Looking for quality literary fiction that isn't depressing
October 25, 2017 11:28 AM   Subscribe

I need some book recommendations. I'm looking for well-written literary fiction that is not depressing.

I really love well-written novels. However, it bothers me that so much literary fiction is so grindingly depressing. I don't need a novel to be "inspirational." And I'm fine with a novel that has some sad/depressing parts. And I'm totally okay with a novel that involves difficult subject matter. It's just that with all the really disturbing things happening in the world right now, I can't stand to read another 100% depressing book like "All The Light We Cannot See." Basically, if there are lot of long, drawn-out passages where we're reading a sad character's inner dialogue, I am not interested. Actually, I'm really not all that into inner dialogue, period. Or lengthy descriptions of landscapes (pet peeve).

Please no sci-fi/fantasy/humor or graphic novels.

The obligatory laundry list of authors I love, in no particular order :

Haruki Murakami, Don DeLillo, Mikhail Bulgakov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Salman Rushdie, Leo Tolstoy, Jonathan Lethem, Roberto Bolano, Gregory David Roberts, David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood, George Saunders, David Foster Wallace, Adam Johnson, James Ellroy, Raymond Chandler, Shirley Jackson, Ernest Hemmingway, Michael Chabon, Gustave Flaubert, Jonathan Franzen, Philip K. Dick, Boris Pasternak, Thomas Pynchon, Joe Hill, Stephen King
posted by panama joe to Media & Arts (46 answers total) 85 users marked this as a favorite
Have you read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell? It is beautifully, charmingly, carefully written; and it's escapist, with no depressing thinkythoughts! Magic happens, but it's not a fantasy novel.
posted by fingersandtoes at 11:31 AM on October 25, 2017 [7 favorites]

Some other authors you might look into, based on your list: Louise Erdrich, Elizabeth Strout, Marilynne Robinson, Meg Howrey, Kayla Rae Whitaker, Ann Patchett.
posted by leesh at 11:40 AM on October 25, 2017 [9 favorites]

I just finished Jennifer Egan's Manhattan Beach, and I really enjoyed it.
posted by platitudipus at 11:44 AM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell might be right up your alley. A friend of mine described it as "sort of an Adrian Mole for literary-minded grown-ups."

You don't say whether you're willing to read books in translation, but Jose Saramago's The Cave is beautiful and non-depressing. I really liked Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot, as well.

Not sure how you feel about Dickens, but I'd say much of his stuff has sad parts but is totally non-depressing. Examples: Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby.

(sorry, can't link atm)
posted by holborne at 11:51 AM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Ha, holborne: I was also going to recommend The Cave, as well as Eugenides's Middlesex. And now I have.

On the Marilynne Robinson recommendation: Housekeeping is her best but it's eerie and a little dark; Gilead is warm and fuzzy and beautiful.

And, speaking of Middles, Middlemarch?
posted by Beardman at 11:52 AM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm never quite certain where the borders of literary fiction are, but you listed a bunch of my favorite authors so I'll just throw out a few suggestions from a glance at my bookshelf-

The Luminairies by Eleanor Catton. More of a historical mystery I suppose, with a wonderful setting (New Zealand during Gold Rush days). My only real complaint with it was the ending dragging on unnecessarily, which I think the author did because she had a specific structure planned for the book. But it's such a great principal story that it makes for a big long read to sink into.

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Shorter, more quick paced, although still dense & deep. It's like a bunch of short stories that are connected in various ways.

Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler. This one came out of nowhere and completely blew me away when I read it last year. I don't even know how to describe it, it's such a unique oddity of a novel. Also historical, kind of a Pacific NorthWest adventure story in the late 1800s. She has a bunch of other critically acclaimed novels but I wasn't nearly as impressed by the one other that I tried.

(should note that while I wouldn't call any of these books overall depressing, they do have their moments; but not so much dragging and dreary as life isn't fair and sometimes bad things happen to good people)
posted by mannequito at 11:59 AM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

You might like Sherman Alexie. His short story collection The Toughest Indian in the World is really good. I haven't read any of his novels yet, but I've only heard good things.
posted by Gymnopedist at 12:01 PM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, which was so lovely it should have irritated me, actually made me very happy. I love all the writers on your list (except a couple but we won't get into a fight about that here) so I think you might agree on this one.

I also think you might look into Hilary Mantel. I'm particularly delighted with Wolf Hall, but I was a fan of her writing before she wrote that or its sequel. Fludd is a good one, but it's crazy how she can write in so many different voices.

Also give Richard Powers a whirl, if you've never read him. I recommend his first book, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. It's... kind of everything. I can never choose my favorite of his, but Three Farmers is a contender. So is Plowing the Dark and so is The Goldbug Variations, so if you start looking through his books, those are the three that I often recommend to people for their first Powers. There are a couple of his books that I think aren't great for your first read of him, specifically Gain, Galatea 2.2, and Generosity, but that's more a matter of taste. He's a pretty remarkable writer.
posted by janey47 at 12:06 PM on October 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

The Razor's Edge has some bad things happen in it, but it's really about the main character's spiritual quest and his ability to get through the bad things through his search for meaning.

Also, I'm wondering if you've read any of Wodehouse' Jeeves and Wooster books. Those are comic, but they're very well written.
posted by FencingGal at 12:07 PM on October 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

Cold Comfort Farm is what you want: it's the antithesis of depressing.

Also Molly Gloss' The Hearts of Horses, which is beautifully written and humanistic and not depressing even though the occasional bad thing happens in it. And if you like that, The Jump-Off Creek as well.
posted by suelac at 12:12 PM on October 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (yes, that Elizabeth Gilbert, don't prejudge)
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:18 PM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

> You might like Sherman Alexie

I love his writing but noooo, he's not who you turn to for "not depressing."
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:19 PM on October 25, 2017 [5 favorites]

Any of Robertson Davies' "trilogy" series -- The Salterton Trilogy, The Deptford Trilogy, or the Cornish Trilogy. They're available in omnibus editions, which is how I read them. Interesting things happening to interesting characters, with real humanity behind it all.
posted by rollick at 12:25 PM on October 25, 2017 [7 favorites]

The Middlesteins (link to NPR/Fresh Air review) by Jami Attenberg is caustic and funny, with a big heart. It's also slated to be a "prestige" show for Showtime in the near future.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 12:25 PM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Middlesex is a great book but mostly I remember it for its extremely vivid description of the genocidal Turkish attack on Smyrna. Might not belong in the "uplifting" pile. [on edit- I see you're ok with difficult subject matter - anyway, be advised.]
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:26 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Seconding the recommendation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. Super literary to the point where unadventurous historical fiction genre readers bail, and well, sad things happen, but unlike other Mantel, it doesn't stay sad for long, because this is the story of one of the most appealing characters in modern literary fiction. It's also one of the funniest, tenderest, most genuinely full of emotion and insight and living things I've ever read.
The trouble with England, he thinks, is that it's so poor in gesture. We shall have to develop a hand signal for ‘Back off, our prince is fucking this man's daughter.’ He is surprised that the Italians have not done it. Though perhaps they have, and he just never caught on.
“Men say," Liz reaches for her scissors, "'I can't endure it when women cry'--just as people say, 'I can't endure this wet weather.' As if it were nothing to do with the men at all, the crying. Just one of those things that happen.”

His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.
There's a reason why Mr. Machine and I walk around the house quoting bits of this exchange to each other. And no more, for lack of time!
posted by joyceanmachine at 12:27 PM on October 25, 2017 [6 favorites]

Have you read Margaret Atwood's Hag-Seed? It's a re-telling of The Tempest, and it's got a wryly funny narrator.
posted by gladly at 12:30 PM on October 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

I love Ivan Doig. I have read the three below but really want to read more by him:

The Whistling Season (2006)
Work Song (2010)
The Bartender's Tale (2012)
posted by narancia at 12:33 PM on October 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

The Tidewater Tales by John Barth has people working through some interpersonal/life change stuff but it's neither depressing nor inspirational. The two main characters are really privileged, which made it kind of hard to get into for me at first, but the storytelling and themes are really good so once I got past that it was a great read.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 12:36 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

You've probably already read it because apparently I'm the last person on Earth to do so, but I just finished Willa Cather's "My Antonia" and I feel like it would be perfect for you; beautifully written and constructed, lively and interesting, a little dark at times, but in the end uplifting and life-affirming.
posted by saladin at 12:36 PM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Garth Hallberg's City On Fire - beautiful, haunting, with sorrow in it, but not at all sad.

Also, Moby Dick.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:51 PM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Based on your list of authors you love, I think you should check out Nabakov. Despair is one of my favorites -- don't be scared off by the title!

The last novel I read & really loved was The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen.
posted by montbrarian at 12:57 PM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

I just realized that both the novels I recommended were first-person narrations, but I don't think either qualify as "inner dialogue".
posted by montbrarian at 12:59 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

ZOMG I can't believe I'm the one that gets to suggest Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. It deserves every wonderful thing that's been said about it, and every prize it's won (among them the Pulitzer).

It's presented as a quasi-epistolary novel, from aged father to young son, undertaken because the man -- John Ames, an aging pastor in a small Iowa town -- does not expect to live long enough to see the son grow up. He's remarried quite late, to a younger woman, and this plagues him despite the joys it's brought him.

So he tells the story of his life, his friends, and the things he remembers, and the place of faith in his life. (It's not really a "Christian" book in the sense of proselytizing, but if you're predisposed to disliking a sympathetic portrayal of faith, this isn't the book for you.) Ames remembers the Civil War via the actions of his grandfather, a radical abolitionist who fought guerrilla actions for the union and returned home minus an eye.

It's a fascinating, beautiful book, and I'm not ashamed to say its beauty brought tears to my eyes.

(More: when I read it, I was being more disciplined with book-blogging, so here's what I had to say about it then. I've since read both follow-ups, and while they're great, neither approach the transcendence of Gilead.)
posted by uberchet at 1:00 PM on October 25, 2017 [6 favorites]

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry was lovely and made me cry in the "this room suddenly got very dusty" way. I also really loved Zevin's first book, Elsewhere, but none of the ones in between.
posted by Flannery Culp at 1:20 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Came here to suggest Dickens, which is frequently sad but rarely ends that way. (This is also true of Trollope, though what I've read of him is less emotionally extreme in both directions.)
posted by Polycarp at 1:34 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Maybe Let the Great World Spin, which connects the various characters with Philippe Petit's 1974 walk between the twin towers. This New York Times review calls it "heartbreaking but not depressing." Maybe read the review and see what you think.
posted by FencingGal at 1:45 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh, hey: Ursula Le Guin. But not SFF, so try Orsinian Tales and/or Malafrena. Strongly humanistic, brilliantly written.
posted by suelac at 2:07 PM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

I love his writing but noooo, he's not who you turn to for "not depressing."

Sorry, I should've hedged my Alexie recommendation a little--I made it using the OP's list of authors as a tonal yardstick. Some of his stories are really heavy, and he deals with a lot of difficult subject matter, but I wouldn't describe his fiction as more depressing on average than, say, Hemingway's. But on rereading the question I realize that OP's author list probably wasn't meant as a tonal yardstick!
posted by Gymnopedist at 2:08 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

I feel like I've been recommending her a lot here lately, but Penelope Fitzgerald is great for this. Her characters are complex people with feelings and disappointments but the books are also wonderfully funny and human without being crushingly miserable. The Beginning of Spring is my favourite of hers.
posted by terretu at 2:17 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

A Dance to The Music of Time by Anthony Powell is a charming and bittersweet series of novels about English intellectual Society over the course of the 20th century. Recommended in relation to noted authors mentioned above.
posted by ovvl at 2:24 PM on October 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

This is such a subjective question - I see some books I truly loved listed above, and some I hated with the fire of a thousand suns. I would suggest Jay McInerney, Jennifer Haigh (esp. Heat and Light), and Julia Glass.

Also a couple of recommendations from small independent publishers: Odd One Out by Quinton Skinner and Queen of Spades by Michael Shou-Yung Shum.
posted by lyssabee at 2:24 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar, Etgar Keret, Georges Perec, Patricia Highsmith, Carson McCullers, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Cesar Aira.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 2:31 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh, and Machado de Assis. My favourite is The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas, the short stories are also great. He sounds very modern.
posted by TheGoodBlood at 2:42 PM on October 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

Maybe Daughters of Fortune? There are sad parts, happy parts, but overall it wasn't too depressing. A lot of things happen over many years. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Also Laurie Colwin.
posted by monologish at 3:16 PM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

Anne Tyler
Jane Smiley
Muriel Spark
posted by rollick at 3:31 PM on October 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

I am going to link you to my can't miss recommendations list on goodreads. Our tastes seem very similar, and I have backed off of reading lif-fic largely because authors seem to think that the only way that a character's arc can seem deep or fulfilling is to have them experience abuse, and write about it in great detail. it is depressing.

The books by Jonathan Carroll, Nicola Griffith and Kiese Laymon should particularly meet your needs.

Since you mentioned Pynchon, if you particularly liked Mason&Dixon you might try John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor
posted by OHenryPacey at 3:54 PM on October 25, 2017 [3 favorites]

Another idea is Zadie Smith (at least White Teeth), or Rushdie for that matter. I mean, it's hard to have it be "literary" fiction without touching on some Heavy Shit content-wise, but in tone and feel these writers are effervescent enough that you don't feel like you're being buried alive. (It was in that spirit that I recommended Middlesex as well.)
posted by Beardman at 4:21 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

My favorite books that I have read in the last few years were The Passage Trilogy by Justin Cronin. They might be classed as sci-fi or fantasy because they are post-apocalyptic, but they are much more literary fiction and character-driven than genre-based (hell, Cronin went to the Iowa Writers Workshop). They scratch the same itch that Midnight's Children by Rushdie and The Stand by Stephen King did - epic, sprawling character-driven sagas. There are definitely some inner monologues but action really drives the stories. And there are hard times (it's post-apocalyptic) but not a lot of sad-mopeyness.

And if you like Margaret Atwood, I have to offer my other perennial recommendation, Marge Piercy. She has two kinds of novel - one is 70/80s feminist slice-of-life, which are fine but a little too polemical for me. However, she's also written a series of historical novels which I just love. Each follows a variety of characters through an interesting time period and they're all just too busy with Big Important Events to spend a lot of time wallowing. Gone to Soldiers is about WWII, Sex Wars is about the first wave feminist movement (and the beginning of the labor movement) in New York post-Civil War, and City of Darkness, City of Light is about the French Revolution.
posted by lunasol at 4:33 PM on October 25, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm not the best judge of what's depressing, but I share some of your other preferences.
Any Human Heart by William Boyd might work.
posted by bongo_x at 6:05 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

One of the most enjoyable books I've read this year is Kayla Rae Whitaker's The Animators, which is about friendship and art and depression but without being depressing. You might also like Ruth Ozeki, her A Tale for the Time Being is remarkable. And I would second Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, it started out a little slow for me but once it was clear it was a mystery I was hooked
posted by kyla at 6:18 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Laurie Colwin, Happy All the Time is a good place to start
Margaret Drabble, The Millstone. Drabble is intelligent, calm, and under-rated.
Ann Patchett, Bel Canto
Anne Tyler
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis is very funny
Penelope Lively
Ivan Doig's Montana Trilogy is awfully good, the characters are very well drawn, and he's very American and western
Robertson Davies
posted by theora55 at 6:39 PM on October 25, 2017 [2 favorites]

I don't think she's shelved with the literary fiction but I think Megan Abbott is really good. She reads as literary to me. Her early work is pretty self-consciously pulpy (and awesome), but You Will Know Me is a good, perceptive darkness-in-suburbia story centered on the family of an Olympic-hopeful gymnast in training. She's also a story editor on The Deuce and wrote the latest episode, if that helps you triangulate on her at all.

Also wanted to give a big endorsement to previous mentions of the underrated Machado de Assis (Dom Casmurro is my pick) and the wonderful Patricia Highsmith. Also, you mention Raymond Chandler, which makes me wonder if you've also read Dashiell Hammett.
posted by Mothlight at 9:22 PM on October 25, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Oh wow, thank you! You all are the best! I came here with an empty reading queue, and I'm leaving with a queue that is anything but. This is so awesome! Should keep me occupied for a while.

I would mark every answer as a "best answer," but I feel like that would make the thread hard to read, which wouldn't be fair to all the other people who can benefit from this list. So instead, I will give each answer a heartfelt favorite.

Thanks again!
posted by panama joe at 8:46 PM on October 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

Late to the party :) but I'd add some Mordecai Richler - Joshua Then and Now. And John Updike's Rabbit series.
posted by storybored at 9:54 PM on October 31, 2017 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy Valeria Luiselli’s “The Story of My Teeth”; a quirky, literary, and weird read.

Also, while I loved The Sympathizer, I definitely wouldn’t put it in the category of “not depressing”.
posted by Paper rabies at 1:37 AM on December 22, 2017

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