If you’re an avid reader and you like people, selling books is not hard. It’s not as if you’re trying to sell a complicated computer system to a business, or cold-calling strangers with a two-for-one deal on burial plots. You’re chatting with nice people about books, and — most of the time — what could be more fun than that?
Several kinds of customers come into bookstores. When browsers wander in, they make it clear that they do not want or need any help. The bookseller’s job is to keep an eye on those people because sooner or later they actually do want help and often get annoyed if you don’t intuit this immediately. Other people come in with a purpose. Some of them need a specific book — the Real ACT Guide, or their book club selection (about which they have very little information, such as the title or author), or a London guidebook. These are both the easiest and the most difficult customers — either you pull the desired book off the shelf and hand it over, with a satisfied customer leaving in less than five minutes — or you waste a good chunk of your time on the computer trying to figure out which translation of the Odyssey the high school is using, and which warehouse has stock.
“What’s the hot new book?”
The customers who are the most fun are the ones who want recommendations:
“Something funny for my third grader who hates to read . .. he’s already read all the Wimpy Kid books.”
“A page-turner for a long plane flight.”
“A mystery . . . well, maybe a thriller . . . for my father, who’s recovering from hip surgery.”
“Something brand new for my girlfriend’s birthday — she’s read everything and she loves historical fiction.”
“My mom loves a little romance but nothing too racy, please — no Fifty Shades of Gray.”
“I just need a really, really good book.”
“No war, no dysfunctional families!”
As much as I enjoy talking with customers — discussing favorites and not so favorites, recommending undiscovered gems, and sharing ideas about book club picks — I dread one conversation that regularly repeats itself. I call it the Depressing Books conversation. A customer, usually female, asks me to suggest books for her book group. I ask her what the group has read recently, and whether these choices inspired good discussions. She starts to tell me, and then exclaims, “But they were all so DEPRESSING! Can you suggest a happy book? Doesn’t anyone write happy books anymore?” One customer gave me a list of taboo topics, which included war, illness, death, and unhappy families.
I’ve heard this question, or a variation of it, countless times — and I still don’t have a good answer. Often I answer the question with a question: “What do you mean by ‘depressing’”? It seems that what many readers want are books about likable people who have good things happen to them. If some not-so-good things happen, they shouldn’t be too bad, and in any case everything should turn out all right in the end. I talk about conflict, and drama, and how these are elements of good storytelling. As Deborah Triesman, fiction editor of the New Yorker, says, “Happiness is static, and fiction has to move.”
I’ve been trying to compile my own list of books that are non-depressing, yet meaty. Every once in a while, I’ll read a book — most recently it was the marvelous Small Blessings, by Martha Woodroof — that I think is a perfect for this list, only to have my bubble burst when someone points out a “depressing” plot element in my happy book. Guess what? There is almost no way to write a compelling story without including some of life’s unpleasantness. Aspiring authors, take note: there is a huge market for books the reading public perceives as “happy” and uplifting. The trick is to write one that’s not too saccharine. (Also, please bear in mind that the parents of middle-grade reluctant readers — who are mostly male — need MORE FUNNY BOOKS. Fart jokes are OK.)
I recently discovered a website called Positively Good Reads (“feel-good fiction with substance: an upbeat reading list for people who often find serious novels depressing”) which includes a list of books that make the site’s creator feel “hopeful about humankind”. It’s an odd list, weighted heavily in favor of classics that most people already know about (Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, A Room With a View, To Kill a Mockingbird), many of which are packed with upsetting topics.
Why do readers so often use the vague and negative term “depressing” to describe contemporary novels? Oprah’s Book Club selections seem to elicit special scorn. Oprah Winfrey did an amazing thing back in 1996 when she launched her monthly book club. For 15 years, she shared her love of reading and promoted her favorite books (many by relatively unknown authors). Many highbrow critics scoffed at Oprah’s Book Club; Scott Stossel, an editor at the Atlantic, said: “There is something so relentlessly therapeutic, so consciously self-improving about the book club that it seems antithetical to discussions of serious literature. Literature should disturb the mind and derange the senses; it can be palliative, but it is not meant to be the easy, soothing one that Oprah would make it.”
If Stossel was interested in the opinions of everyday readers — which I doubt — he should have spent some time talking with my bookstore’s customers. Many of them found Oprah’s selections far from “easy” and “soothing” and were quick to dismiss her choices as “downers”. In an article in The Oprah Affect, a collection of scholarly essays about Oprah’s Book Club, R. Mark Hall says Oprah was “often chided by Book Club participants for choosing stories her readers find grim or even depressing.”
Cynthia Crossen, who wrote the “Dear Book Lover” column in the Wall Street Journal for several years, received a request from a book club for a list of “recent releases that are uplifting and joyful to read, yet also stimulating—something that would satisfy our intellectual needs but also make us feel good about the world.” She didn’t have many suggestions, citing the theory of Daniel Gilbert (author of a nonfiction book about what the very word happy actually means, Stumbling on Happiness) that “people are generally poor prognosticators of what will make them happy” and noting that “the same may be true of predicting books that will leave the reader feeling uplifted and joyful.” Maybe another reason she had few recommendations is that she’s not the kind of reader looking for cheerful books, as evidenced by her rave review of Hanya Yanigihara’s dark and disturbing novel, A Little Life, which she calls “one of the most compelling, original, and moving novels I have ever read.”
Compelling. Original. Moving. Those are the three of the four qualities I look for most in a book, fiction or nonfiction. (I’d add “beautifully written” to the list.) I’m not expecting a book to make me feel good about the world, although sometimes that’s nice. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry gave me a warm fuzzy feeling, although I’ve talked to several people who thought the book was sad and that A.J. was unlikable. The only books that make me feel depressed are books I wish I hadn’t invested time in reading, because I didn’t gain any knowledge or emotional insight from them and the only feelings they evoked were negative. I picked up You, a thriller by Caroline Kepnes, because the main character was a bookstore employee. Turns out he was a psychopath who stalked a woman and then locked her in a torture chamber he’d built in the basement of his bookstore. The plot of this creepy book was filled with holes, and the characters were uninteresting — I didn’t even care about the victim. I hate to use the dreaded word, but this book was just plain . . . depressing.