Earlier this summer, I posted about my official plunge into my library's summer reading club. While I was proud of myself for reading what I did - among them, Catcher in the Rye, the Bell Jar, and the Handmaid's Tale - and know that the precision and passion of those works will linger, one thing became rather clear in a way that it hadn't been before: classic literature is damn depressing. You could say it was my reading list, a veritable smorgasbord of angst, mental illness, and terror. But when I surveyed my various reading people for "sunnier" alternatives, with the caveat that it should be considered classic or critically hailed, little surfaced beyond Jane Austen (which is not to say I in any way dismissed this; I will clear the decks soon for some Pride & Prejudice).
But what the experience did do was let my past self off the hook a bit for not being the book worm I sometimes think I should have been, given that I make my living (and my passion) as a writer. The truth is, I'm not much of a curl-up-on-a-couch-and-get-lost-in-a-book kind of gal, especially when it is grim and heavy. It's the same with music. While I'm pleased with where my tastes have taken me, I've always felt more than a little embarrassed that in the late 80s I was more about Def Leppard and Whitesnake than the Smiths or Echo and the Bunnymen. Now I know the reason is because I could only minimally relate. I may not have always been happy, but, Christ, I was always happier than that.
Malcolm Gladwell has a great podcast that I like to listen to. Usually I agree with him, but in a recent episode he felt the need to pit county music against rock and roll. His consensus was that the former is better because it was inherently sadder. He called rock music, dismissively, "hymns to extroversion," to which I thought, "that's a great phrase," and "what the hell's wrong with that?"
The problem, of course, is wanting something upbeat that's also considered good craft. Patti Smith pulled this off when she captured the thrill of being essentially a naive dreamer who found herself smack in the middle of the gritty swirl of New York's art and music scene. And despite crafting some super wrenches, Bruce Springsteen manages a quite a few odes to being alive.
Which is not to say that downer material doesn't have it's place. I'm all for the tradition of singing the blues as a way to process pain or read something difficult as a way to be a more enlightened human. But in a competition, I'll always choose blasting Running With the Devil from a car stereo over than curling up in a ball listening to He Stopped Loving Her Today.