Zadie Smith and “comeuppance stories”
A few years ago, author Zadie Smith gave an interview about NW where she noted that “The question of whether people ‘get what they deserve'” is a central and serious question for all readers. She continued, “…in the end it’s a very serious ethical question. Whether you believe that or not creates all kind of political difference and moral difference so I don’t want to enter into it. The book was written exactly for that reason, to create a little problem you enter and solve for yourself.”
Personally, I’ve always been huge comeuppance reader—I love schadenfreude and I love when characters “get what they deserve.” It’s tidy and it lets you walk away from a story feeling like everything went according to plan.
That said, the more I thought about Zadie Smith’s words, the more I realized how boring comeuppance stories (if you will) can be. If you can tell who the bad character is and who the good character is so easily that their just desserts are completely satisfying, how simple and how mundane was the story?
Comeuppance stories can be fun and tremendously entertaining, particularly when you’re looking for just that—entertainment over mental exercise. Some of my favorite books are essentially comeuppance stories (Crocodile on the Sandbank springs to mind). But how often do you think about a comeuppance story after you’ve finished it? Does it linger in your mind, puzzling and challenging you even days later? Most often, the answer is no.
So, yes, this is an interesting question for all readers to consider, but I don’t think it’s actually an ethical question, as Smith posits (I can’t really see choosing to enjoy just desserts or not in literature reflecting back on your moral fiber). Rather, it’s a question about how challenged you want to be by your reading material. For me, I know that answer changes daily, even hourly, depending on my mood. But it’s still valuable to stop and consider, even reconsider, what you’re reading and why. Are you being entertained or are you being engaged?