Friday, August 12, 2011

There is No Joy in The Serious

The other day, I blogged about "literary" fiction's prejudices against genre fiction. To be honest, I've got a pretty big prejudice against "literary" fiction myself: That it's all DEPRESSING.

Which is why I avoid it unless a particular book has been recommended to me.

It's funny, because I do love tragedies. I suppose you haven't ever seen the amazing Bollywood film Devdas, have you? I adore it—one scene in particular, which always makes me cry. Always. I also love Hamlet. I haven't quite figure it out, though I do find there's a difference between a grandiose, epic tragedy and a wear-you-down, life is hopeless depressing story.

The thing is, I'm very good at depressing myself without any outside help.

Why is it that Art has to be serious to be taken seriously?

People used to mock me for loving Sara Teasdale's poetry, despite my contention that she can be just as piercing and pensive as Sylvia Plath.

I was teased at the publishing house for selecting a holiday book (yes, every year we each got to choose a book that was then wrapped and opened in front of the entire company) about Maxfield Parrish (ever heard of "Parrish Blue?").
This is "Ecstay" my favorite Parrish painting and the first one I ever saw.

One editor told me I might as well like Thomas Kinkaid. Everyone laughed. At 23 and lowest on the company totem pole, I was mortified.

Similarly in college I struggled to enjoy dance class, which had been one of my primary loves up through high school. But there was no more Fosse, no more tap, and very little ballet. Dance was not to entertain and express a range of emotions. No, because it was college and so there was only Modern Dance and Modern was ONLY for the purpose of talking about Serious Topics.

Even the folks who made White Christmas knew that. ("Instead of dance it's choreography.")

Last night I attended yet another modern dance performance. I never learn, I guess. The entire time I kept thinking, "Where is the joy??" One piece after another featured stressful music, serious themes, and hardly any dancing at all. One piece that explored a little shred of hope (I'm not asking for sequins here, folks), would have stood out like a beacon of light.

Instead we were treated to one piece in particular, which involved a woman making upsetting noises, stomping her feet, and randomly spinning a top, all with her back to the audience.

I don't go to a performance to watch someone else's self indulgent display of emotion. Ditto for reading a book. I go to have emotions evoked in ME through the work. The artist shouldn't try to control what that emotion/ reaction is. Interestingly, that piece also required several paragraphs of explanation in the program, something about the world's sadness. Sad was not how I felt. Anger was more like it.

It seems to me that the only people who like this stuff, are the ones making it, be that certain literary fiction or modern dance or any other art form. It reminded me of a strange moment last summer at the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference wherein a couple literary magazines informed everyone that, "If you expect us to publish your work, you need to subscribe to our magazine." The implication being that otherwise the magazines would fold. You know, because no one wants to read that stuff, not even the people who are WRITING it!

As Curt said so eloquently, "That's not art, that's a bunch of people masturbating on each other."

I like to think of this crassness as my influence on him.

Please don't misunderstand, I'm not saying I want everything to be sunshine! rainbows! and jazz hands! But everything needs balance. Without an understanding of the hope a character might have for the potential joys they might experience, I can't then truly comprehend the meaning of their loss when/ if those hopes are not realized. I can't appreciate darkness without a candle, nor can I appreciate these long, lazy summer days without the dark, cold winter nights.

Besides, there's nothing wrong with a little joy. Mock me all you want. Shake your head all you want. Snub me all you want Mr. Snobby Narrow-minded Literary Agent, who doesn't have a clue what my writing abilities are. Dismiss my thesis or my dance composition piece or my holiday book selection.

For a serious person like me, exploring life's capacity for joy is far more difficult and meaningful than exploring its capacity for despair.

Editor's Note: I guess I think about this a lot. Here's a post from last year as a refresher.


  1. Couldn't agree more. I attend local poetry readings sometimes and there's always someone who harps on blood and sadness and crying women like those things are an instant ticket to being a Real Artist. But their poems are flat compared to the ones that actually examine life, joy and despair combined.

  2. Amen sister!! You articulated exactly how I feel. However, you might want to skip Never Let Me Go then... thoroughly depressing. Also, I want to hear about this Christmas party story in more detail later. I have no memory of it!

  3. Heidi, yes! I love a sad poem as much as the next person, but don't go all sad just for the sake of being a Real Artist.

    Please note also that weird dance piece with the crying lasted TEN MINUTES.

    B, I will tell you the story but I'm sure it was more traumatic in my head.

  4. This immediately made me think about So You Think You Can Dance. It just ended this week, but there have been some good performances. In the finale, the judges all picked their favorite performances, and one was "Return to Stone," about two statues that come to life at night and in the morning they are one statue.

    There's a moment when you think the dance is gonna end and then there's a growing light, warm like sunrise, and they both dance with a renewed vivaciousness; it's effervescent. The show has its own share of darker dances, but this one was uplifting, and there were other through the season that were a lot of fun, but still beautiful.

  5. Sabrina, once again we are on the same wavelength! I was thinking about SYTYCD, too. I was watching it last night (probably a rerun--we just got basic tv again weeee) and kept thinking about how their choreographers often find a nice balance between a Theme and beautiful movement.