If It Ain’t Ugly, It Ain’t True (only…it ain’t true)

[Post title inspired by my sister and her somewhat questionable method of throwing grammar out the window when she’s trying to make a point. “Bad grammar used for emphasis” is not a technique they teach you in persuasive writing, but, going by the extreme reluctance of anybody who knows better to engage my sister in argument, I’m going to say it works. Hopefully.]

[Post itself inspired by one Megan wrote a good many months ago. She didn’t say the thing that annoys me, she just put me in mind of it.]

 

 

People often say things I don’t agree with. Generally I’m quite good at not minding.

Sometimes people even say things a LOT that I don’t agree with, and I still don’t mind. Like, “Pure water has no taste.” (I don’t have proof or anything, but I think they’re wrong.)  Or, “I didn’t like it because I couldn’t relate.” (No, you didn’t like it because it was BAD WRITING.) Or, “Teens always make stupid decisions in real life so they should always make stupid decisions in books.” (Please. Also, why have I actually heard people say this? PEOPLE.)

There’s things where you disagree. And there’s things where you disagree and are lit from within by the burning flame of your desire to say NO SIR YOU ARE WRONG, LET ME DRAW YOU A DIAGRAM OF YOUR WRONGNESS WITH EXPLANATORY FOOTNOTES.

This post is about one of those second things.

 

~

 

This post is, in fact, about a very simple thing that no one has ever gotten muddled about because it’s so simple (hence why I am qualified to write about it): the nature of truth. And to be more specific (because this is a blog post with a narrowish focus, not a theological tome that will probably break all your toes if you let it slip from your grasp), the nature of truth as encapsulated in and conveyed through stories.

Presupposing that writers have the responsibility and the goal of purveying truth through their works (which is a presupposition that needs its own post or perhaps tome to support, but never mind that for now), that means a writer needs to know what truth is.

Or at least a bit of what it looks like. The jolly thing about writing is that nobody expects you to have a sermon for them, and they’ll approve all vagueness on the grounds that it’s artistic.

(And of course it isn’t just writers who need to know what truth is. People in general are preoccupied with that question.)

Anyway, lots of people have lots of ideas about what truth is. One of the more annoying ideas I often hear is that it’s…well, h’m. It doesn’t get put into so many words. But let me give you an example to show you what I mean.

Suppose there’s a book. Imagine its author in the mold of James Joyce or William Faulkner or some such fellow. Suppose it’s a very “realistic” book, as you would naturally expect from such an author, the kind where everyone is depressed all the time and absolutely fails at communication, and a lot of long words are used in an order that makes even people who know a lot of long words squint, and there might be a plot but it’s a bit hard to tell under all the…sogginess, and everything ends horribly. Not tragically – tragedy is too elevated and noble-sounding a term to describe what I mean. Just horribly. Sordidly.

You can hear the accolades, can’t you? I can, anyway. A brave book, one that does not shrink from depicting our world as it is. This author has dared to strip away the trappings of our culture’s simplistic hero-story narrative and write a story that is honest about what it means to be human.

What the critics mean by “what it means to be human,” of course, is “what it means to be petty and listless and selfish.”

All of which traits are, I admit, pretty universally human. But they’re not the only human traits. The real world is not the world where people always destroy themselves or others and the only endings are tragedy and disillusionment.

I hate it when I hear people look down on hero-stories, happy stories, and fairy-tales for not being real. I hate when they say we should be writing stories that are real, implying that the only ones that are real are those that are dark and gritty and sad and show ugliness to its full extent.  And it isn’t so much because they’re being snobs I hate it as because they’re wrong.

Look around at the world. Right now, wherever you’re sitting. What do you see?  I see light-bulbs it’s hard to imagine life without, framed by grubby convenience-store ceiling tiles but themselves a warm flush of brightness. I see a faded Baskin Robbins sign.  I see a homeless man huddled in a coat (which doesn’t look warm enough for twelve degrees – not that I, over here in my hoodie, can talk), smoking his cigarette at the edge of the sidewalk. I see gas prices that have most annoyingly jumped up twenty cents, and I see a sky of freshly-washed blue with cobwebby clouds clinging and drifting across it.

Later on I’ll see the slow muddy wrinkle of the current, a rusted-out barge anchored next to pavement crumbling into the river, a fat squirrel nibbling an acorn on a nearby branch, a spatter of mud on my shoe that looks almost human, and a young doe unsure whether to eat her plant or run away or stare some more at me.

Ugly and beautiful things. Sometimes more of one. Sometimes more of the other.

That’s life in general too. Sometimes it’s lonely; sometimes it’s overrun with small children chasing butterflies, large dogs chasing squirrels, and fried chicken. Sometimes you lose a friend; sometimes you stay out on the dock till three a.m. talking to one. For every cathedral, there is a decrepit building that guards a pothole-pocked parking lot in the kind of neighborhood you don’t want to frequent after dark. But even so – for ever sickly river flowing between banks that bloom with factories, running brown and oily with their waste, there is a clear stream babbling its way through goldenrod-and-bluebell meadows.

We have the social commentary novels to open people’s eyes to injustices, abuses, and evils, which is of course very good. I think, though – aren’t there probably just as many people who need to have their eyes opened to wonders, loves, and beauties?

I mean, from the perspective that realism is what matters most in a story (which is debatable, but, from that perspective), it’s kind of silly to say that a gritty realistic novel about losing your job and finding out your wife’s cheating on you is somehow better than a light, happy middle grade about kids playing in the woods and exchanging innocent secrets. Isn’t it? Both those things exist.

And yet you’d think, to hear some people talk, that the latter didn’t.

Because why exactly is ugliness more real than beauty? Why is ugliness more true than beauty? Or than wonder? Or even than whimsy and silliness?

Rhetorical questions, those. I propose that it’s a skewed view of reality that sees all the negative things as more true or important than the good things. Even that it’s a skewed view of reality to see all the serious things as more worth considering than the silly ones – because I don’t mean just stories that go dark places but end in eucatastrophe. I mean Alice in Wonderland is as eligible for the distinction of being Great and Worthwhile Literature as is The Idiot. And to frame it in Christian terms, sin is real…but so is grace.

In fact, besides just being incorrect and kind of pitiable, I’d argue the idea stories must be dark and gritty to be true often (not necessarily in every individual case, of course) betokens a type of snobbery, a contempt for people who are happy. They can’t possibly be happy unless they’re simple-minded. Anyone who thinks deeply about things will perceive at once that reality is nothing to be happy about.

Not to be oversensitive, but I don’t like being looked down on for my happiness. Or being told I only possess it because I’m not bright or brave enough to look at things as they are. Maybe I have looked the facts of life in the eye. Maybe I have become acquainted with those things we’d all rather not be acquainted with: corruption, loneliness, grief. Maybe I have considered all these things deeply and come to the conclusion that I’m happy anyway.

And maybe I’ve read some of those happy, innocent little stories where nothing really bad happens, the kind that aren’t real enough to be worthwhile, praiseworthy literature, and closed my eyes and hugged them (while I’m in my room and no one can see me being ridiculous) and loved them for how real they are. And read them a hundred more times.

In fact, I’ll bet you anything I’ve done that. Even my mom wouldn’t disapprove of that bet, because it’s not gambling to bet on certainties.

 

~

 

And that is my long and impassioned opinion on why novels tackling heavy subjects are not inherently more literary or culturally valuable than lighter works. I’m aware this is more an explanation of my point of view than a justification of it, so…yeah. Do you agree? Do you agree partly but partly disagree? Maybe you think The Idiot actually is, by virtue of its subject matter alone, more worthy to be called Great and Worthwhile Literature than Alice? Do tell me your opinions. “I want to know, Anne.”

Author: sarahseele

A Christian, cat owner, college kid, and writer. Fond of stories. Fond of rain.

11 thoughts on “If It Ain’t Ugly, It Ain’t True (only…it ain’t true)”

  1. THANK YOU. I’ve been wanting to do an article on this for a while, but you beat me to it, lol. 😉 (Do you mind if I still do one? Of course, now that you’ve done one, I don’t have to, so maybe I won’t.) Gritty does not equal realistic! Stories don’t suddenly become more mature just because you make them gritty! The same goes for adult content, of course. Mature content does not necessarily make a mature movie.
    I like tragedies, but I don’t like super gritty stories. Mostly because they tend to take themselves waay too seriously.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do not mind AT ALL. 😉 In fact, I’d really really love to read your thoughts, so I hope you do still do one!
      But yes, I agree. And oh my goodness, I’ve seen so many poorly-written movies that had adult content in them and it kinda seemed to me like they thought it would disguise the poor writing and automatically elevate the story to the level of something to take seriously, which, no. That’s not how it works!
      Okay, so I’m picky about my tragedies, but sometimes I love them. And when I love them it’s not because they’re gritty, it’s because they’re TRAGIC. There’s a difference. And I feel like if something is too gritty, it can actually make the tragedy less effective. Maybe because you get numb to it? Or maybe because without something beautiful to lose in the first place, how much of a tragedy is it really? I don’t know, do you know what I’m talking about?
      And oh yes. Gritty stories usually do take themselves too seriously, that’s so true. Sometimes I think they’re pretty much always written by people who have no sense of humor. XD

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I AGREE WITH EVERY WORD. Forgive the screaming. I just relate SO MUCH to what you are saying here. I actually wrote a post a while back that had some very similar points to this one. Here is the link if you are interested: https://thestorysponge.wordpress.com/2019/03/29/reflections-on-cynicism-in-which-a-sponge-shares-her-safety-blanket-with-the-world/
    I passionately believe that fairy tales hold a piece of truth that the “realistic” stories cannot quite reach. Thinking that reality is always depressing is a mistake. It is not simple-minded to believe in a happy ending. There is darkness and pain and horror in the world, but ultimately love conquers death. Who DID decide the ugliness is more true than beauty? They are just two sides of one truth. And if one is more real than the other, I would say that beauty is more real, because ugliness is an absence. Ugliness is the lack of beauty, and if beauty didn’t exist we wouldn’t even know what ugliness was.
    That being said, I struggle with the way people constantly put down beauty and happiness as being simple-minded. Being cynical makes me feel smarter, so I’ve trained my brain to see the negative side of EVERYTHING.But it doesn’t make me see clearer. It just skews my focus. It’s something I am trying to work on.
    I love this post. Very well done. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this subject!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All screaming is forgiven. It is, in fact, appreciated. The screaming, and this comment in general, brought me much happiness.
      (Thank you for the link! I’m definitely interested and will probably go read it as soon as I finish writing this comment. Barring interruptions.)
      I DON’T KNOW WHO DECIDED IT. I mean, pessimists, I guess. But why did the rest of us decide the pessimists are right? Because we really are predisposed to see optimism as foolish and childish. And it’s…NOT.
      I’ve heard people say bad is the absence/perversion of good before, but never that ugliness is the lack of beauty, but yes!! That makes so much sense. Because without beauty, we WOULDN’T know what ugliness was!
      Also, yes. Same. I don’t know if I got more cynical BECAUSE it made me feel smarter (though it definitely does that) or because life happened and I realized that actually, not all people are nice and there really is a LOT of ugliness in the world, but…yeah. Cynicism isn’t seeing clearly; it’s merely seeing with a different type of blinders. And ultimately, a worse kind of blinders, too. Because beauty IS more real than ugliness and love DOES conquer death in the end.
      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts too! I loved reading them.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Saraaaaaahhhhh I love this so.

    Your description of the “brave, honest book” (whose author might have a name like Faulkner *snickers*). So spot-on. “Sogginess” is a good word. And “This author has dared to strip away the trappings of our culture’s simplistic hero-story narrative” UGH I know that sentence and I hate it. My dear. I do wish I could make this post required reading for professors of literature in colleges everywhere. Like…sure, sometimes the conventional techniques we use to tell a story, to wrap up loose ends or portray character traits or give the audience a happy conclusion, is too neat and pretty to be expected in the conflict resolution of real life–but that’s not the POINT of a story and I’m pretty sure the audience *gets* that. The story with an utterly happy and satisfying ending has more important truths to tell than statistics about how many apologies, confessions of love, and delightful revelations are likely to be made in one afternoon.

    Just. Your whole point that gritty realism ISN’T REALISTIC rings so very, very true. Gritty realism does as much stripping-away as the happy stories are accused of doing, only it does it in the wrong direction. Isn’t there a bit in The Screwtape Letters where Screwtape tells Wormwood to use a double standard when it comes to “real life”? Like, when the man is happy eating cake tell him “that’s just a sentiment–the reality of digestion is uninspiring and even ugly,” and when the man is afraid of going off the high dive tell him his sentiment of fear is “the real thing”? And I know Chesterton agrees with you, too.

    Also the SNOBBISHNESS OF IT YES. There’s this heresy floating around that anyone who’s happy must be simpleminded or blind to the world’s problems and it’s like…no? Maybe, just maybe, this is a remarkably *brave* human being who’s *chosen* to laugh? Of course I’m just repeating what you said at this point because you said it SO WELL.

    Such a very lovely post. It made me grin so hard from beginning to end. Thank you very much for writing it. 🙂

    Like

    1. “statistics about how many apologies, confessions of love, and delightful revelations are likely to be made in one afternoon” – haha! I love that phrasing, and yes, EXACTLY. That’s the fiction part of fiction – the truth part isn’t the statistics kind of truth. In fact if you’re too rigid about statistical accuracy, the really important truth can end up escaping you. And, you know what Mark Twain said about statistics. 😉 (Though I don’t think that was exactly what he meant.)

      Yes! I remember that bit in Screwtape. C. S. Lewis was, as usual, spot on. And that is SO how we can fall into seeing the world, and it’s quite mistaken, and yet all the while we think we’re being so clever and realistic and nope. Just pessimistically inconsistent.

      Thank you! And thank you for this comment! It kinda made my day. ☺️

      Like

  4. Reminds me of when I read The Picture of Dorian Gray. Everything good, beautiful and innocent was ruined by the end of the book. It left a feeling of futility, but I knew that futility wasn’t an accurate portrayal of real life.
    Fitting that you close with a quote from the Anne books! The Anne books are full of happy things: families with many children, flowers in the garden, pie in the oven– and it all seemed closer to reality than the atmosphere in the Picture of Dorian Grey.

    I just finished reading Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen. I made me think of this post, especially when I read the ending: ” And there they both sat, grown up and yet children, children at heart. And it was summer– warm, beautiful summer.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “That futility wasn’t an accurate portrayal of real life.” Mm-hmm. And thank goodness it isn’t.
      I love the Anne books. ♥️ They’re not devoid of sad things, either, but the overall impression is still a happy one. I think that makes them a very good mirror of reality indeed.

      I JUST REREAD THE SNOW QUEEN MYSELF. I like it so much more than I did when I was younger. The ending is beautiful, and it makes me SO happy it made you think of this post.

      Like

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