A few weeks ago, Cate had a great post about readers reviewing books that clearly weren’t meant for them. The review she quoted contained, among other things, a wildly misunderstood quote from the movie As Good as It Gets. It goes like this: “Some of us have great stories, pretty stories that take place at lakes with boats and friends and noodle salad.”
The quoted reviewer thought this quote was actually a reference to a particular kind of “great” literature. It isn’t. It’s a quote about how some people have easy lives. Contrast that with this quote from Chang-rae Lee that is explicitly about writing fiction:
All literature is a record and celebration of trouble. Stories naturally want to explore what didn’t go right. Poor choices. Wrong ideas. Wrong emotions. We’re fascinated by those things. What I try to tell my students is that they often want to celebrate life and in that mode of celebration forget that it’s very hard to celebrate life as in a party in literature. And the true celebration of life – in fiction, which is not like life at all – is about identifying those moments when everything has gone wrong.
I love what he says there because it so gets to the heart of what really great literature is. Really great literature celebrates struggle, not ease. Easy lives don’t need celebration. They are nice to live, or at least they can be, but they don’t teach us anything about what it means to be human. At least, not without juxtaposing them with less-easy lives.
All great stories, whether they end happily or not, are about struggle. This is something I teach in my introductory writing course: “Someone wants something, but…” The “but” is crucial. That’s the story. I have had students turn in stories that go, “Someone wants something and then they get it.” These are not interesting stories. They are happy. They may contain lakes (though I’ve never had a student write about pasta salad), and they are pretty. Some people even write stories like this that are then, somehow, published.
These are not great stories. Great stories aren’t about the right thing happening. They are about the wrong thing happening and then what do you do? We learn from losing, not from winning.