My grandfather had two rules for conversing at the dinner table: No talking about politics. No talking about religion. Every Sunday, our large extended family gathered at my grandparents’ to eat, hug, laugh and talk about everything–except, you know. I don’t remember anyone fighting or even arguing a-little-too-intensely, ever. The two rules insured happy gatherings for decades.
Some of the best children’s literature is about happy families–think the March family of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the Gilbreths of Cheaper by the Dozen and the Ingalls of The Little House on the Prairie series. But scenes of family warmth and quotidian pleasures– with no discussions on politics or religion would cut to the heart of other families, either real or literary. Grand literature wants believable heroes–tackling big problems. For some, big problems must include politics and religion.
The Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy–for example, believed complex literary characters were unhappy by definition. He said in Anna Karenina,
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
But Tolstoy was wrong. Happiness does not negate complexity. Death, disease, love and war visit everyone. Happy families have epic struggles, too. The key to great stories lies not in whether the characters end up happy in the end- instead characters, whether happy or not, must connect to your emotions.
Literary editor Betsy Lerner says,
The more popular culture and the media fail to present the real pathos of our human struggle, the more opportunity there is for writers who are unafraid to present stories that speak emotional truth, or make such an intimate connection that briefly we become children again, listening with rapt attention, the satin binding of our blankets pulled up to our chins.
But, what is emotional truth? And, does it require tackling themes that begin wars–like religion and politics?
Emotional truth is relative–it is person specific. Politics or not. Religion or no. You know the emotions are right when you forget you are reading and you are no longer in your right mind, but at the mercy of a story.