FEELING as if you've been put through periods of suffering that culminate in a night of complaint about your torture? Monthly, perhaps? You've joined the club. You must have come from one of the thousands of regular book group meetings around the country.
An all-too-common gripe among book group members these days is the nature of their reading fare. Novels mostly. Serious literary fiction. Tragic books. Despairing books. Not all by any means, but probably more than you bargained for. And then you have to endure a downer of a discussion.
If your groups are into the classics, your chances are even better for the torture chamber. Think of poor Frank Alpine in Bernard Malamud's The Assistant who, to impress his beloved, reads "great" novels recommended by her, like Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Crime and Punishment, so that he'll discover "the Truth about Life." After struggling through them, Frank "wondered what Helen found so satisfying in all this goddamned human misery, and suspected her of knowing he had spied on her in the bathroom and was using the books to punish him for it."
In the recent best-selling The Kite Runner, the male narrator Amir says of Wuthering Heights," It's a sad story," to which the woman Saraya replies, "Sad stories make good books." Oscar Wilde presaged the point by observing that in the world's history the ideal of humanity has not "been one of joy. The worship of pain has far more often dominated the world."
Certainly our greatest tragedies--whether those Frank Alpine felt compelled to read or any by Shakespeare, Conrad, Melville, Faulkner, or Sophocles--can be so revelatory of life itself that they become enriching and ennobling. Moreover, as Mark Doty notes in his memoir Firebird: "Even sad stories are company. And perhaps that's why you might read such a chronicle, to look into a companionable darkness that isn't yours."
The problem is that many book groups choose a steady diet of these sad stories. A group can easily handle one of these downer books, but in my experience, when a group is confronted with two or three in a row, protests begin. As rewarding as such acclaimed works may be, if they are predominantly sad and depressing, we wind up with glum reading groups. Many great books contain sad stories, but not all sad books engage reading groups.
One possible source of a group's descent into dejection is its temptation to turn to lists of great books to make its next selections. But the plain truth is that many of the older classics or a ranked list of top 100 modern novels--American, European, worldwide--don't generally fare well as book group favorites. About half of the books on the most recent of these lists--the New York Times Book Review's "Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years"--would send any normal book group into a tailspin if its members chose to read one after the other, say, Toni Morrison's Beloved and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, both high on the list, both considered great, one very sad, the other gruesome.
Book group members are not Pollayannas; they don't have their heads sticking in the sand and they don't insist upon happy endings. They just want some comfort, some happiness, and some pleasure once in a while. However, groups on this quest to balance their reading lists have to avoid a danger: so-called uplifting books that are manufactured as inspirational, books that are artificial, corny, manipulative, and sentimental. Two recent examples come to mind, one nonfiction, the other fiction, both touted by publisher hype as spirit-boosting, sage, warm, and cheery. Below the surface, Tuesdays with Morrie and The Nanny Diaries are phony books, the former because the author is calculating and manipulative in his treatment of good, courageous Morris Schwartz, the latter because the whole thing is patently commercial, and badly written.
The object then becomes finding books that counterpoise a sense of hope with intelligence and provide a balanced view of the forces of life we all encounter. Outlook matters. The selection as Nobel Prize laureate in literature in 2004 of Eldriede Jelinek of Austria was unparalleled. While she is an unquestionably brilliant writer and social critic, her mordant novels such as The Piano Teacher, Wonderful, Wonderful Times, and Lust approach dizzying new heights (or depths?) of...