July 7, 2010

False Expectations

We all know the plot of a romantic comedy. There’s a cute meet, where the couple meet in a cute way. They don’t like each other at first, or maybe they have conflicting interests. Hilarity ensues. But the world forces them together, and they fall in love resisting the whole way. They start seeing each other but then have to break it off. But then in the end they get together and live happily ever after.

Same for a thriller. Guy loses everything, his job, wife, family, etc. Some evil people threaten to kill all he loves and ruin his life if he doesn’t do this thing in a limited amount of time. All kinds of obstacles and car chases and crashes. People die. But Our Hero miraculously, by his own skill and wit and strength, get by with hardly a scrape. He ingeniously outwits the bad guys and wins in the end.

Same for the sitcom. The show starts with situation neutral. Somebody wants something though or does something wrong. Then they lie to someone about it. The rest of the show involves larger and larger contortions to escape responsibility, until they are caught, but everything is forgiven and all is back to situation neutral by the end of the half hour.

These are very strong narratives. They are formulas that have been being remade for decades, possibly centuries. It simulates life in a very satisfying way, with a satisfying happy ending. Consciously or unconsciously, we know how the story is going to go, but the entertainment and delight is in the details.

But is this what life is really like? Very rarely, if ever. Romances aren’t usually “normal.” No one could do the physical stuff that’s in thrillers. Life is messier than a sitcom. Which goes along with the idea that plot puts the art in artifice. However, I think these plots create false expectations about the real world. The real world is not tidy. We don’t get happy solutions to a lot of things. A lot of things go unresolved. That, in part, is the attraction of these plot lines.

But I was thinking, after I finished a beautiful story in the Scribner’s Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction: Fifty North American Stories Since 1970 (“Relief,” by Peter Ho Davies), that this is precisely why I love literary fiction. When I was a child, what I read did not reflect my world. That was part of its charm, of course, but that also meant that I didn’t think my world was legitimate. It was complicated and messy and nuanced and unclear. But when I started reading more sophisticated books, I was hooked. These books reflected the subtleties and nuances of life. They end sometimes horribly, sometimes happily, but always with ambivalence and ambiguity ~ like life.

So, I’ve always said that I love literary fiction for these reasons, but I wanted to assert that, though I love the escape of pat narratives sometimes too, they create a false sense of reality and are probably responsible for more dissatisfaction in life than people give them credit for. The false expectations they create (underdog always wins, there is always a happy ending, the body can do these incredible things) probably do a lot of damage.

What I’m Reading Today: More wonderful Scribner’s Anthology.

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