by Barbara O'Neal
My name is Barbara and I am an optimist.
Oh, sometimes I pretend to be a cynical snarky type. Sometimes I can trot out a droll and cutting commentary on the state of the world, but it’s only because I’m trying to get all you cynics and pessimists to think I’m just as smart as you are.
If you’re an optimist, you’re seen as a foolish little dweeb without an ounce of sharp-thinking. If you’re an optimist and maybe fo cus on how things are getting better in the world than about how awful they are (both things are actually true), the think tankers and literary PhDs and politicians think you’re naïve. If you are a woman, a writer of upbeat fiction, they sneer over your books and your opinions in an even bigger way, inventinglabels like “women’s fiction,” and “chick lit” to separate that work from the serious, important Manly Fiction that features all manner of darkness and disaster. And neverforget that romance novels are by far the lowest of the lowly forms of fiction, those idiotic treatises of finding a mate and living happily ever after.
Because that never happens,in real life, right? Like, no happy married couples anywhere.
Bad things happen all the time. I get that. There was a hideous car accident here yesterday, the kind that gets in your head and makes you wish you had not heard of it (I had to write a whole book once to get a car accident out of my head). The earthquakes in Christchurch are terrible, too, and how many people have died in the revolution in Libya?
Optimists are not blind, just ready to believe in goodness. Optimism is seen as a fool’s game, left tothe simple-minded and hippies and crusaders. Bah, those pesky crusaders! That silly head Martin Luther King, that foolish, simple minded Nelson Mandela, those crazy visionaries who cameup with a silly social network that seems to be changing the freaking world!
When I was in college, I knew a group of Libyan students. They were mostly very wealthy guys, having a little time-out in America before they went home to do the work their fathers had set up for them. They liked to party and hang out with fast American women and—nearly to a man—dreaded going home. This was not true at all of the Syrians and the Saudis and the Kuwaitis. All of them were having a good time, too, but they wanted to return home. The Libyans did not.
And most of them didn’t. They stayed, by hook or by crook, or went to Europe, did whatever they had to do to stay out. One night, I made a sly comment about America, and one of them (a devastatingly handsome and standoffish man I had a terrible crush on) gave me a fierce lecture on
the beauty of democracy and the American constitution. “You just don’t know,” he said. “You don’t.” (Which of course only served to deepen my smittenness.) I keep thinking of them as I watch Khadaffi’s regime fall. Wondering how they feel. It’s unclear at the moment how it will all work out. Sometimes a dictator provides stability along with oppression.
Optimism provides the courage to change things. Optimism says things can be different if we work hard and look to the future. Optimism says things will get better the more we understand.
The book business has been a big shaky the past month or so, even shakier than in the preceding year, when everyone was already nervous. The cynics are predicting the end of the world as we know it. The optimists are saying, “Hmm. Maybe not. Maybe this is a big shift, and scary, but maybe it’s leading us into something exciting, even revolutionary.” Maybe so many books, eventually all the books that have ever been written, available at the touch of a button mean that there will be more educated people in the world than there have ever been before. Imagine! All those books available to anyone who walks into an internet café in any village in any corner of the world or downloads them into their cell phones. Any book. On any subject, in any language.
I think the difference between optimists and cynics is, in the end, that optimists see the big picture, while cynics are focused on the now. Yes, people are dying in Libya as power shifts, but perhaps this will lead to a better life for most people there. Perhaps that unrest will eventually, free Iran, too. (For some great insight into why that matters, check out Laura Fitzgerald’s two novels about an Iranian woman coming to the US for a chance at new life, Veil of Roses and Dreaming in English—upbeat women’s fiction, but oh, so illuminating!)
Yes, in the short term, we’re in the midst of a sea change in the book world, too, but I’m an optimist. Writers will still write, books will still be published, editors will still be passionate about finding books and helping to shape them into the best they can be. And in addition, books will set the world on fire in a way that has never been possible in the history of mankind. Amazing to consider, isn’t it?
In the end, optimists and pessimists are equally right. It’s just that the optimists are healthier and less worried in the meantime. That’s my take on it, anyway, simple minded as it might be.
What side of the line do you fall on? And how’s that working for you? Do you feel you have to defend your point of view?