Thursday, July 14, 2011

Glass Half Full

There have been a number of occasions in the last few years where I've described my novel in progress and had people say that it sounds a bit depressing. Depressing is a word that I often hear associated with literary novels, as it happens.

But depressing is not what I'd call my novel, and it's interesting that I often disagree with that assessment of other books, too. Maybe it's my individual perspective- I'm a glass half full kind of girl- that pushes me to see the positive in every negative; and that, in fact, is specifically what I'm aiming for in my own story.

I was watching my favourite TV show yesterday- Air Crash Investigation (which should be your final proof that I'm just weird, if you needed it). Weird or not, I love it, and yesterday's episode was a perfect example of what I like about stories that do feature loss, tragedy and heartbreak, but end with hope.

The featured accident was Air Canada Flight 797, which made an emergency landing in Cincinnati in 1983 with a fire raging behind the cabin walls. Though the plane landed safely, only half the people on board were able to escape before the oxygen drawn in through the now-open exits created a flashover, and the plane erupted into flames. Tragically, 23 of the 46 people on board died in the conflagration. There's nothing good about the accident itself, besides the fact that 23 people were lucky enough to escape with their lives.

But what fascinates me about this particular incident is the ongoing impact it has on current airline safety. As a result of the things that occurred during the accident, several safety measures were introduced that are now standard. Just as one example, you know those little strip lights that run along the floor between the seats to show you the path to the exits? They exist specifically because of this accident. I've seen numerous other incidents and accidents described where those lights saved people's lives.

And so the unexpected positive impact of such a negative event is still going on.

My novel is set during the First World War, in a time where a generation of young men lost their lives, and a nation lost innocence. I'm using my three different characters to illustrate the impacts, and each of them carries one more than the other- Len, who returns from the war with disabling wounds, represents the physical damage of war. Bill, who comes home barely able to function due to shell-shock, represents the mental damage. And Kit, the girl who waits for them both, represents the emotional damage felt on the home front.

People die, people lose everything. People cheat, deceive, turn to drink and violence, give up- I'm representing everything negative in human nature.

And yet I'm also representing everything hopeful- new life, the unconditional love of a child, the strength of friendship, forgiveness, unexpected strength.

And without the negatives, I wouldn't be able to represent the positives. All the growth comes as a result of the adversity.

So, these are the reasons why I love books like Atonement, Room, Bereft, The Hunger Games, and many others- books that encompass the tragedies of human nature, but always leave room for the hope that is, ironically, also such an intrinsic part being human. I've noticed that not everyone sees the same level of hope that I do in the same stories, so maybe it is just my rose-coloured glasses at play. I should probably have a crack at a book like The Road to see how positive I feel at the end of that.

In the meantime, what's your personal threshold? Are you happy to read about tragedy and heartbreak as long as you're left with something to hope for at the end? Do you even need that last bit of light, or are you right into the apocalyptic stuff? Or do you find yourself switching off once the poor characters have been through the wringer and back more times than is strictly reasonable?

What keeps your reading (and writing) glass half full, or half empty?


  1. Totally agree with you, Claire -- I think it's the darkness that throws the light into greater contrast and highlights its importance.

    I will run with a character through his darkest hours. I'm not scared of reading this sort of thing, as long as it's written honestly, and the character isn't the whiny/depressed sort that's constantly wailing "Why me? Life is so cruel! What's the world come to?" - anything more than a brief emotional crisis and I get tired of it very fast. I'm apparently not scared of writing it, either, or at least trying to. [g]

    Er, you're talking to the one that read Les Miserables - unabridged - in high school for fun. [cough] My heart broke for Fantine, but it was Gavroche and Valjean that stuck with me. I like a character with fight. They don't have to start out with it, but they've got to develop it. That's what keeps my glass half-full.

    All that said, I can handle apocalyptic stuff, but I find myself kind of unsatisfied by those endings. I respect their importance and their place in the literature; I just prefer to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

    The Hunger Games is pretty high up there on my to-read list; I've heard so many good things about it. :-)

    Interesting anecdote about the flight - I hadn't known that!

  2. Oh, you make a very important point indeed, one that I entirely omitted from my post- it absolutely depends on how the characters face up to what's hitting them. In fact, much of the criticism I've had has come from the fact that my main character in the past has definitely been the mopey/ depressed/ not willing to fight type. It took me a while to see why that wasn't working, but yes- I think that's maybe the most important point of all, and it's what distinguishes any individual story anyway- what the characters do in response to the situation.

    Go read the Hunger Games, go! It's awesome :)

  3. "All the growth comes as a result of the adversity."
    You are absolutely correct! My current devotional WIP is about this very thing. We love to be on the mountaintop, but nothing grows there. The soil washes down into the valley. It's in the hard times at the depths of the pit that we grow where the rich soil has washed and water from our tears collect.

    I'm not sure I said all that as well as I want to. As I said, it's a Work in Progress. ; )

    I think I enjoy the dark books, but I do need at least a hint of light, of healing to help me see in the dark. Great post, Claire.

  4. Zan Marie- we walk the same valley, for sure ;)

  5. Hey, hope at the end certainly makes the rest more bearable! I read A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh many years ago and have a youthful memory if it being an extremely depressing book unredeemed by any positives...

    I think my tolerance for misery and hardship is lower right at the moment with young children. I think I'm going through an 'ostrich' phase. So right now books like Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes wouldn't be at the top of my reading list either. :-)

    I think you're right though, that in more literary work, the dark and light have to march together. You can't have the redemption without the suffering first. So I loved the film "Life Is Beautiful" (La vita รจ bella)

    Right now my glass isn't half empty or half full, it's drunk as fast as possible whenever I have a spare moment...

  6. Up until yesterday I would have said that I can read something depressing, as long as there's hope at the end, but I just finished The Summer of Skinny Dipping and it was a little more hopeless than usual, yet I loved it.
    So it depends on the book. I'm a sucker for your time period, as you know, yet can't really stomach gritty modern novels (stuff about modern day serial killers, for instance).
    Oh, and Adina's right - A Handful of Dust was also depressing, yet I loved that too!
    I guess I'm just a fan of a different era...

  7. Great post, Claire.

    I find that I do enjoy the darker stuff, even when there is no hope at the end, but only in small doses. Too much too often can just make me feel desolate and depressed. Which is a sign that the writer is doing an excellent job, I guess ...