No Comfort Here

Chris Barzak has posted some interesting thoughts on writing and reading, and he ends with a meditation on "comfort fiction" or "consolatory art":
That’s another thing that’s been on my mind lately: consolatory art. What these days, in the speculative fiction field at least, is being called comfort fiction (at least sometimes, I think, by some people who see consolation and comfort as one and the same thing). I think the rise of the comfort fiction brigades has done some damage in its crusade to rid the world of fantasies that lie to us about the nature of living in various ways (and not good lies, not ones that are really truly helpful to us, so I sympathize with what they’re saying about those in that way). But I do think that to a certain extent there’s been a sort of confusion made at times of two different sorts of writing that are separate things altogether, for me at least. One of these I think of as wish fulfillment stories, which are the ones that lie about the nature of our lives perhaps. The other I think of as consolatory stories: stories that can console while still telling the truth. I think that’s possible. To tell the truth and still find consolation in something. Not comfort, but consolation, something to go on, to feed and keep the spirit while we’re here for a little longer. Not to insulate us from the horrors of living here, but to stoke our fires and keep us going on despite the wolves howling at the door.
After reading this, I tried to think about why I didn't want to accept the terminology Chris uses here, much as I like his attempt to expand beyond simplistic ideas of "we must write about the nastiest of the nastiness of the world so that our readers suffer no illusions, bwahahahahahahaaaaa!" For one thing, I think the comfort/discomfort dichotomy is a false one -- good writing is too complex to fit into any such simple category (similarly, "transgressive fiction") and good readers are too sophisticated to let texts do only one thing for them. Then I remembered something John Gardner wrote in On Becoming a Novelist about "the Pollyanna mask" (sunny hand-me-down language, "the cranked-up zombie emotion of a writer who feels nothing in his daily life or nothing he trusts enough to find his own words for") and then what he said about a paragaph from something by Harlan Ellison:
This is not the Pollyanna style favored by hack writers of the twenties and thirties but the hack-writer style that superseded it, disPollyanna. Sunny optimism, with its fondness for italics, gives way to an ill-founded cynicism, also supported by italics. ... Sentence fragments become common (a standard means of falsely heightening the emotion of what one says), and commas disappear ... in rhetorical imitation of William Faulkner, who was also on thin ice. (Dropping commas is all right except if one's purpose is to increase the rush of the sentence and thus suggest emotion not justified by what is being said.) ... Crude jokes and images, slang phrases borrowed from foreign languages, are all stock in disPollyanna fiction -- in an attempt to shock prudes. No one is shocked, of course, though a few may misread their annoyance as shock. One is annoyed because the whole thing is phony, an imitation of things too often imitated before. The problem with such writers, it ought to be mentioned, is not that they are worse people than those who wrote in Pollyanna. They are almost exactly the same people: idealists, people who simple-mindedly long for goodness, justice, and sanity; the difference is one of style. ...

Both Pollyanna and disPollyanna limit the writer in the same ways, leading him to miss and simplify experience, and cutting him off from all but fellow believers.
I much prefer Gardner's terminology to that of comfort vs. discomfort, because what it points out is simplistic thinking and failure of craft in particular ways. The people who condemn (or praise) "comfort fiction" are complaining not only of particular failures of craft, but also of what they see as failures of ideology and metaphysics. They imagine an audience and they expend much energy disdaining it, because to them these people (if they exist, which I'm not certain of) are sheep following a shepherd who drugs them with lies and illusions. "Read your silly Harry Potter," they say, "and wallow in your ignorance while I dig into the marrow of life with my chosen text of superior reality-smashing in-yer-face this-is-how-it-isness." (Yes, I find the sanctimoniousness of such a position far more repulsive than the uncritical acceptance of unexceptional writing.)

The problem for me is that most disPollyanna books just can't accomplish what they seem to desire. For a work of fiction to change your view of the world, it's got to be either less fiction than propaganda-cum-journalism (think The Jungle) or a work of subtlety and breadth that connects, in some personal way, to who you are at a particular time. The latter is likely to be a marvelous piece of art, but it's also unlikely to be anything that could be prescribed, because what is both necessary and uncontrollable is the relationship between the reader and the text, and readers use texts in immensely varied ways. Unless you're a masochist, you're unlikely to finish reading something you find annoying or disturbing, and so the effect of such fiction is merely to confirm a view of the world you already hold. You could call it comfortable anti-comfort.

It is because I work from the assumption that the greatest art is unpredictable in its effect that I am wary of using the terms "comfort" or "consolation" with regard to the best fiction. Not because there aren't books and stories and poems and plays that I find comforting or consoling, but because I don't think whatever comforting/consoling properties a text possesses are universal or even inherent in the text itself. It's unlikely that what works for me will also work for lots of other people, or that what works for me in particular circumstances will work in other circumstances. Thus, once a writer sets out to be comforting and consoling, they've already failed and will probably produce treacle. Similarly, when a writer sets out to be all clear-eyed about the hideous awfulness of the world and wake readers up to the drab wretchedness of their empty, wasteful lives, they're likely to produce something that is more rant than art, more self-satisfied than satisfying.

I think Gardner was smart to focus on language, because though great writing possesses something ineffable that can triumph over some failures of language (or else how would great books survive bad translations?), to start writing from a position that almost surely guarantees you will fill your pages with familiar, sentimental, overwrought phrases that represent the world through simplistic and received ideas ... well, to start writing from such a position seems self-defeating to me and a failure of ambition.

We live in a time when far more pages are written than any one person could read in ten lifetimes, and the only justification for adding to those pages that I can think of is to add something that strives for an honesty and clarity of language and structure, something that is neither comforting nor discomforting by design, but is, instead, a tool for thinking and feeling more powerfully about the fact that we are alive in a world more complex than any of our philosophies.

John Gardner makes a big claim for art that is neither Pollyanna nor disPollyanna, and though it courts its own sort of sanctimony, I think it is a claim worth considering:
A young writer firmly hooked on bad science fiction, or the worst of the hard-boiled detective school, or tell-it-like-it-is so-called serious fiction, fashionably interpreting all experience as crap, may get published, if he works hard, but the odds are that he'll never be an artist. That may not bother him much. Hack writers are sometimes quite successful, even admired. But so far as I can see, they are of slight value to humanity.


  1. "the only justification for adding to those pages that I can think of is to add something that strives for an honesty and clarity of language and structure, something that is neither comforting nor discomforting by design, but is, instead, a tool for thinking and feeling more powerfully about the fact that we are alive in a world more complex than any of our philosophies."

    This is actually what I wanted to get at, but I don't spend as much time as you do writing such articulate posts. :) I'm more of a thought bubble snap-shot blogger. Thanks for elaborating.

  2. I tend to think about this issue less in terms of comfort or discomfort and more in terms of sentimentality, by which I mean prioritizing emotion over the characters experiencing it. You get this attitude a lot in romantic comedies - it doesn't matter who the lovers are so long as they end the movie in a clinch - or in something like The Time Traveler's Wife, in which the characters are literally sublimated to the romance in which they're entangled.

    If you look at a novel like Possession, in contrast, or the novels of Norman Rush, whose happy endings might be said to be just as saccharine, just as comforting as that of TTTW, there is no sense of sentimentality. The characters come first. We love them first and are only then made to wish for a happy ending for them.

    It's the same with discomforting fiction. If we care about the characters, their misfortune will trouble us. If the point of the story is to trouble us, we won't care.

  3. I think there's something to be said for the idea that the old polemical structure of "I'm showing people how shit life really is..." is a tired literary conceit, as much in books as in films.

    Isn't that all this issue is?

    That setting a book on a council estate in Glasgow and having everyone be hooked on smack in order to make some point about life or the world is just as intellectually vacant as something like Little House on the Prairie or You've Got Mail with their cookie-cutter sentimentality and optimism.

  4. I do think comfort or consolatory art is different from sentimentality. Sentimentality can be in the writing itself, at the sentence level itself, in word choice. Consolation is more of a worldview or aim perhaps manifested in some forms of art. I believe the anti-comfort fiction critics of recent years attacked specifically the old notion of fantasy primarily being able to console its readers through the eucatastrophe--the moment of being delivered from evil or death. What I was also originally thinking when I began my post to think about all this, was how I thin it doesn't have to be an either/or thing. No particular work of fantasy, nor Fantasy literature itself, doesn't have to commit itself to consoling or disturbing. I think there's room for both of these in the same story/novel/piece/what have you. And I think that the foundation of critics of consolatory fiction rested largely on debasing it in order to prop up their own view that disturbance should be the primary aim of fantasy literature. I'm not sure fantasy literature should have a primary aim at all. Maybe individual stories and novel will have primary aims that their authors intended, but an entire genre or form of writing committing itself to one particular sort of aim would be very limiting, I think. Much how first wave surrealism was limited by its originators and practioners at first.

  5. Chris and I have been talking about this stuff together for at least a year now, so I may be unconsciously using some shorthand here. (And he may find my posts articulate, but I think he writes far more lyrically than I. So we're a mutual-admiration society, too!)

    Anyway, the word I've often come back to as we've talked is empathy, because I seem to be developing, whether I like it or not, an idealistic desire for at least some fiction to strive to create openings for empathy. I have a rather dialectic relationship with this idea at the moment, because part of me thinks 1.) it's too touchy-feely [I'm a congenital stoic most of the time] and 2.) it's impossible. But the sorts of books and stories I have most clung to are ones that use exactly the sort of honest emotional development that Abigail cites -- and I love Norman Rush; haven't read Possession yet -- to allow the reader to practice empathy. What I haven't figured out is a good vocabulary for discussing this sort of effect, or figuring out if it's a side-effect of other things, or if it can be located at the level of language, or... For me, it's a challenge of trying to find a better way to talk about the distinctions I find between fiction that I adore, fiction I respect, fiction I am indifferent to, and fiction I actively dislike. A personal quest, I suppose, but if I'm going to spout my opinions off in public, I feel like I should be able to talk about these distinctions more complexly. I don't know quite where I'll get to with it all, but I think the effort might lead to occasionally interesting things.

  6. Oh you should definitely read Possession. It's fantastic. Really. One of my absolute favorite novels.

    Lyrical only when I take the time to actually edit my typos and grammatical confusions. But yes, total mutual-admiration society here.

  7. Honestly, what I would like more than anything right now is for writers to show me they are adults and not children. So many of the stories I've been reading recently seem like they were written by self-absorbed, non-thinking people who may or may not be adults. The solutions are simple. The set-ups are simple. The whole thing reads like somebody who never moved past the age of 18. I was reading some old New Worlds and Interzones and the difference in tone was remarkable (for the most part). Here were stories that succeeded or failed on adult terms. No comfortable solutions. No comfortable, pat endings. I mean, I've also read a lot of great short fiction lately. But almost none of it has been in publications designated as "genre". And don't get me started on "young adult". I think we're selling our souls right now to appeal to 18 year-olds when we should be thinking about what it means to be an adult reading and writing adult stories.

    An Old Fart

  8. Cool ideas, Old Fart. I'd love to know what's on your list of great short fiction you've read lately, whether it's genre fiction or not. Would you share? I'm always looking for more good reads, and interested in knowing what other people consider great reads.

  9. I agree with Chris's distinction between sentimentality as a mode and comfort as an end, but I think more often than than not sentimentality is the means by which authors arrive at comfort fiction - in the derogatory sense that we've been using.

    Oh, and Matt, you should definitely read Possession. It's one of my all-time favorite novels.

  10. Here's another voice to add to those praising Possession; it's the ultimate English major novel (if you studied English the way I did, going through the history of English lit). Gardner's a touchstone for me as well (though On Moral Fiction somewhat overstates things), and he helped me understand what troubled me so much--at the soul level as well as the writing level--when I read Ellison many years ago.

    Chris, I know you asked "Old Fart," but I'd like to throw you some short fiction suggestions: Margo Lanagan's Black Juice, which achieves empathy by, oddly, stripping stories of their context--it's as if you're meeting characters on a more fundamental level; and Tim Gautreaux, author of Same Place, Same Things and Welding with Children. Gautreaux places us in Louisiana, roots his stories firmly in time and place, and gives us characters who function in a world in which morality is a visible dimension. The tales are "comforting" in that, to me, they provide both a controlled authorial glimpse into the lives of others and I feel I live in the same universe as the author.

    Students of mine (eighth graders) often complain the literature is depressing. I get after them about using that term; they usually back off and just say an ending is sad or that, failing that, it's not "happy." Thus even an ambivalent ending is something of a let-down. Drawing from Gardner, I try to get them to see that merely by the act of writing something, an author has engaged the virtues of hope and faith, believing someone will connect with what's written and that, somehow, it matters. Here's where a focus on the way the story is told rather than the story itself, with its accompanying troubled emotions, is helpful: observe the mastery, admire the skill, get a kick out of this sentence, enjoy the way the whole thing is put together. This worked rather well with Lord of the Flies, I have to say.


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