As I do every year, I'm seeing all the Oscar-nominated Best Picture movies (Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men, Atonement, Juno, There Will Be Blood). A good friend commented that she will see only Juno, because "The others are all depressing. I don't go to the movies to be depressed. I want to be entertained."
What's with this attitude, which I encounter a lot about not just movies but fiction as well? I have no trouble with comedy (I thought Juno was adorable) and I can even handle heart-warming, in small doses. But the idea that art exists only to amuse seems to me just plain wrong. "Entertainment," which my dictionary describes as "that which holds the attention so as to bring about pleasure," is surely in the eye of the beholder. There are many kinds of pleasure (and hence entertainment), and a profound one is the sense of having gained an insight into reality, into the way the human universe works, including its negative aspects. It's not yuks, but it is for some of us a deep and lasting pleasure. "Depressing" works can do this.
When I taught college years ago, one semester I had an Intro to Contemporary Lit class. After we'd read an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story, I showed the class a taped interview with Nobel Laureate Singer. He said, among other things, that "high literature was for high people and low literature was for low people" (You can imagine how well that went over with a group of freshmen heavily into Star Wars novelizations). Singer was talking about "depressing" stories that feature people whom you don't want to ask to dinner, stories that end unhappily, or both.
This is not an abstract issue for those of us who "write grim." We're trying to say something, at least some of the time, that we think might be worth hearing. Tor turned down my novel Nothing Human (it came out from Golden Gryphon) because my then-editor found it depressing. "Nancy, you destroyed the entire human race!" he pointed out. Well, yes. But so did Clarke in Childhood's End. I at least left our genetic descendants, plus the planet itself. The book was about trashing our environment, and its literary quality aside (the author is never a good judge of that), I think it made a valuable point in a non-polemic way.
So if I'm hoping that Atonement wins the Oscar. Tears and gloom and all.