Does Sad Sell?

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There has been much discussion lately about an “onslaught” of grief memoirs. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t see how 5 books, (including new works by Joyce Carol Oates, Meghan O’Rourke, and Francisco Goldman), in the course of the past 3 years qualifies as a blitz. Especially when the topic of these memoirs—death and grief—is the most universal of human experiences.

And yet, up until 2005, when Joan Didion published The Year of Magical Thinking, there were hardly any truly insightful books on the subject, something Didion discovered when she turned to reading for solace in the wake of her husband’s death. As did I. A reader and writer my whole life, I’ve always looked to books to make sense of the incomprehensible. After my husband died in the World Trade Center on September 11th, I searched for a novel or a memoir that captured the cataclysmic horror and bizarre events of grief, the details both great and small: Did other people in mourning suffer memory loss so great they’d walk out of the house without shoes? Was I the only person who found that alongside the unfathomable lows there were also depths of feeling I never could’ve appreciated before? Surely other writers, overcome by this most profound and utterly unexpected experience, had written about it in one form or another. But the only book I could find, with the exception of a couple of marginally useful self-help titles, was C.S Lewis’ A Grief Observed. An honest and beautiful portrayal of a widower’s grief, yes, but surely there are other perspectives out there? Other truths to be gleaned?

So how is it that 5 grief memoirs in three years get talked up as an abundance when at least 22 memoirs about addiction have been published in the same time span? Not to mention there have been at least 10 books featuring dogs released in the past year alone. Why is there greater interest (or perceived greater interest, I’ll get to that in a minute) in heroin addiction and daily life from a pit bull’s point of view than there is in our own mortality?

In one recent essay in the website The Millions discussing this rush of grief books, (amongst them an intelligent examination of a daughter’s grief after her mother loses her battle with cancer, a widower’s complex love letter after a freak accident kills his young wife, and a widow’s recounting of her experiences leading up to and after the death of her husband of over 47 years), the writer Bill Morris poses the question: Why are readers drawn to other people’s suffering? I wonder, why wouldn’t they be?

According to the majority of book editors, they’re not. I deduct this from the experience I’ve been having in trying to sell my novel, which tells the story of a young September 11th widow who discovers a secret involving her late husband and some of their closest friends. While the story is fiction, it is driven by emotional truth–namely, the emotional truth of grief and mourning–and this is the aspect of the novel that most editors have expressed concern with.

One of the editors who passed on my novel wrote: “I had very mixed feelings about this novel—I thought it was beautifully written and touching without being maudlin, but I’m sorry to say that I simply found it too upsetting to read. I couldn’t see myself reading it over and over again throughout the editing process, or presenting it to my sales force without crying, to be honest. The emotional impact, in this case, worked against it for me—which I know must sound ridiculous, but although AFTER [my book] came close to overcoming my general reluctance to work on stories prominently featuring 9/11, I still just don’t feel quite emotionally ready to plunge in wholeheartedly and give this novel the publishing support it deserves.”

It’s not that I can’t handle rejection. As a writer, I’m unfortunately way too comfortable with it. The handful of editors who said they passed on my novel because they took issue with the story, or the characters, or simply didn’t like it, I wanted to send flowers to. These were rejections I could understand. But the majority said they were passing because the book is too sad. I just don’t know what to do with that. Isn’t this why many of us read in the first place? To feel? To try and make sense of the world, even the dark parts? According to much of the publishing world, no. More than one editor remarked that in “this climate” people want to read upbeat books.  9/11 stories? No way. “They don’t sell well.”

If the publishers are right and it is true that the reason that up until recently there have been few grief memoirs published is few people want to read them, we shouldn’t be surprised. A lack of interest in books about mourning and grief would perfectly mirror this country’s inability to discuss and cope with death, and to comfort and soothe those that are struck by loss.

Ask anyone in mourning and they will tell you how alone and isolated they feel. They will have countless stories about inane and insensitive remarks, or other peoples’ avoidance of them altogether – the death cooties. Too often, people in mourning are made to feel like they must worry about appearing too sad so as to make others uncomfortable. You always need to be pressing on, firmly in one of the designated grief stages. And if you haven’t “gotten over it” in a year, well, what’s wrong with you?

When I was deep in the throes of grief, I often thought of the time my late husband Blake and I were strolling through Kyoto gardens on our honeymoon. Our Japanese tour guide pointed out some Shinto shrines, which led her to explain the various ways the Japanese honor the dead in their everyday lives, long after their loved ones have passed. “In America, what do you do?” she asked. Neither Blake or I could think of anything beyond the funeral. And to be honest, as young and naive as I was, I didn’t see how ritual tributes to those who have passed would necessarily be useful or desirable.

Just a year later, walloped by Blake’s death, I found myself wishing we had accepted public mechanisms in which to mourn and remember our loved ones. As a young widow, this felt particularly important. If I spoke about Blake too much, people would start to look at me funny, as if I wasn’t “moving on.” But I needed to be able to move on and remember Blake at the same time. Ten years later I’ve found ways to do this, but in the first few years following Blake’s death balancing these needs was one of my greatest challenges, largely due to the way our culture likes to push grief and mourning neatly out of sight. As a result, the mere mention of someone who has died, in even a casual way, can send people running to the next room. Or cause an acquaintance to fumble out an awkward comment like, “9/11. Yeah. That was a crappy day for everyone.”

So, the obvious answer might be that the reason there are so few books on grief is because we, as a country, don’t want to read about it. Talk about it. Even think about it, really. Except that Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking spent weeks on the bestseller list. Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story and Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name were both featured prominently on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye is one of the most buzzed about books of the season.

I don’t know if 5 grief memoirs means we should make way for a new genre, but I do hope these books open up a discussion about grief and mourning, love and loss, resilience and renewal. And pave the way for other books that revolve around death to get published. Because I like breezy-light books as much as the next person, but there’s only so much I can read about Labrador Retrievers.


Raina Wallens is the author of 7 books for teenagers, published under a variety of pseudonyms, and has been published in The Huffington Post. For reasons too complicated to explain, she lives in both NYC and NJ. You can follow Raina on Twitter @rainawallens. More from this author →