When you need upbeat fiction

When my book group chose its next novel, someone suggested Albert Camus’s The Plague for its current relevance. The rest of us wanted something less depressing in the present circumstances, so we’re reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.

Wanting something less depressing is nothing new for me. Back in the 1990s, I realized that many of the novels I was reading left me deflated. I started to look for more hopeful literature with relatable characters who face challenges and come out better.

A friend suggested that other people might also be looking for such a reading list. And so I put my list online, creating the website Positively Good Reads. The no-frills site has grown to list more than 250 recommended novels, with a brief description of each to help others judge whether they want to read it.

Obviously I couldn’t have anticipated a pandemic, but since Positively Good Reads is intended to counteract dejection, this seems a suitable time to blog about it.

Over the years a few people who found the site emailed to let me know that they too crave what I labeled “feel-good fiction with substance.” From Tracie: “It’s a pet peeve of mine how hard it is to find quality books that don’t make you want to open a vein.” Amanda: “I am glad to have found your reading list! I love to read fiction but find that grim stories depress me sometimes for days after finishing.” Cyndi: “This is exactly what I need. I’ve been having panic attacks . . . I love books but have had a hard time finding one that doesn’t upset me during this difficult time.”

I’ve also been criticized for not accepting the reality that life is a b____. Somehow upbeat fiction became equated with escapist genres. “Literary fiction,” said a website I came across as I was searching for upbeat titles, “rarely has a happy ending.”

“When did this become literary dogma?” I wrote on the home page. Shakespeare could be plenty gloomy. But he also wrote comedies. Great literature and happy endings aren’t incompatible in Jane Austen.

Besides, it wasn’t necessarily a happy ending that I sought. As I explained on the site, I’m not looking for novels without moral dilemmas, loss, struggle, and conflict; I’m looking for novels that leave me feeling that there’s reason to go on living. Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead, the heartfelt reflections a sickly minister writes to his young son, was offered as an example. It’s a book readers might decide to return to as spiritual reading, not just as a novel.

Books with tragedy and death, like Ernest Gaines’s account of an ex-slave’s life, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, made the cut because of an inspiring protagonist. Heroic characters aren’t required, however. Kent Haruf’s Eventide is full of deeply flawed humans, but theirs is a community where people care for one another. A melancholy tone doesn’t disqualify Barbara Pym’s portrait of aging coworkers, Quartet in Autumn, which ends with faith in the possibility of change at any age.

It’s sometimes hard to draw the line between sad-but-ultimately-uplifting and depressing. Each reader has a different threshold of too depressing. There are books in the “recommended” category that some people no doubt would put under “some may not find these upbeat.”

If you look at Positively Good Reads for a book recommendation, please excuse its plain-text appearance. Since it is a site for people who love words, I never got around to adding images.

* * * * *


Everyone’s talking about a return to normalcy. Whatever happened to normality?

The website Grammarist says that the two words have the same meaning, although many English authorities consider normality the better usage. Quora, on the other hand, says that there is a slight difference in meaning, with normalcy meaning a usual condition and normality meaning within the range of normal. DailyWriting makes the point that since there is no abnormalcy in standard English, one would need to use normality in a contrast with abnormality.

Although normalcy has been popular for a century — since Warren G. Harding’s presidential campaign slogan of 1920, “Return to Normalcy” — I can’t recall ever using it. And although by Quora’s definition it’s the proper word for what we hope to return to in 2020, it’s not likely to be part of my normal speech.

* * * * *


“[T]o encourage people to go protest the plans that you just made recommendations on, it just doesn’t make any sense. We’re sending completely conflicting messages out to the governors and to the people, as if we should ignore federal policy and federal recommendations.”
— Maryland Republican Gov. Larry Hogan

Leave a comment