Thursday, August 26, 2010

What is an "Uplifting" Message, and Do We Need One?

Gentle readers,
I am a member of She Writes , an online forum for women writers and others in the publishing industry. A post by Erin Hosier , a literary agent, recently captured my attention. Titled "The Great Competition for the Saddest Story Ever Told", it was her response/commentary to a query she received from a woman who described her life story as an autobiographical project—a story so unredeemingly harrowing as to be almost unbelievable (incest, pedophilia, mental illness and drug addiction were only some of the "highlights" int this story).
This post got me thinking again about my favorite subjects—success, memoir, publication, cultural differences.

Below is the comment I posted on Erin's page. As always, I invite your opinions, Gentle Readers. You can go and read the whole thing here: 

"Publishers are looking for stories that can inspire. That's just human nature and the American way. We don't mind if you were forced to bear your father's child in poverty, just as long as you eventually star in your own tv show, or at least work with other tortured children to try and make things better."
Dear Erin, I am a European who now lives in the States, and I would like to "problematize" (as they love to say in academic theory) your statements above. 
Firstly, "human nature" and the "American way" are not the same thing. Audiences in Europe do not seem to mind reading books, or watching movies, without a specifically "uplifting" or "inspiring" message (two attributes that, in themselves, bear defining—what's "inspiring" for someone may be hopelessly dull for someone else). European audiences are also more used to types of writing, film-making, or creativity in general that are more "experimental" and less "linear" in the way of narration, voice, subject matter, etc.
Secondly, starring in your own tv show is perhaps a crass objective for some serious writers/artists. Adam Lambert is not Bob Dylan, or Joni Mitchell, or Leonard Cohen, and I suspect that none of these musicians would have ever made it to the final of American Idol today. 
I am not naive and I do understand that, in America, publishing is a business and that even those few remaining small, "avantgarde" presses need money to survive (in Canada and Europe, a lot of these enterprises receive government money or are privately funded). 
However, there is often a fine line between the crass commercialism of a stereotypical "happy ending" message and what you define as an "uplifting" and "inspiring" one. Even a relentlessly bleak ending can be inspiring in its own way—if nothing else, to remind us that life is immensely more complicated and nuanced than TV and Hollywood movies and novels depict it to be. 
Yes, a book and a movie both need a beginning, a middle and an end, we agree on that. However these bits need not be in a linear fashion, and the ending need not be a clear-cut, happy, or even uplifting one to make the experience meaningful and profound and even life-changing for the audience. 
I recently saw a French movie horribly titled in the English version "Making Plans for Lena" (the original French title was "Non ma fille, tu n'iras pas danser", which roughly translates as "No, my daughter, you will not dance", and this "mistitling" alone tells a lot about the cultural difference between American and French audiences.) 
If I had to give you a "hook" for this movie, it would roughly be: "A neurotic, dissatisfied married woman and mother of two kids in her late thirties, in the middle of divorce proceedings from her husband, quits job, moves to her parents' country home to house-sit while they vacation in Rome, all the while pondering the meaning of her life and of life in general—without coming up with any precise answer in the end." 
I much suspect that an American agent or publisher would not give this hook the time of day—were it a film or book synopsis. And it would be a pity, because the movie instead was beautifully poignant, deeply truthful and realistic about the human condition everywhere—not just France. As a middle-aged woman who feels she has made many mistakes in life and perhaps wasted a good half of it, I was deeply affected by this film and it left me thinking about it for a long time. And isn't that what art is supposed to do? 
Franz Kafka said "the books we need are the kind that act upon us like a misfortune, that make us suffer like the death of someone we love more than ourselves, that make us feel as though we were on the verge of suicide, or lost in a forest remote from all human habitation—a book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us." Lest you shrug and say "Yeah, Kafka, that damn depressed, sickly writer", let us remember that Kafka, as well as casting an unflinching eye on human despair, was also capable of great irony and humor in his writing.
And an all-American author, William Styron, also said that "A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end." That "exhaustion" need not be pessimistic or awful; it could instead be akin to the pleasant, fulfilling exhaustion one feels at the end of a particularly wonderful love-making session.
When did such lofty goals for literature, and art in general, go out of the window? 
Have they? 
In our times of ephemeral and easy consumption of creative endeavors, has that feeling of "slight exhaustion" as response to the end of a book, or movie, or concert, or theatrical performance or art exhibit, been permanently replaced by a yawn of mild satisfaction, an off-I-go-now-onto-other-business reaction?
I hope not. 
Call me old(-fashioned), but as a member of the audience I still want to be surprised, shaken to the core, left exhausted by art. And I know I'm not the only one out there.
I do however agree with many things in your post: the distance, the voice, the ability to communicate your experience to others must all be there to make the writing of a memoir worthwhile. 
I'm completing a book on my mother's mental illness and unsavory death, and it took me over three years from her departure to be able to start writing about it. By the time I was ready to workshop the pieces in my book, I was also able not to take any comments made by my fellow writers personally and to consider them instead as being just about the writing. 
My memoir is for me a creative product, not an act of therapy or a wishful thinking money-making spin, and I want to communicate (if not "inspire" or "uplift") and share the experiences in it with a wider audience, not just express myself. 
And I agree that the tone of this query was grating, narcissistic, and for me it made the experiences described sound almost unbelievable. 
Above all, it was relentless—there was no moral of any kind. 
There: my take on all this is that, instead of a "message", what a work of art needs, if it wishes to be of any real import, is some kind of moral—whether this is shared by many or few, whether it is part of the current social mores or antithetical to them. 

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