I'm so over dead French writers
On finding less existential literature.
When I was researching my gothic novel, I read nothing but dead, existentialist French writers. I was obsessed with Jean-Valjean’s pursuit of redemption in a world that would only ever see him as a thief and Edmund Dantes’ quest for vengeance against those who proclaimed him a Bonapartist—these books are philosophically rich and literarily beautiful and I wanted nothing more than to write a book like that.
It’s because of the French Revolution. For a period of time, Paris was the epicenter of a new movement—a period of upheaval in which humanity raged against the monarchy that oppressed us. We even had the gumption to create our own form of government, our own form of religion. We reimagined society from scratch and that resulted in some really great literature.
Les Miserables, The Count of Monte Cristo—these are my favorite books of all time and they were born from that reinvention of society—from the idea that a person could be worth more. So too were Dangerous Liaisons and The Phantom of the Opera, and science fiction like Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in Eighty Days. There was a literary sense of awakening—and French writers rose to the task.
It was only the beginning. Drawn by the romantic notion of what 19th Century France did for Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Honoré de Balzac, 20th century writers like Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, and F. Scott Fitzgerald flocked to Paris. This time it wasn’t political upheaval, but social upheaval that moved them. They wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Great Gatsby, imagining personal freedoms through fiction while rekindling our romantic notions of what it meant to be an artist.
For so long I read nothing but French literature—both the older French dead guys and the newer not-so-French dead guys. They were also my gateway into the English gothics—books like Dracula, A Christmas Carol, Frankenstein. To me, these classic works were the last novels to contain any sort of philosophical depth—to fill my life with literary beauty—and they were the tomes that inspired my novel Obscurity.
But by the time my book was complete, I had thoroughly absorbed everything from that time and place I wanted to read and I entered a literary desert. I tried to like modern literature, but I didn’t. I read dozens of beach reads which were fun, but missing that philosophical depth. Bereft of the literature that had thus far sustained me, I felt literarily empty. Hollow. Uncreative. I needed something deeper. Something that changed the way I thought. Or at least made me believe beautiful things for an hour or two.
In an attempt to sate my literary hunger, I returned to what I knew, this time drawing from the French realists: Honoré de Balzac, Emile Zola, Stendahl, Guy de Maupassant. But as I started filling up my Kindle, I found myself unwilling to read a single page. Post French Revolution France and Europe may have created philosophically rich books, but I was suddenly very over the darkness that haunts them, and the “fight” that so thoroughly plagues them.
I think we needed that “fight” to overthrow oppression, to form new governments, to establish equal rights and personal freedoms—there are things to fight for still—but I think we’ve reached the end of what fighting will do for us. At some point, I believe humans need to evolve beyond “fighting every wrong” toward “working together to create something right.” From “there’s a plank in your eye” to “here’s where we see eye-to-eye.” Canceling someone over one word they said on the internet seems proof we’ve taken the fight too far.
I’m also very over existentialism. How long can we continue to pine for meaning—and let that pining ruin us—before we accept that there is none and live happily? (This is why I have not yet ventured into Virginia Woolf or Edgar Allen Poe, perhaps unfairly.) As it is, I’ve never been taken with besotted philosophers. Those who drink themselves into oblivion only to find a meaningless existence at the bottom of their glass… (Ahem, Hemingway.) I don’t find genius in that work. I find misery. I find an existentialism that was left unsated. Or rather that was never really meant to be cured.
Anthony Bourdain is a modern example of this archetype. In his documentary, Roadrunner, we see the portrait of a troubled man painted in the light of genius. “The first time I shot up, I looked at myself in the mirror with a big grin,” he says of his past drug use. “My whole life was leading up to that point. In my mind, it was my first step toward being an artist.”
In conversation with the artist David Choe—who admits to eating, debt, gambling, and sex addictions—Bourdain asks: “Do you think a certain level of dissatisfaction or unhappiness is an integral part of the creative process?”
“I think even great art can be created when you’re happy, but I think the best art in the universe is created through intense suffering,” Choe answers, while painting in a bathrobe. “So then, do you put yourself in a situation where you’re constantly in pain? And the answer to that question is yes.”
“That’s just about everyone I know,” Bourdain responds.
I’m not one for the “suffering artist” trope. In fact, I vehemently oppose it. What do I, the patron of that art, take from someone who lives haunted by his shadow, yet stands unwilling to turn on the light? Who bemoans his meaningless existence time and time again yet does nothing to make his life more meaningful? How long can we glorify artists for their intentional pain? For toiling away at an art form that can only ever be regressive, and never seeks to be progressive?
The French Revolution was a dark time, to be sure, but the artists that came out of it were decidedly not—it was the Enlightenment! These artists were the light seekers. The ones who found something worth striving for. The ones who dared to dream up something better. And I think a similar shift is happening now—that something about the pandemic altered the way we think and allowed us to reinvent the world ever so slightly.
I want our literature to reflect that, I think it will. I think we are entering a new literary revival—the Renaissance after the Middle Ages—a period in which it is up to us artists to imagine, not what we need to get rid of or overthrow but what we want to create together. That we are on the precipice of a sort of literary idealism. Personally, my mind has sufficiently wandered from Paris and cigarettes and existentialism to happiness and humanism and utopia. That’s why I now find myself writing a utopian novel and searching for the literature that will inspire it. And that means swearing off the dusty old French writers that inspired my gothic novel and filling my bookshelves with the modern philosophers who will inspire my utopian novel.
I’m not sure that can be found in dead philosophers. At first, I thought the opposite of existentialist French literature might be Buddhist Asian literature—that I might be able to find in Eastern thought what I couldn’t find in European thought. Though I am still exploring the Tao Te Ching, The Analects of Confucius, The Pillow Book, and Musashi and have found moments of great wisdom within these texts; I’ve also found a study of misogyny, racism, and military conquest. Even The Dalai Lama: An Extraordinary Life, though it depicts a great man of peace, also reveals also a man whose naïveté and pacifism became his country’s downfall.
When Zen became western, we kept only the best parts of it—the personal peace part (as it turns out, one can more easily achieve personal peace when one has a military with which to defend that peace). We did the same with Stoicism. The philosophy was originally intended as a source of military fortitude—the stoic Epictetus once advised detachment from one’s family to avoid sadness in the case of their eventual demise—but was made more palatable for modern life by media execs like Ryan Holliday.
Even classic utopian texts have not stood the test of time. Though Thomas More’s Utopia was progressive for its time, the book imagines a meritocracy in which there is equal economic opportunity for all men, while women focused their energies on becoming better wives and mothers. Aldous Huxley’s Island fares better, but the inhabitants of Pala island are happy only because they have chosen to live cut off from the rest of the world, making them ripe for exploitation by the outside world.
Can our best source of wisdom really be the past? Must we dredge up the ideals of antiquity to the detriment of modern reason? Religion and politics do that enough for all of us, with rife enough effects on the world. Though the bible was once a living document, an ever expanding history of a people, the canon was closed in the third and fourth centuries forcing us to return to antiquity for spiritual wisdom. The constitution at least has amendments, but our justices still look to the past to define what our future should be.
When the leaked draft from Justice Samuel Alito recalled Roe v. Wade, citing 13th century common law as the precedent, Saturday Night Live couldn’t help but imagine the exact moment in history that treatise was written. “We now go to that profound moment of moral clarity, almost a thousand years ago, which laid such a clear foundation for what our laws should be in 2022,” the skit teased.
The point of history is to keep what works and quit what doesn’t—that’s progress. So I wonder if it makes sense to keep looking for wisdom in the past when we must throw half of it out before we find something worth keeping? And if that’s the case, who are the modern philosophers of today? What literature starts from where we are now and then keeps pontificating from there? What takes what we have already learned uses that to imagine something even better?
Unfortunately, the nonfiction books that line bookstands and New York Times lists are rife with personal trauma, true crime, societal ills, and political outcry. Fiction is a nonstarter—I waded through dystopian after dystopian after AI apocalypse and found little I was willing to immerse myself in. Did you know there is a pandemic section of the book store? During the pandemic? Man do we love to pile it on!!!
Television is not exempt from this trend. In a matter of decades we went from 20-minute sitcoms to hour-long dramas. Erik Hoel documented entertainment’s decline into the dystopian in his recent essay “Why does culture get less happy year after year?” In the article he wonders why everything, even Star Trek, has become “dark and gritty,” over time. In the latest Star Trek: Picard, he says “characters are deeply unhappy and all of them suffer from some form of trauma.”
It’s true, everything is dark and gritty now, and every character suffers some form of trauma. I’m reminded of another Saturday Night Live skit—this one a parody of the dark, DC movie The Joker. The digital short imagined what Sesame Street would be like if it too were made into a dark and gritty biopic: the origin story of Oscar the Grouch.
“Did we really need a dark take on Oscar The Grouch?” Variety asks in the fictional movie trailer. “No,” says The New York Times.
I get why this happened. One look at a list of Pulitzer Prize winning books or Academy Award winning movies is all it takes to see what kind of books and films are taken seriously, but I don’t think we’re loving that as a society. There’s a reason why romance is the most popular fiction genre, why Hallmark Christmas movies see 72 million viewers each year, why Friends and Seinfeld continue to reign supreme as the most watched shows of all time, why Schitt’s Creek exploded during the pandemic—we’re looking for something happier. I’m looking for that too. And right now it seems like our only options are literary sad things or cheesy happy things.
I’m still looking for the unicorn. I want happy, beautiful, literary novels, from modern writers and thinkers. And I think they’re coming.
There are a few nonfiction books I’ve read and loved: How to Do Nothing, The Longing For Less, This Could Be Our Future, and perhaps my favorite, Wintering. Katherine May’s next book is called Enchantment so I’ll be very excited to read that one as well. I’ve written about my intense adoration for Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now and I’m excited to read his other work too.
I’ve added several more to my reading list including Humankind: A Hopeful History and What We Owe The Future. In fiction, I’m currently reading The Ones We’re Meant to Find (WHAT A COVER!) and I’m excited to read Another Now next. I’m going to watch Star Trek and read Star Trek's Philosophy of Peace and Justice about the show’s adherence to a utopian universe. I made a TBR (to be read) list of all of these books (and others) through Bookshop if you’re interested in taking a peek:
Disney has picked up the thread—Moana, Frozen, and Up are inspiring (and gorgeously animated) stories. My husband and I are obsessed with the movie Soul—it is a visual masterpiece that somehow manages to tackle the whole “meaning of life” thing. Palm Springs is high up on my list too—a comedy that also masters philosophical complexity. Taka Waititi movies are similarly hopeful: Jojo Rabbit takes place in Nazi Germany, and yet it is one of the funniest, most beautiful movies I have ever seen. Similarly, his Hunt for the Wilderpeople about a foster youth who has lost everything exudes happiness and joy.
I think Martijn Doolaard is the new (better) Henry David Thoreau. I think Marie Kondo is something of a modern Epicurus. I think Elon Musk is a modern Renaissance man—a Leonardo da Vinci or Benjamin Franklin. I think Barack Obama is a philosophical and political thinker, a Marcus Aurelius of our time. I think literary genius exists right now and I’m determined to find it. To follow it. To study it. To write it. To be part of the literary revolution. To write the beautiful, literary, happy, utopian novel I want to see in the world.
I’m still looking for the next Victor Hugo though. So if you find that, do let me know.
If you have any book recs, please leave them in the comments section! Comments are open to paid subscribers.
As always, thank you so much for being here.
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P.S. I wasn’t done with this topic so I shared this post with Samuél Lopez-Barrantes of if not, Paris in advance, hoping he might be able to guide me toward modern literary genius. He wrote an incredible response that’s coming in a few days. Subscribe to his newsletter to get it—it will go live right here.
P.P.S. After he finished his essay, we still weren’t done with the topic. So we had a literary salon discussion about whether something written with all lowercase letters and emojis is the modern equivalent of Alexandre Dumas. We essayed back and forth until it got almost too long to publish and plan to continue the discussion in the comments. I’ll be sending that as our literary salon discussion on Friday and it will go live here.
P.P.S. As if it weren’t enough to hear from me, then Samuel, then both of us, all in one week—we still weren’t done talking. So I’m joining his literary salon discussion live this Sunday where we’ll talk it out on a Zoom call. That one’s for Samuél’s founding member subscribers + my Novelle Collector subscribers. If you are a collector and want to attend, email me for the link! firstname.lastname@example.org.