interview that the “misery memoir has had its day.” I only agree in part. There will always be room for sadness in literature, but there also needs to be joy and humor.

I wouldn’t necessarily blame publishers for the glut of misery on bookshelves either. Writing a book, any book, is a miserable experience. George Orwell compared it to a long bout with a painful illness. It’s natural for that misery to diffuse into the story.

Also, writers (and readers) have a habit of assuming misery is the most worthwhile subject. Despite Sydney Smith’s warning, we mistake graveness for wisdom and facetiousness for foolishness.

A sunny day is no less profound than a dark and stormy night.

Two final thoughts, then I’ll let you get back to your St. Patrick’s Day frivolity.

This is a clever idea but ultimately dishonest. Bill Geerhart may have had good intentions when he created an alter ego, 10-year-old Little Billy, to correspond with celebrities via mail. It’s funny when he consults Jim Baker and Henry Kissinger regarding a treehouse treaty with his sister “Connie.” It’s poignant when the Son of Sam instructs him not to do “self-destructive things.” It’s also relieving that Anheuser-Busch sent Little Billy’s “parents” a pamphlet on the dangers of alcohol when he asked if there was a beer for kids.

But this broaches a worthwhile topic. Is it OK for a reporter or author to lie about who they are to get information? Shouldn’t both an interviewer and interviewee be allowed to presume that the other party will be honest, at least, about who they are?

Maybe I’m naive... or overthinking this.

Finally, I read Upton Sinclair’s The Profits of Religion. Two of his statements struck me as anti-Semitic, which is weird because he (rightfully) criticized Henry Ford for the same prejudice.

First, he describes international financiers as “Catholics in Rome and Vienna, country gentleman in London, bon vivants in Paris, democrats in Chicago, Socialists in Petrograd, and Hebrews wherever they are.”

Then, Sinclair refers to “International Shylocks” who lust for South African diamond mines.

Am I being oversensitive or reading an additional meaning that was not intended?

-Jason Lea,

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