Back in May, I saw this headline in The Guardian: “Don’t we read fiction exactly to be upset?” It was for an article written by A Little Life authorHanya Yanagihara. Full disclosure: I have not read her novel. In this piece, I’m responding only to her article, not to her book.
It’s the word “exactly” that rankled me. It expresses such single-mindedness that doesn’t take into account the many and varied reasons readers turn to books. So my short answer to her questions is, No.
We don’t read “exactly” to be upset. That’s a terrifying and limiting thought. Sometimes, we read to gain information. I’m not only referring to instructions for how to operate my new microwave but also to information about, say, the Byzantine Empire or the Bolshevik Revolution or the Norman Conquest. Sometimes, we read to be comforted, or to laugh, or to find hope in a bleak world. Sometimes, we read to be immersed in beauty.
The long answer to her question…
I can appreciate what she’s saying. Literature gives us a way of reimagining the world, meaning it can “upset” (in the sense of “turning upside down”) our governing beliefs. She mentions, for example, that a novel “is a questioning of what it means to be human, of what a life is.” I would, on the whole, agree with this definition of the novel, though I favor the word “explore” over “question,” largely because the latter suggests a degree of disbelief that can be counterproductive. Questioning is not the only way we arrive at a more complex and nuanced understanding of human experience. Often, in order to arrive at a deeper understanding, we have to suspend disbelief and immerse ourselves in the experience of the other, the goal being empathy.
Yanagihara’s Guardian piece explores the question, “What makes a writer brave?” and considers it through her experience writing her novel. She refers to suggestions made by her editor:
“some of which fell into a category I thought of as Don’t Upset the Reader. The violence of the book would, it seem, Upset the Reader. The wildness, the embarrassing bigness, the excessiveness, of emotion would Upset the Reader. The length would Upset the Reader. And yet, as readers, don’t we read fiction exactly to be upset?”
What troubles me about this formulation, such that I’m still thinking about it four months later, is its seeming to position suffering and discomfort as ends in themselves. We read to be upset. The End. The question for me is always, Why are we being asked to give ourselves over to this upset? She acknowledges that a novel need not “disturb or dismay or unsettle in order to mesmerize or provoke, but it does, or should, force us to reconsider, to rethink.” I don’t quite understand the need for the prefix “re.” Why not, for example, “consider” and “think” or (better yet) “deepen our understanding” and “complicate our thinking”?
The question her piece raises for me is how much suffering a character can experience before readers revolt. I’ve read books in which characters, or narrators in the case of nonfiction, suffer devastatingly – The Bluest Eye, David Copperfield, The Kite Runner, Man’s Search for Meaning, to name four that first come to mind. Though I had many moments when I needed to take a break from the book to catch my breath or to reflect on what I was reading, I never thought of quitting them. On the contrary, I felt it was crucial to keep reading. So much so that after reading The Bluest Eye in graduate school, I spent a year researching and writing my Master’s thesis on Toni Morrison’s novels. In the case of all four of the books mentioned above, I trusted their authors, and I trusted their stories. They felt essential. They felt *true* – that thorny, subjective thing – about the human condition, rather than feeling like emotional appeals designed to strong arm me intellectually or philosophically.
I’m deeply wary of fetishizing or glamorizing suffering. There is too much very real, very inescapable suffering in this world. But I do believe it can be powerful in those cases when we can transcend the fact of it and build meaning – understanding, empathy, forgiveness – from our experience of it.
While Yanagihara’s novel may very well do that – I cannot say not having read it – my concern with her article is, it feels like it misses the bigger, more important piece about “upsetting” books. If a character’s suffering is just about laying on one painful experience after another, like a suffering triathlon for a suffering gold medal, especially in a way that feels forced or for the purposes of provocation or manipulation (as I felt about, for example, Fates & Furies), if the story does not feel true but carefully crafted to achieve a particular effect, I will rebel as a reader. I will cease to trust the author and the story.