Do you like your books pessimistic or optimistic?

Mountains, lake, trees. Words: Should fiction lift your spirits? Alicia Butcher EhrhardtWHAT DOES READING FOR PLEASURE MEAN TO YOU?

Why do we read?

To learn about the world and to learn about our potentialities as humans.


To read a book is to live part of another life.

To learn something new.

For relaxation.

For a vicarious adventure.

For pleasure.

Okay, so what KIND of books?

Optimist or pessimist? is a question I ask books.

Even horrible books can raise spirits, especially by the end of the book. The Diary of Anne Frank does that.

Is your book ultimately depressing or uplifting?

It’s a value judgment.

A depressing book – depressing author?

Doing some research, I spent time reading the Top Reviews for Karin Slaughter’s Pretty Girls (2016).

‘Top reviewers’ on Amazon are the ones who get the most comments or upvotes; the first four pages with that option selected had negative after negative reviews (it wasn’t until page 4 that I found two short positive reviews, from readers), many of those from reviewers you would love to get to read your book: Top 500, Top 1000, Vine Voice…

And those reviewers were appalled at the violence against women that was graphically depicted, over and over. ‘Gratuitous’ was used as a descriptor.

Many commented that the writing was good or adequate or competent (workmanlike would have been my assessment, from reading the Look Inside sample provided), but that the choice of subject matter left them sick to their stomach.

Ms. Slaughter is a NYT bestseller.

Apparently, previous books she wrote were not nearly as negative as this one; but many of these reviewers commented they would not read another of her books.

Some commented they wished they could scrub their minds of the images, for which they could find no socially redeeming reasons.

Me, I wondered why they continued reading, even if they skimmed.

The optimistic book – optimistic authors?

And I don’t mean just sappy and inspirational, with ready-made solutions to the world’s problems.

SF can be pessimistic (dystopias) or optimistic.

Romance is usually optimistic, and those fans who like to read Romance want their ‘happily ever after’ (HEA) ending, and can be very unhappy with writers who don’t provide one. There is a subset of books which end, not with an HEA, but with a ‘happy for now’ (HFN). These books are still hopeful, but possibly more realistic – and also possibly open to sequels.

Jane Eyre is optimistic. Silas Marner is optimistic.

Huckleberry Finn is optimistic. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Heinlein) is optimistic.

Thrillers and mysteries can be all over the map – but do deal with the grittier side of life, and more often are pessimistic or neutral, but possibly with an optimistic undertone, say, to a continuing detective’s life.

A special category is the detective who finds happiness

My favorite, obviously, is the definitely HEA ending of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels, ending with Busman’s Honeymoon, where Peter and Harriet marry, finally, and solve one last real mystery which sets the tone for their married life. Sayers wrote only two short stories about the pair and their children after that, even though her series was popular and is still popular now.

During all the novels, there was still an optimistic cast to the series: there was a right and wrong, people had principles, and there were consequences – but mysteries were solved and things set ‘right’ where possible. Sayers went on to write theology, so her stories were optimistic because she believed in the possibility.

You read what you like

And I don’t like ultimately pessimistic books.

Almost every genre can be written either way; even serial killer Dexter is optimistic.

I just want to know that, at the end of the book, things are, or have the potential of being, better.

That covers a lot of territory, but the thing in a book that makes me pick another book by an author is that there was hope at the end.

And you write the same way

The road to happiness for Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey is a rocky one. But when he asks her, on their honeymoon, if she finds life, on the whole, good, she answers,

“Yes! I’ve always felt absolutely certain it was good–if only one could get it straightened out. I’ve hated almost everything that has happened to me, but I knew all the time it was just things that were wrong, not everything….Things have come straight. I always knew they would if one hung on long enough, waiting for a miracle…”

I haven’t the slightest reservation about Pride’s Children. It is an optimistic book.

Not easy. Not simple. Not fast. And you may have to trust me for a while.

It makes a difference to me.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist? And does it show in what you read and/or write?

16 thoughts on “Do you like your books pessimistic or optimistic?

  1. Holly Jahangiri

    I have written stories that could go either way, depending on the reader’s mood. “Meet Me Halfway” comes to mind; the ending is different, depending on my mood any given day — and I wrote it!

    You wrote, “I just want to know that, at the end of the book, things are, or have the potential of being, better.” And that’s the key. I don’t have to know that they ARE better, just that there is still hope.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Think about your favorite books, ones you would reread time and again.

      What camp do they fall in?

      I realized mine all have that possibility of hope, and the story is headed there from the beginning.

      Not that bad things can’t/won’t/shouldn’t happen – that would be unrealistic – but that they don’t completely defeat the characters, who will try again as soon as they can if necessary.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. marianallen

    I’m an optimistic dysthymic: Anxious and depressed, but certain things COULD be better, determined to do my bit to contribute to the positive side of the scale. The most weirdly optimistic books I’ve read are Lemony Snicket’s A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS books; anything good that managed to happen didn’t last, but one is left feeling comforted. The books illustrate than it isn’t what happens to you that defines your life, it’s how you meet what happens and how you deal with the people around you. I tend to write stories in which the answer to, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” is an unequivocal, “Yes.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      You get it. The right attitude makes it possible (and not meaningless) to DO something.

      When two different people gave me, Feeling Good: the new mood therapy, by Dr. David Burns (it’s about CBT) in grad school, I realized I ran depressed a lot of the time. I have managed to work it out a lot of the time, and don’t any more – because I can’t afford the loss of energy. I have so little!

      I can’t take anti-depressants, but I can work at it very hard every time I find myself in that trap, because depression is a lie. I’ve accomplished much in my lifetime by objective standards, even if I’ve been the apocryphal crab pulled back into the bucket (girls don’t…) for much of my life – because I had no choice! All attempts by me to make me normal and satisfactory and appropriate to the station in life I was born into have failed.

      Besides, I wasn’t interested, but that’s neither here nor there.

      I’m limited in what I can do, but I’m going to do that until they pry the keyboard out of my cold…

      And I continue to work on ME – but in the direction I’VE decided matters.

      Liked by 3 people

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      But do you put those books on your ‘I would like to read this again to feel the same way’ list?

      In other words, do you wallow?

      Every book I reread periodically is one whose ending makes me feel hopeful for humanity and the future. Intransigent optimist? Well, if I don’t keep my spirits up, I feel awful.

      Nobody cares – so I choose to be upbeat, and then have the power to DO something about whatever’s got me down. Write a blog post about the reviewer who said you need to learn to write, of the person who said you need a professional cover, or the reader who says you do X she doesn’t like. (My answer is: Hmm. I see. I suggest you write your own book.)

      I’m planning on writing as long as I can, and the nay-sayers get under my skin. So I remove them, and proceed merrily down my own path.

      Works for me. I’ve tried the pessimistic way – and it brings me to a standstill, and STILL nobody cares. If a book seems to be going down that path, I don’t feel any obligation to keep reading. Fortunately, you can usually tell before you even start.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. ericjbaker

        I guess it depends on how we interpret “pessimistic.” I’m talking about books with bleak but thought provoking endings like I Am Legend or Cat’s Cradle. My personal emotional state and my emotional response as a reader exist in two distinct places in my brain. I can be wowed and moved by a powerfully dark ending, then go eat a gourmet cupcake and embrace its wonder.

        Liked by 3 people

        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I think I should have defined my terms better!

          Optimistic: there are problems, but we keep working on them, and some have solutions. Some of the solutions are bittersweet – after all, 100% of us will die some day. But until then, I’m going to keep doing what I can.

          Pessimistic: we’re doomed no matter what we do, so what’s the point of doing anything? Ever.

          Liked by 2 people

  3. J.M. Ney-Grimm

    Ha! As I read your post, that exact quote from Busman’s Honeyman came to mind. 😀 Yes! It’s one of my absolute favorites. (Both the book and the quote.) I like optimistic stories myself. Not sappy, not simplistic, but supportive of the notion that life is good. Things, as Harriet says, often don’t come straight. But they can. And even when they don’t, the possibility exists that they might still.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      You’re a charter member of the tribe.

      As you read through life, the books that resonate for you and within you are the ones that become favorites – and stay with you the longest.

      I have all the good lines in Busman’s Honeymoon underlined, and my ancient, yellowing paperback dogeared at those pages. I need to get one of the better quality versions (I have the others in that quality) and transfer my markings, because one of these days it’s going to fall apart.

      ‘Love with honour.’ That kind of sentiment. Too much intelligence. ‘You could have turned him away in five minutes if you’d really wanted to.’ (forgive my bad memory)


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      You’re funny.

      I’m looking for the basic gut feeling the author designs, consciously or not, into the work: do you feel at the end as if there is still hope for the human race, or do you think the planet would be better off without ALL of us.

      I want to stay around. It’s my personal bias. ‘While there’s life, there’s hope.’ I’m doing something to leave my kids a better world…

      This means problems HAVE solutions, and aren’t allowed to just fester because, oh, well, there’s nothing anyone can do about anything.


      Liked by 2 people

  4. Catana

    I don’t judge books by their optimism or pessimism. In fact, for some books, such a judgment would be irrelevant. Also, there seems to be some confusion here between “excessive” violence and how a book turns out. A book can contain violence that might seem excessive to some readers, but still end with optimism. Some stories require an unhappy ending. If that’s upsetting to readers, then it isn’t their kind of book. I’ve never heard of Karin Slaughter, so I can’t form an opinion on that book, but maybe the real problem is that her fans expect a certain slant from her. It’s common for readers to be upset when an author breaks out of their own mould.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      ‘Some stories require an unhappy ending.’

      I can’t disagree with that – but I don’t have to read it. And often bittersweet endings, with some things better, and others worse, are also appropriate, even if just to give a touch of reality to the story.

      But I prefer not to read, and especially not to REread. Life’s too short.


  5. Jennifer

    I am either, and both. I read the Karin Slaughter book you refer to. I read quite a lot of crime fiction, and there is often a lot of violence. Is it gratuitous? Sometimes. Is it necessary to the story? Sometimes. There is a balance. I like optimism, it sustains me through my own dark periods. I’ll read almost anything, but I’m always asking ‘Why did this happen?’ ‘How does it progress the story?’ ‘How realistic does it seem?’

    And now I’m thinking about why some violence strikes me as gratuitous, and some other violence doesn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Even when I was reading far more widely, I tended to go for the books that left me feeling better about the world.

      I think if I focus on negatives for very long, my own start coming out of the woodwork, and the combination is deadly.

      I’m not unrealistic; but I don’t need any more of the bad stuff in my head. Or maybe I’ve filled my quotas.

      Gratuitous is like porn: you know it when you see it. It probably varies depending on the person. I have no qualms in putting a book down if it’s making me queasy. I barely have time for what I love.

      Ms. Slaughter has plenty of readers.

      Liked by 1 person


Comments welcome and valued. Thanks!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.