Sobrina de Alguien unlisted
Translation: Roderic Day, Nia Frome

“And they lived unhappily ever after…”: A critique of the melancholy aesthetic (2021)

41 minutes | Art & Propaganda The Crew

 — 中国共产党

Ellos quieren fama, yo quiero ser rico
Ellos quieren ser pobres, yo quiero ser rico
Del barrio a Hollywood, como el perico
 — Yung Beef

On YouTube there are all these funny video compilations. Some are very specific and show nothing but people hurting themselves on slides or animals being clever. Others mix together everything anyone might consider funny: pranks, children being silly, failed acrobatics, etc. Most compilations last no longer than ten minutes, because almost every creator understands the limitations of the genre: with the umpteenth football to the head, it stops being funny.

But some make videos up to two hours long, and with very specific content. I like to imagine that they’re made on behalf of some state agency that uses them as part of a torture program, because the more plausible hypothesis is also the more disturbing one: that these content creators have an absolute optimism in the comedic potential of their material, and think that laughter grows in direct proportion with the length of the video. Is there a single person on earth who could and would watch a hundred faceplants and laugh with the same enthusiasm after each one? If they exist, they must be an odd character, perhaps someone who doesn’t know human emotions first-hand, but who instead tries to emulate them based on theories they read about.

In much contemporary literary fiction we can find the melancholic equivalent of these audiovisual concentrations of laughter and the people behind them: writers who string together, one after another, heaps of depressing scenes in the form of novels and short stories; readers who are militantly moved by every wave of misery without ever getting bored. The difference is that excess in funny videos is generally more restrained. First, because books demand at least two hours’ attention rather than at most. Second, because the creators of literary fiction work in a state of artistic inspiration, that is, convinced of the value of their craft, and thus prolong their writing even further than what is customary for the format.

Just as bombardment with funny images manages to desensitize us to the joke, quiet our laughter, and even push us towards melancholy, too many melancholic images should desensitize us to existential voids and everything “deep,” to the point that that any gesture meant to persuade us of their reality and importance should just make us smile. But this isn’t what usually happens with melancholy literary fiction. And I think it’s unusual for several reasons that I’ll try to lay out. The most immediate ones are, on the one hand, the idea of literature itself — which valorizes the book by inviting us to approach it with a solemn, expectant attitude, such rites and norms of consumption being traditionally associated with “high art” — and on the other, the particular quirks of book production.

Since the creation of YouTube videos costs less than the editing, printing, and distribution of a book, they don’t need to be aggressively promoted to recoup the original investment. It’s unnecessary to find a famous person to legitimate their existence with a foreword or a blurb. The creator of YouTube videos simply does whatever they want; the spectator judges it however they want; and all the expressions of admiration and distaste that the content provokes coexist, out in the open, in the comments section.

It would be fun if works of literary fiction also ran the democratic risk of including unflattering opinions that tempered the art consumer’s tendency towards devotion: “Timmy loves this book and found it electrifying, but Jimmy said it was stupid and he wouldn’t recommend it even perversely to his worst enemy to waste their time.” Negative publicity could even work, given a certain audience, but it would dissuade those who already expect a guarantee of the book’s intelligence and sensitivity in exchange for their money. Thus, one way or another, for economic reasons, the producers of fiction find themselves not only unable to counter the tendency to sacralize authors, but instead having to stoke it, and create it wherever it doesn’t already exist. To this end they deploy the legitimizing power of overblown adjectives on book jackets or dust covers, anything to cow the would-be reader into reaching for their wallets.

In short, the seriousness inherent to the book-object — the result of the value-adding processes that comprise its production, the notion of literary art, and that thing between blackmail and seduction we call paratext — together with the fact that any reader wants to feel good about how much they let the book publisher take them for, exert a pressure that oblige us to review the books we’ve paid for positively. They bias us in their favor, leaving a dumb grin of religious awe plastered on our faces that doesn’t come off despite even the most saccharine excesses of melancholy, and which furthermore stifles criticism, that criticism that so readily abounds in the case of free content without official endorsement.

Now there are also non-immediate reasons for the popularity of melacholy literary fiction and our strange docility in the face of it. Or perhaps it would be better to say there is one reason, expressed in different domains of human activity. I’ll cover it as quickly as I can in aesthetic, philosophical, political and economic terms, more or less at the same time, with a story about heroes, dragons, capitalism, and communist parties.

Most of us know stories that end with “…and they got married and lived happily ever after.” We know that that supreme happiness is attained through a heterosexual marriage; a marriage that comes about after an able-bodied white man of noble birth demonstrates his heroism in a conflict; a conflict that, more often than not, consists in killing racialized, queer-coded or disabled villains, in order to rescue an incompetent woman who’s been somehow victimized. This formula, with some variations, is the norm even today due to its political utility. This is because, with a single stroke, it legitimizes straight white men as the rightful bearers of political power — represented by their weapons — and the rest of the world as subject to that power, whether as obstacles to be eliminated, as is usually the case with monsters, or as a bounty to be claimed, as is the case with women. What’s more, this story advances, as the ultimate goal worth aspiring to, the nuclear family, an institution that is necessary for the reproduction of a particular division of labor, rights, and resources, which in turn produces the kind of subjectivities that tend to organize themselves into nuclear families.

In the last few centuries, the productive revolution effected by capitalism, combined with the struggles of the oppressed masses against it, made it so that rich white men ceased to be the only ones who received education and a public platform. In literature, many women demonstrated their competence, writing texts about how unhappy they were with their not-remotely-heroic husbands, which dealt a serious blow to the old myth. For their part, racialized people took to representing themselves as human beings who deserved to live. Queer people wrote about their own lives orbiting around centers of gravity other than marriage and the nuclear family. In short, everyone showed themselves aspiring to very different roles than those the division of labor had previously assigned to them. Thus the old hero began to see characters and plotlines slip away from his story.

In the beginning, these new narratives still didn’t have clearly established themes or structures. They were an exploration, a feverish combination of the different characters, themes, goals, and values that had previously been ignored, or that were just now being born. Authors from all walks of life took aim at aristocratic pretension. They gleefully desecrated everything the old hero found beautiful, interesting, or sacred, in a great carnival of rage and avenging joy. From an emphasis on negating or subverting components of the old story, all kinds of new stable types in narrative construction began to emerge — for example, stories concerned with the happiness of the monster, or in which women were the heroes. Nevertheless, it was important to be careful with the use of negation, because the project of subverting everything can very easily become the project of affirming the same as before but in other words, as with the phrase heads, I win; tails, you lose.

Let me explain. The fairy tale was, deep down, a diplomatic way for the ruling class to convey orders and threats. On the one hand it told us “Only the straight, white, well-bred, able-bodied man knows how to act with both violence and justice; therefore only he has the right to rule the world,” and on the other, “We will never let anyone who doesn’t participate in heterosexual marriage be happy.” If we negate every element in these decrees, that is, if we show non-white, non-rich, non-men, disabled, non-heterosexual, non-heroic characters not getting married and not being happy, we end up with, not a subversion, but a reaffirmation of this old narrative, seen from the opposite point of view, telling the part of the story that was up until then told only implicitly: the unsuitability for politics of anyone besides the traditional hero and the unhappiness of all who stray from the straight and narrow of the nuclear family. This unfortunate sequence of negations ends up working in favor of the status quo, because it gives flexibility to its promise to deal out impotence, insignificance, and suffering to whoever dares step outside their assigned role; it inadvertently ends up giving even more credibility to the threat that only rich/white men can wield the sword, and that only when cis men marry cis women can we speak of heroes and happy endings.

We fell into this absurdity when a supposedly radical critique of the of the old hero’s story became more important than the radical transformation of dominant economic relations. In other words, overcoming the old hero in our minds and refusing to see the world through his eyes displaced the project of overcoming the old hero and his bourgeois successor outside of our minds, by means of a revolution that would expropriate them and transform the production and distribution of resources. On this topic it suffices to make a few observations.

First: the inversion of priorities made it so that the principal targets of critique were certain categories the story employed: good, evil, truth, happiness, and heroism. I’ll focus on the last two for now.

Second: in general terms, happiness is the name that can be given to a state that is preferable to other states. It really wasn’t invented by the old hero — it doesn’t belong to anyone. It is a collective creation whose particular content varies as a function of the circumstances of the group or individual in question. The same applies to heroism, which can be understood not only as an exaltation of the war of conquest, but also more generally as the overcoming of obstacles by anyone in search of their own particular happiness. Rejecting happiness or heroism as such, abstractly, and considering them works of the old hero, is equivalent to seeing him as a genius demiurge who, without anyone’s help, is able to give shape to the world. It is to see him as he sees himself. Although the critique of happiness and heroism were intended to be a critique of the Eurocentric and androcentric values of the old hero, they are in fact a manifestation of said values.

Third (and this is a practical criticism made by Marx in The German Ideology): to really overcome the happiness, heroism, or philosophy of a concrete social actor it is not sufficient to attack them on the basis of language, that is, using as weapons the desire to leave their perspective behind and skepticism about words they like. It is necessary to transform the whole world, that is, the institutional and economic reality on which said happiness and heroism find their basis. Only then does it become possible, in the long term, for the concepts and categorizations of the actor in question to become obsolete.

Fourth: that skepticism towards happiness and heroism does not affect in the slightest the status of traditionally powerful people does not mean that it is harmless to everyone else. This is because abandoning these ideas makes us lose the ability to imagine a future economy capable of satisfying our needs, meaning we also lose the ability to work on its construction. This renunciation turns out to be as convenient for the old hero as it is for his bourgeois successor, because the concrete happiness of both is achieved at the expense of the welfare of the masses who are destined to servitude and exploitation. If the masses don’t have any plans or expectations around which to orient their efforts and their disappointment, if they don’t have their own ideals as fuel and guide for their struggle but instead make peace with misery, they are practically guaranteed to accept an order in which the norm is sadness at being crushed under the heel of the ruling class.

This method of processing the legacy of the old hero contributed to the stultification and aesthetic fossilization of the new narratives. Thus was born the literary school of “…and they ate shit forever after,” the fairy tale’s evil twin, just as imaginative and liberating as its happily married sibling, just as subtle as a funny video compilation on YouTube. One of the things that these literary gems all have in common is the hostility towards contrast, or, rather, a parasitic and instrumentalizing relationship with contrast, which is only ever used to highlight the emotion that is the true protagonist. The funny video admits preambles only if they aren’t too long, only insofar as they serve as a springboard for the punchline. Likewise, the melancholy book allows for minor bouts of happiness, but only because from the peaks of these small joys the characters can be pushed into the abyss: for them to get sick, they must first be healthy. For them to become lonely, they must first have company, etc. With the systematic accumulation of descents into worse states it becomes evident that victories are relevant to the narrative only as setups for a subsequent defeat. Which means the possibility of dramatic tension and the characters’ freedom is lost too, because no matter what their actions are, we know that later on they’ll be struck with misfortune, just like the people in a funny video compilation inevitably get pranked. This negation of their freedom has another consequence: the characters don’t really matter to the plot. Although it may seem like we’re being told their stories, what’s fundamental is to show off the destructive force before which they are the impotent object. This is why I don’t think it’s correct to speak of narrative. In narrative there are interrelated subjects who find themselves in conflict. Diverse emotions name or mediate the relationships between them, but they don’t absolutely define them. In melancholy books, however, sadness is irreducible. It’s not in a process of transformation or at risk of death. In fact it possesses no human characteristics at all, but instead exists as an invisible force that rules the universe, something unnamed but ever-present and omnipotent, a god. Therefore, I think that melancholy books are better described as tribute or prayers for the god of melancholy. It’s true that they’re easily confused with narrative because they borrow its elements, such as anthropomorphic characters and the spatial-temporal dimension. But deep down they’re closer to a religious rite, a kind of sacrifice that consists in ritually torturing a set of defenseless fictional characters, whose destruction constitutes an offering for the most high.

A consequence of this is that depictions of happiness become blasphemy. The melancholy narrator can describe a gang rape without blushing, but suffers bouts of Victorian shame as soon as they show anything unequivocally cheerful. That naked emotion seems obscene, so it’s covered up with sad motifs in an effort to make it properly pious and presentable. The melancholy narrator isn’t interested in things that don’t flatter their god. And unless they’re a competent liar, they can’t even feign interest. So what gives them away is that the pacing of the text accelerates when something in the story is pleasant or working well: their prose gallops at full speed past friendship, love, tenderness, kittens, or anything else that makes life worth living, to arrive as soon as possible at the moment of heartbreak, betrayal, the knife-thrust, and the dead cat on the road, moments in which the narrative slows to a crawl, and the author finds it necessary to describe even the cobblestones, or else end the story, leaving us well and properly depressed.

This narrator talks about the weather only if doing so somehow deepens the feeling of sadness: winter, rain, fog, or night. Because of their predominantly Nietzschean philosophical heritage, they fetishize domination and misanthropy, defining them as the main or only way people relate to each other. They love to construct scenes in which characters barely speak; if they do speak, they don’t understand each other; if they understand each other, it’s because they’re hurting each other. Through some negative comment they can make even things that seem insusceptible to sadness thoroughly depressing. For example, when they describe someone’s clothes, they’ll mention holes and stains, but omit any reference to how fabulous its pattern looks or how soft it feels. If a place is next to the pharmacy and far from the ocean, the narrator will tell us the latter. They describe a plant only if it’s withered. They mention a door only if it’s closed. They show us the inside of the fridge only if it’s empty. They mention a call only if no one answers. Anything that can be expressed negatively will be expressed negatively. The glass has to be half-empty. Better yet if it’s not my glass, but my neighbor’s. Better yet if later, when I get drunk thinking of a long-lost love, the glass gets smashed, since the neighbor will come over to beat me up… and everything would be horrible!

Since this aesthetic allows narratives to advance only in the direction of sadness and squalor, when an author wants to distinguish themselves they have to do so by “going further” along that same path, that is, subjecting their characters to more intense and exotic forms of suffering. Since the only direction they can evolve in is downwards, they tend to become parodies of themselves, things trying to get your attention by flailing around in a puddle of tears and blood. My hypothesis is that we’ve already reached that moment of decadence and dialectical negation at which melancholy and darkness become more amusing the harder they try to be taken seriously.

Now no one in particular is responsible for this silliness, although each person’s circumstances compel them to make a small contribution. Some turned away from happiness out of exhaustion, since hoping and working for something better demands great effort, and one can experience certain relief just by imagining that a situation of submission is inevitable or even fun. Others did it under the influence of the economic pressures they faced as writers, since in order to achieve recognition in the bourgeois literary world it is necessary to pay tribute to certain aesthetic values and not others, and hope is not one of the chosen few. But, in the final analysis, resignation to sadness obeys a more basic calculation, whose irony must not be overlooked: the fear of sadness outside the pages of the book, of darkness, of death, of all those unhappy places we’d have to go through if we took our revolutionary desires seriously. At the end of the day, being happy costs money. And rich white men, however goofily they’re portrayed, defend their hoards of gold as jealously as dragons.

All of this, which may seem absurd in the rarefied fields of philosophy and literature, becomes perfectly logical when looked at in terms of our common history. Thus we’ll now explore melancholy as a product, a technology, something that is, at one and the same time, a weapon in the class struggle and the terrain on which that struggle is waged, whose value and function is always in dispute.

In the humanities, happiness’s fall into disrepute goes by the name “the failure of the Enlightenment project.” This phrase, used often and always taken very seriously, captures the disappointment of a world that once believed in the promise of liberté, egalité, et fraternité that the European bourgeoisie made to the world in their struggle against the aristocracy, at the same time that it shackled, massacred, and impoverished the peoples of other continents. There were two ways to process the trauma resulting from this betrayal: the first consisted in questioning the interests and the ability of the bourgeoisie to provide equality, taking into account that they were now the owners of just about everything, and deciding that only the dispossessed workers could and would be able to carry out the redistributive part of the Enlightenment, which at the end of the day was a necessary precondition to making good on liberty and fraternity. The other path was to decree that the construction of an egalitarian world was simply impossible: the pizza is naturally and eternally blocked from being cut up and shared equally. Thus anyone who promised equality was doing the same thing as the bourgeoisie, especially if they had ever themselves been shackled. Obviously, the second path was better for business. Therefore it got all the attention in history books and mass media in our capitalist world.

The dispossessed had nothing to gain in letting themselves be persuaded by such idiocy. And they didn’t. Wherever they were able to find a way, they took political power for themselves, inspired by communist ideals. For some reason various spectators and participants in these revolutionary processes imagined that the transition to communism was as easy and nice as a picnic, something that could be completed without setbacks or capitulations in fewer than a hundred years, carried out by people who were not only able, but obligated, to make balanced and morally exemplary decisions at all times, even under maddening pressures like the invasion of fourteen foreign armies in the Soviet Union’s first year of existence, a Nazi invasion, espionage, and permanent economic sabotage. As soon as these respectable ladies and gentlemen saw that blood, paranoia, errors, and defeat were part of the process of birthing a new world, they grew pale and opted for the second path. Unfortunately for the masses, these fair-weather friends were given a much larger platform in literature and mass media. With their help, disillusionment with the Enlightenment project was dressed up in red: intellectuals now began to speak of “the failure of communism.” They did so with pain if they were members of the working class, but with smug satisfaction if they were white boys whose parents owned multinational corporations. The latter in particular took it upon themselves to school us on the dangers of trying to change our economic model. They insisted that the errors and fall of the Soviet Union should not be understood as the errors and fall of the Soviet Union, but instead as the death by natural causes of socialism itself (as if the most economically powerful country in the world today wasn’t led by a Marxist-Leninist party!). They also said this was probably all for the best since, after all, any attempt to purposefully improve the quality of life of the majority inevitably turned out worse than the status quo of death by poverty. To intimidate us, they showered books like The Gulag Archipelago and 1984 with critical acclaim. They talked about Soviet prisons but never about the Soviet elimination of homelessness, hunger, or unemployment, the establishment of free healthcare, a guaranteed month of paid vacations, women’s suffrage, and a long etc. They turned communist revolutionaries from around the world into demons, with the goal of buying everyone else’s silent complicity in their extermination. In the end, after doing the same song and dance so many times, they managed to make people feel guilty, even stupid, for having ever aspired to a better world, for having believed that the masses could organize the economy and direct national policy better than a handful of millionaires.

Obviously, upon no longer believing in the reality of a future where poverty and inequality didn’t exist, where human beings could relate to each other amicably, many people fell into a state of deep despair, an insuperable lamentation owing to the prospect of insuperable agony. Literature became very sad.

Nevertheless, there are important differences between forms of sadness, which correspond to authors’ class positions, and the functions those different forms of sadness serve. There’s a melancholy that could, so to speak, be a card-carrying member of the Party, and another that would end up in the gulag. The first form of sadness is caused by marginalization — it’s a real sadness, but it wants to die as soon as possible, together with its cause. It’s similar to the physical pain of an illness. Because it wants to die, it teaches us how to kill it by pointing us towards its past — its causes — and urging us to march towards the future, towards the moment when, with the help of an adequate understanding of the problem and a certain kind of conscious political and economic activity, we can do away with it. This is the melancholy of socialist realism, of the blues, of some rap and even some trap (although not so much). If we compressed it into a single sentence, it would look like this: “I am sad because [insert cause here].” In an utterance like this there are many signs of hope: the feeling of sadness is not all that exists. It appears as a passing phase, as an adjective. The subject and its predicates are the main thing. These predicates are contingent and causally related in the context of an act of reflection: thinking about the why of things. Since there’s a verb, there’s also time. And where there is time, there is the possibility of change. So this phrase, though melancholy, is full of optimism, because it includes the necessary ingredients to think a transformation of the states it names, without which the idea of change would not be possible.

The melancholy of the elites, by contrast, is not caused by the experience of poverty. It’s a defense mechanism they use in their struggle against the struggle of the poor against poverty. In other words, it’s a way to demoralize the world that is trying to rouse itself to struggle against its own exploitation. Thus it’s a melancholy that is not oriented towards its own disappearance, but instead towards the destruction of the optimistic attitude of the poor who are fighting to take control of the economy. This melancholy wants to reproduce and expand until it occupies all the lebensraum of discourse. This explains why its first priority is to install itself as a sacred aesthetic experience in art. It gains independence from its cause and becomes an end in itself. To guarantee that it can never be killed, it’s fetishized and presented as that which is most natural in human nature. It hides its origin rather than pointing us towards it. Thus, if it were an utterance, it would look like this: “SADNESS.” Now this is a despairing and despair-inducing phrase. In it we can’t do anything like understand or resolve sadness, because there’s no subject, object, verb, time, or space in which to think and act against its causes. Every ingredient needed for transformation is missing. Sadness is the one and only, the eternal. That’s what the form of sadness proposed by the rich is: expansive, inscrutable, an enemy of time, especially of the future, because the very existence of an “after” threatens it with annihilation. So in a story, where time is law, this sadness eludes its expiration by portraying time as a flat circle, and affirming that any seeming retreat of sadness is only a temporary respite from the infinite return of the same. In other words, since it can’t really be omnipresent, elitist melancholy contents itself with eternal recurrence, which from a formal standpoint helps its case, since an “I’ll be back” is more believable than an “I am always.”

It is also a melancholy marked by the envy that the rich feel towards the symbolic place currently occupied by the marginalized, owing to the relative triumph of humanist values in popular consciousness. Although many rich people are comfortable playing the villain, others would prefer be seen again as the spitting image of justice, or at least that people weren’t so eager to dehumanize them. So they go out of their way to humanize themselves, telling us of their hurt, telling us stories that generate quick and easy pity, like the death of a family member, illness, or how hard their lives are despite overflowing bank accounts, to see if maybe that can prevent the people from turning against them and coming after their estates. Sometimes they even dress up as poor people or immigrants, something they do partly out of a morbid curiosity to see “what it feels like to be marginal.” But even in those moments their economic interests come first, because they don’t flatteringly imitate the kind of poor people who make revolutions and nationalize industries, but instead “the working poor,” the picturesque poor, those who are beautifully and peacefully poor. Bourgeois melancholy thus distinguishes itself by the fact that it is at once overwhelming, irrational, and prostrate.

From the point of view of those who currently hoard the resources we all produce, it’s preferable that the rest of us are afflicted by that all-caps sadness, lying in bed, privately mulling over our disappointment at not being able to share resources equitably, instead of being outside organizing to achieve an equitable sharing of resources. Melancholy literature is so useful because it works as an ad campaign for the political project of never trying to overcome anything through collective struggle. What’s more, as an aesthetic exaltation of disillusionment in general, it allows anticommunists to promote in a distanced, comfortable, and undetectable way the specific kind of disillusionment they’re interested in: disillusionment with the belief that we can control and shape the economy.

Perhaps melancholy authors aren’t trying to get us to resign ourselves in this way or in any other. Maybe they believe that rotting away from loneliness and impotence is the most beautiful and interesting thing in the world, and this is why they don’t write about anything else. But whatever awareness they have of their own work is unimportant. What matters is the effect that being permanently submerged in melancholy has on readers. And not only on their politics, but also on their interpersonal relationships. Because a person who sees everything through a fatalist lens starts to turn into a sad, squishy thing: one day they burst into tears because communicating with others is too complicated. The next it seems impossible to have healthy and long-lasting relationships. Next they lose faith in their ability to learn greater consideration, so they continue to be inconsiderate, lose whatever relationships they still had, and proceed to congratulate themselves for at least being right about people. Then they stop believing in friendship. They stop using the little leisure time they have to learn new things. They don’t try to understand anything, because at the end of the day everything is just a cheap ruse to manipulate us, right? That gesture becomes more and more automatic, until even easy things become impossible as soon as we look at them. Logically, if everything is impossible, then trying is stupid — an antiquated or perverse affectation of wannabe heroism. And if trying is stupid, an easy way to show that I’m brilliant is by making a big deal of just how little I try, broadcasting to the world the enormity of my apathy as well as how quickly I arrived at it: You’re thirty years old and don’t believe in revolution? That’s nothing, by fifteen I had already given up on using stepstools to try and reach things that were up high!

When I find nothing but melancholy books on the shelves of bookstores I feel like one of those prisoners being tortured with funny video compilations, only with melancholy. I’m tired of being sold despair; I want to give my hope a fighting chance against all these assaults. So this essay is, in part, a revenge, hopefully not a tunnel I dug alone with a spoon, but more like another cry added to the prison riot against the cult of defeat. It’s also therapeutic, since I’m a reader trying to recover from the chronic despair I caught from reading so many despairing authors. It is, so to speak, my disillusionment in the final moment of its dialectic, disillusionment with disillusionment, laughter and dance in the form of criticism. It’s also proof of my rejection of the injunction to write despairingly, the norm that comes from banishing hope and revolutionary politics from art: once we lose the ability to openly demand the end of particular forms of human suffering, all that’s left to us are passive complaints and pretty pictures of that suffering. What’s more, it’s a demand to respect people’s real pain, because many melancholy types, in search of contemporary themes for their lamentations, choose to make entertainment out of the pain of others while shielding their work from censure by claiming to “denounce” or “deconstruct”. With the excuse of giving poverty or violence or racism “visibility,” they squeeze all three to the point that they’re no longer realities in need of abolishing, but aesthetic experiences to be explored in ever more creative ways, so that the white and the rich can entertain themselves by speaking on behalf of the dark-skinned and the poor, to see how strange it must feel. This doesn’t sensitize anyone. On the contrary, it hardens people. It leads them to normalize the pain of others, to cheapen it, to even enjoy it when it’s beautifully displayed. This essay is also a protest against cliché and a demand for aesthetic innovation. I want to find literary fiction interesting again, instead of being able to predict every move in advance, between yawns.

Lastly, it’s a challenge to those who write or are thinking about writing sad stories, whether in literary fiction, in political theory, or in any other genre. These people would do well to reconsider who they’re writing for, to what end, and what effects their writing actually has, on others and on their own creative possibilities. Because capitulating to the norm of disillusionment produces writers with stunted and mediocre imaginations, without interesting opinions, without the courage and the capacity to discover poetry in things that haven’t already been declared poetic. As they can’t innovate by looking forward, they have to fill new cups with old wine, presenting as avant-garde a regression to some antiquated paradigm like nihilism or stoicism. Whoever wins acclaim by selling lamentations becomes economically dependent on disillusionment, and therefore its political partisan. To be taken seriously, to receive contracts and win prizes, they need the world to be sad, to want to be sad, and to see beauty and value in both things, because in a hopeful world these lamentations wouldn’t sell. So they have to bet on presentism or nostalgia, and make enemies of the futurist aesthetics where optimism predominates. This makes it so that, in the face of hope, they act like the sexist stereotype of an experienced secretary who, in fear of her replacement, spreads rumors about the new girl. Where is the poetry in that jealousy? What can be beautiful about actively depressing consumers for a living?

I implore writers in particular to escape the grip of triviality and give themselves the opportunity to mean something going forward; to stop repeating the same bland images and syntax; to, instead of worshipping melancholy, learn to do something they still don’t know how to do: tell stories worth their readers’ time. These could be fun stories that accompany us in our everyday lives, stories that help us to be kinder and see things a different way, or, perhaps, stories so aesthetically ambitious that they don’t content themselves with being art at all, and instead break the boundaries of art as we know it, leaping out of the pages into life as the future we’re building.