The Case Against Cynicism In Literature


I’m bored of it.

Frankly, that should be the whole article. It would be nice and elegant, but I don’t get paid to write tweets. But the truth is I’m bored. I’m bored of the stupid idea that darkness is the same as intelligence. I’m bored of needlessly gritty reboots that postulate, I don’t know, that everything is dark and shitty and corrupt. I’m bored of fiction where sexual violence is used as a shorthand for shocking grounded truthiness (shout out Game of Thrones: in a world with magic and dragons you’re sure all about making sure we know you’re hardcore and gritty.)

I’m tired of stark, deathly stories about loss and grit in poorly defined post-apocalyptic worlds. I’m tired of everyone doing their best “The Road” impression writing stark sentences. That move like this. About death.

“The boy bit the bone. He bled. I cursed the sand.”

Where’s my pulitzer?

I’m sick of Catcher In The Rye appropriation of snark as truth. It was a shitty book liked best by shitty readers and it killed John Lennon. If you want to read J.D. Salinger you should read his short stories. If you own two copies of Catcher In The Rye you should be on some sort of watch-list.

That’s not to say cynicism, well applied isn’t good but it isn’t good for its own sake. But you can be good using other colors in the rainbow. This is like every painter saw Picasso’s blue period and said “me too.”

Suddenly, the depth of ‘good’ literature is unflinchingly dark and strange. Every story I read these days rolls around in familiar tropes of suicide and death and sexual violence and fear and it punishes me for reading. I spent the past two days flipping through short stories, poems, and a novel. Granted my selection may have been off- I went with a book called Dr. Bloodmoney and a story collection by George Saunders – but it feels reductive and ignorant of the broader world.

Good work and enjoyable work should be the most obvious synergy. Instead, writers are punishing their readers for the audacity to read and the readers are taking it. They think that serious writing is supposed to be difficult, mean, plodding or harsh. And they gravitate from it. And who can blame them?

I barely read and I’m a fucking writer.

Serious writing seems to prize its own seriousness over the purpose of writing. Entertainment, enjoyability and truth should radiate. Reading can be a joy. Forcing it as gloomy homework does the craft a disservice.

This article is getting cynical, so let me try some proof by comparison.

You want to know how starved we are for anything resembling positivity? Look at the overwhelming, staggering success of Young Adult fiction! Heroes, villains, struggles, emotion and clarity are presented there well and guess what? They’re addictive! They’re fun. They’re interesting.

We shouldn’t punish readers for being interested.

Quality is quality wherever it’s applied. But somehow we confuse plot for style. We don’t see meticulously crafted upbeat stories the way we see well-written darkness, but we’re getting closer. Young Adult literature is more popular than ever, and consider that anytime enjoyability and quality have coincided- say, Friends, or The Avengers- the result has been critically and commercially viable.

Darkness is a shade and a hue, not a shortcut to quality or an automatic benchmark of it. As a reader and a writer, you’re allowed to escape it. Similarly, as a person, consider that being dark and moody doesn’t make you smarter.

Being cynical isn’t the same as being smart and being happy isn’t the same as being dumb.

Remember that.