“If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.” – Lemony Snicket
The thing is, I don’t really… get positivity culture. I have a spiritual resistance to mindfuless books, daily positive reminders and inspirational quotes. They make me want to scream “Oh, screw you.”
It’s not always been this way. In 2011, when I was newly diagnosed with OCD, positive quotes helped me. It was only as I worked on building a new, clearer worldview that I realised constant positivity just wasn’t… enough. So much positive advice – go for a walk in the woods! If you have a toxic, negative person in your life, cut them out! – seemed to be written by, and aimed at, people who were able to switch the world off.
I found myself skipping from recovery websites to news feeds: refugees, wars and revolutions. I started reflecting on childhood trauma. Positivity culture felt empty and escapist, in a way that Trudy’s tweet* put into words for me.
In day-to-day life I’m optimistic and cheery, but on a deeper level I understand gloom. I suppose I don’t really think in terms of ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ any more, and instead I try to see interwoven qualities and nuances in the world around me.
Where positivity culture gets interesting for me is its intersection with storytelling.
There are two arguments I’ve come across, which frequently overlap. The first argument is, ‘I want positive representation of minority characters, who are often poorly represented in media’ – which I absolutely want. Argument two is, ‘I want the stories I consume to be positive and optimistic, rather than presenting a cynical worldview’. My feelings on that are more complex.
Some art provides both these things. When Pacific Rim came out, back in 2013, bloggers celebrated the film’s optimism, (along with its diverse, positively represented cast), and contrasted it with the bleak, grimdark aesthetic** of films like The Dark Knight. (Grimdark: “an adjective used to describe a setting or situation in a fictional work that is considered dark, depressive, violent or edgy.”) On Tumblr, people have been crying out for years for optimistic stories.
In a discussion between Melissa Harris Perry and bell hooks, hooks talked about 12 Years A Slave and said:
“one of the things I stand on all the time is that film does not exist for the purpose of giving us reality. If my life is shit, I don’t want to go pay $10 or $12 to see it displayed. What I want for us all the time is a pushing of the imagination…”
hooks was speaking specifically about the representation of black women in film. After hearing her incisive comments, I found myself reflecting on this, and on what people want from stories in general.
My own view is that some people need positive stories, for many excellent reasons – both personal and political. But that doesn’t mean there is anything intrinsically wrong with creating art that is realistic, dark or cynical; art like this can be a deeply validating reflection of depression, melancholy and terrible experiences.
I know it’s not a popular view. But as someone with cyclical depression, I really do love art that expresses dark, difficult emotions, and acknowledges structural issues. I identify with seeing that shit validated and displayed on a screen, or in a book. And if you are struggling, feeling left out of a culture that tells you to surround yourself with positivity you can’t relate to, here’s your permission to opt out. To decide what you want, not what you think you should want. You are not alone.
When I was ten, I read A Series of Unfortunate Events. After a real-life series of unfortunate events, you’d think that the last thing I needed was stories about bad things happening to children. But actually, I completely adored the books. They were smart, realistic and inventive about the horrible circumstances the characters lived in. The narrative didn’t shy away from awful things happening to good people. And the writing crackled with intelligence and wit.
From these books, I learned that there is a fertile, opulent quality in sadness and loss. Sadness can be entwined with joy, hope and humour.
Over the years, I’ve found my niche in morose art. Morose art is my own catch-all term for art that has a persistently downbeat mood, art that is unafraid to tell a sad messed-up story, art that cheerfully embraces its own gloom.
Morose art utterly accepts the darkness of its own setting, tone, mood or characterisation; it doesn’t ignore the Bad Things. The best morose art I’ve come across is never overly cruel or nihilistic; satire can be biting without attacking the vulnerable.
Some of my favourite morose art includes A Series of Unfortunate Events, Peanuts, Regina Spektor’s early songs, Genet’s novels, Sue Townsend’s novels, Kafka’s short stories, most of Blood on the Tracks, The Master and Margarita, Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and American Gods.
Morose art is generally not dark or shocking for the sake of it, like grimdark action films or boringly bleak literary novels; it is a more delicate endeavour, and is often humorous and humane. The best morose art exudes a lapidary black humour, often stemming from awful circumstances.
I adore morose art that is rich with irony, compassion, awareness of the world. I love art that can affirm sadness without being crushingly heavy-handed. For me, morose art reflects the wealth and complexity of my own feelings: art should reflect all facets of the human experience, not just the good parts. Life can’t be neatly divided into ‘positive’ and ‘negative’.
And sometimes, a sad ending feels more truthful. A powerful downer ending can be a great healer. Some readers need that; need to see their own experiences reflected, and resolved.
Morose art can give reference points to people who are depressed, or grew up in a difficult and depressing environment; but it can uplift us, too. They’re not for everyone, but I think sad stories are there for a good reason: they are there because life can be sad.
Which brings me back to A Series of Unfortunate Events. What gorgeous books, dealing with grief and loss so astutely. In ASOUE the world was uniformly awful; but the Baudelaire children always survived, thrived, and went on to the next adventure.
Most importantly, there was always something to laugh about.
* Trudy (thetrudz). ‘“Positivity culture” is so trite and immature to me. I like to be around ppl who recognize nuanced emotions, reality, structural issues.‘
** “Optimism vs. Cynicism: The Great Heroic Debate.” The Afictionado. N.p., 30 Oct. 2013. Web. 15 Feb. 2015.