The Art of Unhappiness

Why so many sad stories?

In an undergraduate literature class, one of my classmates asked why all good stories had to be sad. We had just finished King Lear, and as we eventually sunk down to the realization that all life is terrible and then you die, he raised his hand. “Why can’t a happy ending be considered literature too?” My professor said something vague about catharsis. People want to read literature that reflects the unhappiness in themselves. Happy stories feel like they’re gloating. Shoving in your face that in some mythical land, people who don’t really exist are having much better lives than you. If anything, it reinforces the impossibility of true happiness. It seems it can only exist in fiction.

I’ve said before that the miserable artist trope is bullshit. I think it’s self-destructive to say that all writers are heavy drinkers and smokers and are terrible at having relationships with other human beings. Sure, it’s been true for me at various times. It’s true for others. But I want to think that indulgence in the stereotype ultimately prevents you from being productive. I want to be happy and I want to be a writer. They are not mutually exclusive. One woman’s opinion, fresh off a New Year’s resolution high.

The other day, Aileen and I were brainstorming ideas for teaching creative writing. Aileen was showing me how to teach a few poetry forms – sonnets, ghazals, tankas. I asked if these would be useful, if students would get a lot out of them. She gave a resounding yes, because formal constraints often allow for deeper, more emotionally-engaging exploration of content. Form can mirror content, but it can be even more effective when form contrasts content. For example, one popular saying goes “when the scene is hot, write cold.” So with formal poetry, the form is where the reader derives her satisfaction, her pleasure. Then, the sorrowful and chaotic content is where the reader aches.

The desire to write is sometimes described as an ache. Sometimes putting the words down on paper helps. Sometimes we hurt worse.

My partner Eric hates the show Mad Men. I suppose that is unfair to say: he appreciates it, but he doesn’t like how dour it is. Even the brief moments of black humor don’t change the bleak air of oppression, politically and professionally and personally, felt by each and every one of the characters. Eric, like the undergraduate from years ago, does not give unhappiness an automatic artistic pass. But I love how the show is constructed. How symbols and metaphors roll in and out like waves, sometimes in your face, sometimes so brief you’ll miss it if you blink. How lines of tension are resolved or left hanging, only to be picked up episodes later. How much is accomplished by a simple line or two of dialogue, or even a look from one character to another. I could rhapsodize for days. But it’s not the unhappiness for me that makes this show great, some sense of catharsis or puerile oh-he-got-what-was-coming-to-him. It is how the unhappiness is presented that gives me such pleasure in watching. How it arises out of all that beautiful pain.

When I was a child, before I was perhaps old enough to understand the nuances of true unhappiness, my favorite books were science fiction. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Man in the High Castle, and younger-skewing books like Ender’s Game. Science fiction isn’t known as the most uplifting of genres because of the way it imagines dystopic futures, how it drags humanity through the mud of its own making. But if you really look at how those books end, there is so often hope: humanity is reborn, the cycle is broken, we make peace with the machines. Maybe science fiction reverses Aileen’s idea. If clean, traditional form contrasts with tragedy, then perhaps a truly strange form, symbols that don’t make sense, characters that don’t exist in this world or the next, could depict pure joy. We just have to leave our own planet to find it.

Those stories satisfy me oh so much. It can’t just be nostalgia. I’m too young for that.

So there can be real happiness, just not in our real world. Or maybe our real world is tragic and chaotic, but out of that comes beauty, art that has a shape and logical clean lines that lead us through our long and winding days. We want to read ourselves in our books, but I don’t think we always want to look ourselves right in the eye. Sometimes a sideways glance is more revealing.


  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    In an interview with Willow Springs, Tess Gallagher quoted Raymond Carver as saying: “If there’s nothing going wrong, there’s no story.”

    Conflict drives story. Problem drives story. Amy Hempel’s “Today Will Be a Quiet Day” has a happy ending — stretched over tremendous loss.I think there’s plenty of room for joy in stories, and plenty of room for connection, but if those are the only notes, the story feels like a lie. And, again, the story as a dramatic form probably needs conflict to drive it.

  • Laura Citino Laura C. says:

    Absolutely, Sam. What is a story without a conflict? Nothing really happens, and as you say, something’s always gotta happen.

    I do wonder, though, about the way our culture, especially our pop culture, seems to be moving away from joy at all. Alyssa Rosenberg ( has some great pieces about intensity and bleak anti-hero culture pervading television and movies (like Breaking Bad, The Dark Knight, etc.), and I think a lot of what she says can apply to literature too. I feel guilty of that, relying on the bad feelings for depth because joy is so, so much harder to write well.

    • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

      Yeah, I hear you. Dark’s easier in some ways, but if it’s only dark, the piece is going to feel smaller to me than if it can bring light too. I think of the ending of Carver’s “A Small Good Thing,” that beautiful, temporary lightness over the tremendous gravity of loss. It’s the move toward transitory lightness at the end, the brief human connection, that makes that story so large to me. Same with Hempel’s “Today Will Be a Quiet Day.”

  • You’re appealing to my inner conflict-hater, telling it to get lost, which really needs to happen. I gotta read these stories.

    This post is pretty much exactly what I’ve been wrestling with, so thanks for the encouragement!

  • B.N. says:

    So interested in reading this little exchange. The question of why “good” literature is miserable at best or at the very least satirical when it comes to the subject of happiness is a truly engrossing one. I think, as your comments about ‘Mad Men’ confirm, we substitute form for content in order to survive despair. Javier Cercas claims that it is this act of imposing fictional “order” and “pattern” on the meaningless chaos of life that makes us able to bear it. So perhaps “happiness” in literary as again pop psychology and self-help terms is more about our delight in the design of the thing, which is actually as important for our survival as a human race as daily bread. I think this is why Nabokov claimed, that in the last analysis, the beauty of the butterfly went well beyond the needs of Darwinian survival.

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