Is your book optimistic or pessimistic?

Or over-engineered?

WHAT IS YOUR DEFAULT POSITION AS A WRITER?

Why do we read?

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

Really.

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

Optimist or pessimist is a question I ask books.

Is your book ultimately depressing or uplifting?

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

It’s a value judgment.

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

Top reviewers are the ones who get the most comments or upvotes; the first four pages had negative after negative review (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.

A depressing book – depressing author?

Ms. Slaughter is a NYT bestseller.

Apparently, previous books she wrote were not nearly as negative as this one; 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?

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.

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 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.

Jane Eyre is optimistic. Silas Marner is optimistic.

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

You write 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.

So if you read what I write, you will be reassured that, whether you like exactly how I have arranged things to happen, there will be an upbeat end.

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Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

And does it show in what you read and/or write?

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18 thoughts on “Is your book optimistic or pessimistic?

  1. Jeanne

    I like both the three happy endings of Lord of the Rings and the soaring tragedy of Othello. Either way, what fiction has to have is a stake in the characters’ fates and a sense that what happens to them matters.
    I also like the ambiguous ending of The Handmaid’s Tale, because it spurs readers to make sure that such things as happened to Offred can never happen again.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I spend all of Othello thinking of the Moor as destroying his own happiness with a lot of help from someone who has none of his own. It makes for great drama and a terrible life.

      What happened to Offred is happening, today, to women all over the world – and that has not gotten better since the book was written and I read it when it came out. So some of us liberal women have learned something – but the new generations coming up have to figure out how to learn it all again. This year has been disillusioning in many ways.

      I’m getting more cynical as I age, while trying very hard not to let that happen in my writing – to provide a counterbalance. And while being an optimist, because the opposite terrifies me.

      I love the Lord of the Rings – while recognizing the necessity for the Grey Havens.

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  2. Widdershins

    1 – must be well-written
    2 – It can go dark, but I draw the line at gratuitous violence against women, animals, (even the threat of violence against animals is enough to stop me right there) and children, so long as it climbs back out of the mire by the end
    3 – I could go for HEA’s and HFN’s, or even ‘walking off into the sunset alone but whole’. 😀

    Optimist/pessimist? I’m a realist, with a side order of pessimism, and a dash of optimism for seasoning. These days though the realism/pessimism come with interchanging parts. Sign of the times I guess.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      We’ve all had our faith in our fellow humans shredded lately – it will take a long time to get back to feeling as we did before the pandemic, that little by little other countries in the world would join us in prosperity and health and education, that women were making progress, however slowly.

      It’s always been an illusion and not an objective, but my complacency has taken so many nosedives I need to wear a hockey mask.

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  3. acflory

    I don’t hate HEA endings so I don’t read romance. HFN is good, but any ending that /resolves/ the story is a good ending, imho. After all, how boring would Hamlet be if after all that bellyaching he pissed off to the Caribbean and fathered a dozen children? -wink-

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    1. acflory

      Gods…my brain has shut down for the night. I meant to write either ‘I don’t like HEA endings’ or ‘I hate HEA endings’ and instead conflated the two. -sigh- I definitely do NOT like HEA.

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      1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

        I want my endings EARNED by the author, not left ambiguous for me to do the work of deciding whether the author has a point.

        And I don’t get the point of writing more depressing endings – the author spends a lot of time with the story, and I don’t need to make my life more depressing, what with already being stuck with a nasty chronic illness.

        I leave the negative pessimistic ones to someone with more of a stomach for them.

        (Doing what you did is not uncommon – mixing two things up exactly wrong – but, if you don’t mind, I’ll leave it there precisely because it DOES happen. To me, too.)

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        1. acflory

          I haven’t slept well the last few nights, and I don’t bounce back the way I did in my younger years. Anyway, that’s my excuse. 😉

          I don’t enjoy unhappy endings per se, but some stories can’t be resolved any other way. I literally agonised over the ending of Innerscape. The whole time I was writing the story, I teetered backwards and forwards about the ending. It was not until almost the very last couple of chapters that I finally gave in and accepted a ‘happy for now’ ending as the correct resolution. I hope that ambivalence kept readers guessing too. 😉

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        2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I plan my endings before I write a word, and then the path between beginning and ending makes more sense to me. Everything supports what I’m trying to do, and I don’t need to prune.

          That said, I’ve had the experience of knowing something was necessary plotwise, but not being sure HOW to make the story do that. My journals are full of that. Eventually each little quibble gets resolved.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. acflory

          lol – yes, the difference in our writing style is marked. In the end though, it’s the quality of the finished story that matters, not how we poor writers reached that point. 🙂

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  4. Lloyd Lofthouse

    I do not think of myself as a pessimist or an optimist, but as a realist. As a realist that’s read a lot of history, I have learned that no matter how bad things get in the present everything horrible (as in MAGA Trumpism) ends eventually and then life may improve for most people but probably not everyone.

    And, some of us that were born into hard times may not survive long enough to be around for the good times.

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    1. acflory

      High Five, Lloyd Lofthouse! I admit I’m not very happy with humanity at the moment, but then I think of the ending of Appartheid in South Africa and the fall of the Berlin Wall – both without a preceding blood bath – and I’m reassured that bad things do end. This too will end. 🙂

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      HEA is a bit much – I don’t read Romance because I’m not capable of the required suspension of disbelief – but I AM writing a love story. Or a story of love, entangled with integrity and responsibility and their consequences – to see where the sticking points are.

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  5. Chris

    Interesting topic.

    Though I often refer to myself as a pessimist (for clarity’s sake), in actual fact my position is more complex. Strictly speaking, I am a nihilist, but it’s hard for people to understand what that entails (one reason being, there are many forms of nihilism). It’s this that informs both my reading and my writing, rather than a binary optimist/pessimist split. That is, I can enjoy books highlighting optimism, just as much as I enjoy books that highlight pessimism — provided, in both cases, that they are justified by narrative events, rather than predicated on extrinsic nonhuman forces.

    After all, life is complex; it generally sucks (if not for us individually, then for most other people, somehow, someway), but we can’t deny there’s a certain flawed beauty to it. As a writer, it’s this flawed beauty I try to find. So my books are nihilist, like myself: They highlight that life is basically pointless, hard, yet not without some precious few moments of sheer, almost art-like magic.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      We live, we read – for the magic. But we still choose what to read, how to react. And they reinforce our way of looking at things.

      And we still choose how to behave to other people – family of origin, spouse, children, friends – everyone else.

      I’d have to read your fiction to have any idea how that applies in practical terms – and I can’t read much right now until I’ve finished my writing, so I have to take your word for it that in the pointless you can find art. Which is very different from what I do – I definitely have a point, points, and an optimistic end in sight with the promise of a future twist that may or may not come to be.

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