Angst and Good Fiction


Is angst a requisite element in good fiction—the award-winning kind? If so, perhaps that fact alone explains why “good fiction” doesn’t sell.

Let me ask: are you drawn to a book that contains in its descriptive blurb such words or phrases as lives out of control, guilt, blame, plagued, shattered pieces, family in crisis, sickening secret, pain, rebellion, anger, human depravity?

To be fair, I took out words like beauty, hope, and love that are also in the description, but in all honesty, when I first read the paragraph, I didn’t see them. This is an author I’ve wanted to read, so I was looking at this paragraph with the intent of learning whether or not this book was one I wanted to read. I decided no, because of all the angst.

Yet upon thinking about Katie Popa‘s comment regarding angst, I realize that I very much want a story in which a character examines life. In fact on Wednesday, I said:

My working hypothesis is that readers come to stories to get lost in another person’s world—to experience the joys, the challenges, the soul searching (emphasis added today).

Is that not angst?

Maybe not. I started this post thinking to delineate between a story that contains angst and one driven by angst, but then I looked the word up in the dictionary to be sure I understood its nuances. I didn’t. Here is how my computer dictionary defines it:

a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general

I’ll be frank. I don’t want to read about characters dealing with deep, unfocused anxiety or dread due to the human condition or state of the world. Not only do I not think those stories are entertaining, I don’t think they’re true, at least not if the character persists in his or her angst.

If the story is about a non-Christian, by a non-Christian, I don’t expect a true resolution, for apart from Christ, there is no answer for the human condition or hope for the state of the world. If the story is about a Christian or non-Christian by a Christian, there may be hope, and in the end, truth, but there are minefields along the way. Is the character whinny? Is the resolution simplistic? Is the story preachy? Is the climax predictable? In other words, I think it is much harder to write a Christian story dealing with angst.

Can it be done? I’ve read several books that I would say have done so. As yet they aren’t award winners … or best sellers.

Published in: on December 19, 2008 at 10:44 am  Comments (4)  
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