Tuesday, March 14, 2006

BOOKS: What's Wrong with Being a Crybaby?

So here's a funny op-ed piece from The Times. Entitled "To Cuddle a Mockingbird," it's all about columnist Ben Macintyre's one-man campaign to lighten up great literature:
Madame Bovary could also do with some cheering up. How about this: Emma marries Charles, a terrifically entertaining and virile country doctor, they have eight children, someone invents Prozac, Emma buys an Aga and wins first prize for home baking at Yonville agricultural fair.

Why stop there?
Macbeth is much too depressing. In my version the gentle, unassuming and monosyllabic thane settles down at Cawdor, where Lady Macbeth develops a profitable line in soap that leaves the hands spotless. Hamlet finds a shrink, marries Ophelia and goes into insurance. In the revised A Farewell to Arms, Catherine has a fat and healthy baby, and she and Henry establish a successful pacifist ski resort in the Alps.

Godot finally turns up.

As much as I'm continually on the search for good, funny books, I think I fall into the tiny camp of readers (one in fifty, apparently) whom Macintyre identifies who like stories that are on the sad side. When I think about some of the most powerful books I've enjoyed -- Where the Red Fern Grows, Not Wanted on the Voyage, A Thousand Acres, Anna Karenina, Horton Hears a Who -- most of them are of the tear-jerking variety. In fact, all of these books are notable for having made me cry like a schoolgirl. Although Horton ends happily, at least.

I wonder why it is that so many of us feel such discomfort at being moved to tears by books. Is it embarrassment at having one's weaknesses revealed by mere words on a page? Is it that we just don't like feeling sad? Or is it, as my great friend Schimpky once stated emphatically, that we don't like feeling manipulated by books?

Let me tell you about the time a book got to me the most. It was more than ten years ago. I was reading James Agee's A Death in the Family, a deceptively simple novel about the death of an ordinary man, and how it affects his wife and children. The story starts with the death, which takes place far from the man's home. Men are dispatched to travel to his house and tell his family. It's late at night. His wife, who has been sitting up waiting for him to come home, already suspects that something bad has happened, but she remains quiet and strong. The men arrive and tell her. She is utterly devastated, but holds on to her dignity by her fingernails. In the morning, she must tell her children.

That's as far as I've ever gotten with this book. I started it in bed late one night, and by the time I put it down -- forever, it would seem -- tears were POURING down my face and I was choking down my sobs so as not to wake up Rusty.

Dude, I'm getting a huge lump in my throat right now just thinking about it. And I'm not a crybaby. Well, not that much of a crybaby, anyway.

Still, I consider this book one of the best, most affecting novels I've ever (almost) read. The Pulitzer folks clearly agreed with me, because they honoured the heck out of it in 1958, the year it was published. Strange, though, that such a stirring book has ended up pretty much forgotten by later generations. Or I guess, if Ben Macintyre is correct and all we want are feel-good endings to our stories, maybe this isn't such a surprise after all.


KT said...

I love sad books, just as I love laugh out funny books and clever books that make me go "Oh!" and feel really smart when I catch something like a T.S. Eliot reference, and just as I love books that make me really angry about the things they are teaching me.

Maybe if people would read more books that made them cry or made them yell, then more people would actually like reading because it would be less of a passive experience for them.

The House of Mirth makes me cry, and when I watched the movie with Gillian Anderson I started crying before the ending even came in anticipation. Where the Red Fern Grows was brutal.

--Deb said...

First, thanks for the link to the Op-Ed piece--I loved it. Second, I don't personally mind books with sad and tragic scenes, but I much prefer them to end on a hopeful note. Life itself has too much tragedy, is it too much to ask for something more optimistic in my fiction? Characters can die, but please, give the survivors some time to grieve and leave me feeling that they'll be all right. Little Women had it right--Beth had to die, but by the end, Jo was firmly on the road to recovery. For me, crying in the middle is fine, but I want to leave the book (or the theater) with a smile . . . or at least a bittersweet feeling of completion, like at the end of Amadeus.

Anonymous said...

I think this is less true as I get older. I used to read all these oh-so-very-depressing books. And now, I have low tragedy tolerance. Still, the books I find myself enjoying are less of the "laugh out loud" type and more of the bittersweet type.

But, in other tragic news, Horton Hears a Who is being made into a film. Roll on, 2008.

Anonymous said...

I love sad books. I love getting lost in a world where I can cry, often from bittersweet but then it ends. If I pick up "Anne of Green Gables" ( as I do once every year or so) I begin to cry the first time Matthew is mentioned and then at every reference thereafter. Once the end comes, I am a blubbering idiot, and I've read that book a lot. It never fails to get me.
A good sad book is just as good as a funny book. A little of each, just like life.

Anonymous said...

I'm a weepy sumbitch anyway, but I've never been ashamed of or uncomfortable with crying over books. I don't think it's so much a matter of 'dear lord, the TRAGEDY of it all,' as being first saddened by what's happened in the book, and then moved by the fact that it's made you cry, if you see what I mean. For example, at the end of The Amber Spyglass, I cried and cried and cried, and I remember it as one of the most satisfying reads of my life. It's the brilliance of the experience that makes you cry as much as the actual content. It's what a more religious person than I would call 'seeing god.'

Anonymous said...

I think one of the reasons some people shy away from sadder books is that reading a book is an immersion experience. Once you pick up that book, you're involved, head and heart, in someone else's pathos and ill-fortune.

Which is why I have to consciously pick out such books because if I didn't make a concerted effort to do so, I'd end up reading the comedies all the time. Which are great and can also be just as heartbreaking, but if I don't balance it out, my reading starts to get shallower and shallower. It starts with the noblest of intentions (high comedy!) and slowly degrades into a three month stint of You Might Be A Redneck books.

I'm always looking for the funny books, but they've got to be real, y'know?

And on the flip side, I try to find a balance with the sadder books, but they too have to be real. I hate nothing more than a book that wallows without coming up for a chuckle or two. Angela's Ashes was one of those books. If I had to read about one more boiled soup bone ... well, I could've shown him something else he could do with it.

Anonymous said...

I understand Jennifer R.'s sentiments. I surprised myself by articulating my approach to [name drop alert] Nick Hornby (yeah, ok, he was signing my book and I had about 10 seconds to say something memorable). In response to a question after the preceding reading, he had spoken about fiction vs nonfiction, and I realized that when my life sucks, I read fiction for escapism--why not live someone else's life instead until things turn around? When things go well for me in real life, I tend to read nonfiction. As an example, I made an ass out of myself last November by sobbing in every cafe in Paris while reading Joan Didion's "The Year of Magical Thinking," which was stunning, and I had a swell time doing it!

Em said...

I can still remember the first two books to make me cry...(I just can't recall in what order I read them.)
Bridge to Terabithia and Nobody's Daughter, I think it was. Mostly just sad stories that prey on every child's fears of having their friends/family die and being unwanted.

Anonymous said...

I'm a real crybaby when reading these days, but A Death in the Family does sound like a good book to check out. Thanks so much for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Ohhh, Bridge to Terabithia. Is there anything more heartbreaking in the entire world? Actually, yes there is: They're making a movie of it. A movie that, according to the press release, is going to 'bring the magical world of Terabithia alive with CGI.'

Have they read the book?

Alice said...

I love a book that makes me cry. Those are the books I read when I'm sad or depressed - the ones I know will make me cry. Things are always better after a good cry, aren't they?

Love Story by Erich Segal is my standby. It's short and an easy read, so it can easily be read in a night, and although I've read it about 30 times since I was sixteen, I cry every single time. As has almost every single person I've ever lent it to. You've got to have a heart of stone if you don't cry when he hugs his dad at the end.

I'm getting all misty just thinking about it.

Em said...

A movie that, according to the press release, is going to 'bring the magical world of Terabithia alive with CGI.'

Have they read the book?

Pardon me, but what the fuck? Terabithia could be my backyard for goodness' sake! For me, it was--consisting only of a huge dead tree stump, some ditches and dense foliage.
They're probably going to use the CGI to turn the tree into a magical fairyland so that those select members of the audience who are imaginatively-impaired are able to go along with what everyone else already sees in their mind's eye. Catering to the laziest little children out there: "See! You don't even have to dream it up for yourselves! We'll SHOW you what Leslie sees!"
If Dakota Fanning is starring I reserve the right to go cry for three hours non-stop.

Anonymous said...

I love books that make me cry. I think I prefer a happy ending, but then happy endings sometimes make me cry too.

Anonymous said...

Em: I know! Isn't it infuriating? The book is about the characters, goddamnit, not some Tolkeiny wonderland (speaking of which, guess where they're filming? That's right - New Zealand!). Thankfully and miraculously, Dakota Fanning doesn't seem to be involved, but I don't have particularly high hopes for any kid actor who has to attempt to create such subtle characters. That's the trouble with making movies out of books that contain kids. I tend to adore books with children as protagonists, but it's impossible to translate naturalistically written children to the screen, precisely because kids can't see themselves from the outside.

JoanneMarie Faust said...

Really, it all depends on the book. Some books feel like the author just wants to depress you, but others feel just naturally sad, and still beautiful.

I read A Death in the Family not that terribly long after my father died and I bawled my eyes out through the whole thing. Agee's descriptions of a family's grief were so accurate. It was bad timing on my part, but I didn't stop and almost felt comforted by the fact that the crazy and contradicting thoughts and feelings I was having weren't so strange.

Em said...

Well, Kristin, NZ does seem to be the go-to place for filming any book-to-film adaptation nowadays. Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia...there's only one place left where you can find towering green mountains and breathtaking landscapes, apparently.
Let's just be glad Terabithia wasn't a series...although God knows the studio might pull a Princess Diaries and buy the rights to the characters and make their own bastardized Disney "sequel."

Anonymous said...

Try reading "Magdalena's Song". I guarantee you'll have a few wee wet drops running down your cheeks. It's a good book with a great plot ISBN 0971304580 -

Fuzface said...

I'm like that. I absolutely hate crying over books, and it rarely happens. But I'm prideful, so that explains it.
Although Phantom of the Opera made me weep for several minutes after reading it.