Against conflict in literature

I am principally opposed to the notion that “good” films and literature should be about miserable childhoods, oppressive regimes, and death and suffering. When I took my creative writing classes back at Stockholm University many years ago we had to write a little programmatic declaration on our philosophy of writing to go with our stories. Mine went something like this: I want to read about happy people who say interesting things and are nice to each other. It is a myth that “conflict” is necessary. I read a writing handbook once which said: Suppose you are in a restaurant and on one side of you are a happy couple and on the other a couple who are arguing---who would you eavesdrop on? The writing book claims that of course you will chose to eavesdrop on the quarrelling couple, and so we should all write books packed with conflict. But I beg to differ. I for one would listen to the happy couple. I mean, the question can be rephrased thus: suppose you have suffered through a bad brake-up and been on a perfect date---which memory would you rather play back in your mind? How easy life would be if we preferred misery! And how easy to be a writer of misery. Bad brake-ups happen every day and without effort; if you have an off day with no inspiration and a headache then you can still break up with someone. But a perfect date is a rare thing that takes real effort and inspiration and imagination. That is why bad authors are so afraid of it.

A parable, if I may. I like love stories like this the way I like a good preface. How nice it is to read a good preface---to see your thoughts on what book ought to be written put on paper as if by telepathy---starting, perhaps, with a sharp snub of the status quo, followed by a vision and a promise as dense with passion as its brevity allows. Then you turn the page, your hand trembling with anticipation of finally seeing realised that elusive dream that you always felt was there but which you could never quite reach out and grab. You are tempted, in fact, to stop at this point; to marvel at the perfection of this gate to utopia and the rare feeling of camaraderie on an otherwise arduous and lonely path. But eventually you must turn the page, for vision is one thing and substance is another, and if we do not push on and pursue the latter then the former loses its meaning, no matter how pleasant it may be to dwell upon.

Such is the charm of the preface, and such is the charm of the only kind of love ever caught on the written page. It is, by its very nature, a promise of something; not an end in itself. This is well understood in the case of books, and here the parallel breaks down. There are more good prefaces than there are good books, and we all cast aside, albeit reluctantly, a book where substance is wanting, like a once-exciting lover who did not do justice to her superficial charms. But it is different with love stories. Here, for some reason, it is considered good form to kill everyone by the end of the preface to prevent the book from even starting. One wonders whether the very concept of duelling was not invented by such novelists to keep their preface-writing business running smoothly.