Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Look on the Dark Side of Life

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Deserved or otherwise, one persistent stereotype of the (usually male) writer is the image of the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, misanthrope, holed up in some dingy apartment hunched over a grimy Underwood. Like engineers with pocket pens and bankers in three-piece suits, the image of the rumpled scribbler dies hard: the perpetual loner, recluse or outsider, suspicious and cynical about the world—the writer as eternal pessimist, the jaundiced observer of life.

While I rarely drink, have never smoked and prefer to work in pleasant surroundings, I am still seduced by one part of the great cliché: the writer as defensive pessimist (to use the trendy terminology of pop psychologist). I will even stick my neck out and say that without a healthy dose of pessimism, many of us writers would morph into publicists.

In my dyspeptic view, we live in an age of coercive optimism. It is the unquestioned default setting of the branded age. Business studies tell us that optimism ensures success through improved communication, happier clients and more efficient and collegial workers. Shielded behind the ubiquitous happy face, we hide our true selves, ever diligent in our quest for consensus, desperate to find the “win-win” and anxious to secure that next contract or elusive promotion.

We are told that a successful, competitive society is no place for whiners (i.e., cynics and critics) or those with the temerity to want a living wage and benefits. You’ll get nowhere being critical. Just look what happened to Socrates! Smile! Tell us something amusing. Entertain us. Distract us. Help us ignore the nightly news. After all, a thousand reality shows can’t be wrong.

Why should optimism be favoured over strategy? If our ancestors had greeted that lunging sabre tooth tiger as an oversized house pet, would any of us be here today?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating we should be suspicious and nasty or start unleashing nuclear weapons on one another. No, that would simply play into the corporate conspiracy theory: fear as social control. No, I’m simply suggesting that we should lighten up with all this fake happiness, like all those grinning legions of Facebook friends we quantify.

Here’s a terrifying scenario: Imagine a world filled with heaps of uncritical, blissful, optimistic writers! What would we write about? The nice weather, our last Happy Meal or perhaps the arrival of that totally unexpected royalty cheque? Would Major Calloway see the underlying goodness in Harry Lime after all those ghastly infant deaths in Greene’s The Third Man? Perhaps Edmond O’Brien would become a friend with his killer in DOA, sitting down with him to enjoy another hearty radioactive cocktail? No, even the cheeriest of individuals have their limits. If all writers embraced corporate optimism, consider the fallout. it would mean the death knell of the story, given that narrative relies on conflict to sustain interest. Suddenly, even reality series would lose their mojo, as programs like Jersey Shore and Dance Moms would find their manufactured discord disengaged and their shows cancelled soon after.

Hmmm, on second thought, perhaps every cloud does have its silver lining…or am I being too optimistic?

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

David Tucker

David Tucker is an award-winning television writer, producer and director. His short story collection, One Way Ticket, is published by BookLand Press.

Go to David Tucker’s Author Page