Why are short stories so depressing?
I recently toyed with the idea of writing a short story. It would appear that one of the ways an aspiring novelist can get their work before the eyes of scouting agents and publishers is through short story competitions (and really, winning them is the key – there are no blue participant’s ribbons here).
Now, there is a trick to winning writing competitions. Usually the winners of each competition write in a similar genre, explore similar themes or have a similar tone to their writing. There is little point entering a short story aimed at children into a competition that usually rewards crime writers, because no matter how good the story is it will not be to the taste of the judges, and the agents/publishers one is likely to encounter through this competition will have little interest in representing a children’s author (usually).
So one must find a competition that is similar to one’s style of writing, or else one is wasting one’s entry fee.
As a comedic writer this is harder to do than I had initially realised, because it turns out the wining stories of most short story competitions are utterly depressing. I don’t mean ‘a little blue’, or ‘going through a tough patch’, or ‘not having a good day’, I mean ‘rip out you heart, throw it on the ground and stomp on it’ depressing.
If it’s not children being abandoned, wives being abused or animals being tortured, then its insurmountable odds crushing the underdog, innocents being abducted or brief moments of happiness being snatched away by unexpected trauma.
They are emotional rollercoasters. However in this particular fairground there are no tea-cups or swings. The only rides seem to be versions of the ‘Wall of Death’ where they build you to high only to plunge you into a devastating low, only to pick you back up so that they can plunge you back down.
It’s the writing equivalent of water boarding.
I understand why these stories win; I can see the intense emotional journey the reader takes, the well-constructed phrases, the correct use of punctuation and grammar. But why do they have to be so depressing? Is it because it is easier to make a person cry than to laugh?
I write this in a week that six young students lost their lives in a balcony collapse and nine church-goes lost their lives to hate-filled racism, not to mention the hundreds of wars and conflicts that blight lands I rarely think of. Tragedy surrounds us, so much of it is of our own making, and it is all but inescapable, can what we conjure for entertainment not give us just a little reprieve?
Even in Hollywood the critically acclaimed Oscar nominations are inevitably bleak, grim, serious, gritty, depressing films, and yet when it comes box office success it is inevitably the light hearted Inside Out, Spy, Avengers, Perfect Pitch or Jurassic World that top the polls.
I understand that exploring the things that tear lives apart prompts readers to consider more deeply the life they live, but just once can we not have a competition that celebrates the stories that make us giggle, see the funnier side of life, or just generally amuse because they can?
I am hoping that this blog post gets a rush of angry posts pointing to several comedy short story competitions, but tragically I think the comments box will remain empty because at the moment literary acclaim seems to be intrinsically linked with emotional torture.