English literature courses need more happy stories on their syllabi

Literary critics need to stop prioritizing sad and traumatic stories

Image supplied by: Photo by Herbert Wang
Ilina thinks English classes should move beyond just trauma and tragedy.

Why aren’t happy experiences the ones we want to analyze as literary critics? Why do we so often gravitate toward sad or traumatic stories in English literature courses?

These questions deserve more attention and, thankfully, are not the first of their kind. Critic Parul Sehgal, for example, explores the glorification of trauma in English literature in her essay “The Case Against the Trauma Plot.”

For people struggling with their mental health, returning to classes where most discussions focus on heavy topics can make it difficult to feel better. Meaningful literature doesn’t have to be sad—English classes need more happy stories on their syllabi.

As an optimist, I struggle to accept this gloomy notion of life as truth. I’d like to hope life is, at its core, a good thing. Even though we collect emotional scars as we move through it, it’s something to be grateful for.

This optimism becomes hard to maintain, however, when English literature courses demand we analyze so much sadness and trauma in texts such as Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These and Richard Wagamese’s A Quality of Light. Spoilers ahead: these stories end with, respectively, the implication that no happy ending exists for a Magdalene Laundry victim and the death of a character’s best friend immediately after they reconcile their differences.

It is important to recognize, though, that feelings of happiness and sadness are not mutually exclusive within literature. Characters often experience each side of the emotional spectrum at different points in their story. That said, we might consider literature light-hearted if it has a happy ending and does not include instances of trauma or explore it too thoroughly.

Some great examples are Emily Henry’s romantic comedies. While her books might involve a sad event like the death of a loved one, they do not centre solely around this event and usually end on a rather hopeful note. Henry also writes in a somewhat quirky way, which contributes to her overall cheerful tone. Her stories explore topics like love and relationships, but unfortunately, no English literature courses I’ve taken have included them.

That is not to say that Keegan’s and Wagamese’s novels should have happy endings, though, because the lack thereof deliberately speaks to the endurance of problems like systemic sexism and colonialism. However, why can’t we consider more stories that celebrate female and/or Indigenous identity and generally steer clear of trauma?

Moreover, the glorification of sad stories sends the message to writers that they must be in a state of emotional distress to produce anything worthwhile, thus directly feeding into the “tortured artist” stereotype.

Taylor Swift even admitted during her NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert that she worried she wouldn’t be able to produce good music in a secure relationship. She said interviewers asked her, “what will you ever do if you get happy? Like, what will you write about? Will you just never be able to write a song again?” She also noted these questions have the “potential to seriously deteriorate [her] mental health.”

Ultimately, despite this media-instilled anxiety, Swift constructed what she considers “a very, very happy, romantic” album—a.k.a., Lover. While it includes songs about heartbreak and loss, most of them explore the safety and happiness Swift discovered in her new relationship.

By releasing the album, she indirectly suggested to critics that cheerful music is important and deserves the same praise and attention her previous, much sadder music did—like Red, and particularly the song “All Too Well.”

We shouldn’t abandon all literature that centres around the topic of trauma or any distressing topic, but rather just expand our syllabi to consider more light-hearted literature, too. Feelings of happiness and gratitude are just as important as those of sadness and distress.

It’s time that we offer this happier type of literature a spot in the world of literary criticism for the sanity of students and writers, if for nothing else.

 

Ilina is a third-year English literature student.

Tags

classes, English literature, happy stories

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