The Unprecedented Success Of, And Backlash To, A LITTLE LIFE

The novel A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is, by any measure, one of the books of the year. It’s gotten incandescent reviews, including from The New Yorker, was shortlisted for the National Book Awards and for the Booker Prize, won the Kirkus (richest of them all), and has been dubbed “a sleeper hit” by The Wall Street Journal.

The success of such a lengthy book of literary fiction by a relatively unknown author is surprising. The backlash has been commensurately severe.

First, the success:

The Man Booker news boosted sales in the U.S., where publisher Doubleday this week initiated the book’s eighth printing. The week of the announcement, U.S. sales of “A Little Life” jumped 45% compared with the previous week, according to Nielsen BookScan. An American paperback edition is planned for early 2016. An audiobook is in the works, and several parties have expressed interest in the film rights. (The author has turned down one offer.) … Doubleday made an initial print run of 10,500 copies and now has 35,000 copies in print.

People are buying this nearly 750 page novel! And here’s the amazing part: people are buying it even though it’s sad. Maybe even because it’s sad.

On Twitter, readers have said “A Little Life” is so painful that at times they have had to put it down, weeping. They have called it “upsetting,” “harrowing” and “traumatic.” But many also say it’s the best book they have ever read. …

Mr. Galassi [president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux] said he spent a weekend reading “A Little Life” and was reduced to tears. In an email to Mr. Howard, he said one passage in particular was “almost unbearably moving.”

He wrote, “I haven’t wept so deeply in reading a book in very many years.”

“It couldn’t be that depressing,” people think, maybe, after hearing their friends wail about how there should be an extra hundred or so pages at the end that readers can use as Kleenex. But then it actually is.

Which brings us to the backlash.

Both “Room” and “A Little Life” have recently prompted fierce critiques from writers who suggest that these stories marinate in their characters’ suffering and that they encourage regressive views of what it means to be a healthy adult.

Most notably, perhaps, from a scathing essay in the New York Review of Books by Daniel Mendelsohn, who dismisses the book as a kind of torture porn, and badly written torture porn at that.

Yanagihara’s real subject, it turns out, is abjection. What begins as a novel that looks like it’s going to be a bit retro — a cross between Mary McCarthy and a Stendhalian tale of young talent triumphing in a great metropolis — soon reveals itself as a very twenty-first-century tale indeed: abuse, victimization, self-loathing. …

But the wounds inflicted on Jude by [SPOILERS] are nothing compared to those inflicted by Yanagihara herself. As the foregoing catalog suggests, Jude might better have been called “Job,” abandoned by his cruel creator.

As you can see, Mendelsohn’s essay includes numerous plot details, so read the full piece at your own risk.

Even the members of the Slate Audio Book Club recently more or less rejected it as “a misery-soaked epic” and a chronicle of “relentless pain.”

I’ve been intrigued from the beginning at both aspects of the A Little Life phenomenon: that a contemporary intellectual novel of such grimness could become so popular and, now, that its very grimness has made some critics so angry. (As a critic myself, I recommended it widely.)

When conventional wisdom holds that we turn to media for entertainment and distraction, why do we spend money on things we know are going to make us sad? Why do some of us seek out that kind of heightened emotion? Purely for catharsis?

Catharsis in Greek can mean purification. While purging something means getting rid of it, purifying something means getting rid of the worse or baser parts of it. It is possible that tragedy purifies the feelings themselves of fear and pity. … Aristotle argues that pity and fear arise most of all where wonder does. … Ask yourself how you feel at the end of a tragedy. You have witnessed horrible things and felt painful feelings, but the mark of tragedy is that it brings you out the other side. Aristotle’s use of the word catharsis is not a technical reference to purgation or purification but a beautiful metaphor for the peculiar tragic pleasure, the feeling of being washed or cleansed.

Melodramas and tragedies have followed this format, and served this need, for millennia. Since one wouldn’t think another entry in a long-established canon would get folks so het up, I’ve begun to wonder whether Yanagihara is being scolded for daring to write something so unrelentingly dark and being a woman at the same time. Ladies, after all, are expected to be pleasers, not agitators and philosophers. No one accuses Shakespeare of overdoing it during “King Lear” or asks, as the curtain falls on “Hamlet,” whether everyone really needed to die. Did Racine get lectures about “Phedre” being too much of a bummer? (No: “Voltaire called it ‘the masterpiece of the human mind.’”)

Female characters have experienced torture in stories since stories began. From “The Trojan Women” to “Law and Order: SVU,” they serve as sacrificial victims: in the Bible, in mythology, on TV, in horror movies, and, of course, in books. Yanagihara is not merely a woman, then; she is a woman whose literary victim is a man. No wonder the censure, once it began, has been so intense. When, after all, has someone transgressed so many proprieties at once?

I also wonder whether, as a society, we’ve lost our taste for tragedy in art. Usually the sad books that sell well are bittersweet tearjerkers like The Time-Traveler’s Wife with at least semi-happy endings. Rarely is a book so low on redemption as A Little Life — which is, according to interviews with Yanagihara, why she wanted to try something that ventured into the darkness and then remained there, like a particularly chilling fairy tale. She intended to be unstinting.

I wanted there to be something too much about the violence in the book, but I also wanted there to be an exaggeration of everything, an exaggeration of love, of empathy, of pity, of horror. I wanted everything turned up a little too high. I wanted it to feel a little bit vulgar in places. Or to be always walking that line between out and out sentimentality and the boundaries of good taste.

To my mind, this is what she was rewarded for initially — her bravery in refusing to give audiences the traditional happy (enough) ending — and this is what she is being punished for now.

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