"...a doorstop to despair." Whatever does that mean?
1. Despair is the door in a frame, and a good novel holds open the hard barrier of despair itself?
2. Despair is the room beyond, and a good novel holds open the door to "...grime and torment..."?
3. A good novel takes us through the stoppered, hard door from our own ordinary, daily hard despair into a room where we get to minutely examine a whole world full of little else but despair?
Doesn't real life already demand all the bravery I can muster? I must be brave to read a "good novel" too? Bah!
There is a song in the Unitarian Universalist hymn book that has the phrase, "...ours is no caravan of despair..." and I go there pretty often for the encouraging words. It's entirely too easy for me to slide into irony and cynicism and then to my very own version of despair. If McCann is right, then I really must turn to the study of mathematics, astronomy, astrophysics and the like, or I will die.
Mary Oliver, though, a poet who has won multiple prizes including the Pulitzer, writes lines of this whole, real word. A clearly, carefully observed real world. Her poems create an unsentimental, flawless, transparent space where I go to be calmed and encouraged to simply see "something of value, no matter how small." Each distilled element of minutiae found in the lines of Oliver's poems builds this reader's experience of value on a grand scale.
Wendell Berry writes poems and novels of similar grand value.
"You are what you eat" became a cliche because it is so true, and it applies not only to corporeal food but intellectual, emotional and spiritual food as well. What will I become, reading "good novels" that fit McCann's definition?
I prefer―and for sustaining my life I need―to experience words, sentences, even novels that draw a large picture with hope already woven in. I want to see bravery and grit, kindness, compassion and generosity of heart. I want to see these non-despairing elements illustrated and reaping their own reward. I want characters to walk with, to contemplate these life balancing things so that I, too, may walk with and contemplate them.
Despair is already too evident and plentiful.
Now, March 2, I wish to add that both the comments posted here, and also the ones sent directly to me, are true. First, "finding a steady source of words (and sentences) that tease, reveal and sustain us takes time, diligence and a good measure of luck." Yes. For every writer, so true.
Second, it is absolutely true that I do not know any context for the particular lines I riffed from. I would add I have not even read any of Mr. McCann's work. (I will certainly look for his books, and notice more, now.) I have no cause to imagine I know what he really meant here.
Anyone could easily take a sentence or two of my own out of context and twist it to say things not intended at all. In fact, it happens to all of us often, just not necessarily in a very public way.
Third, indeed, a doorstop holds a door closed or half-ajar as well as fully open. Perhaps McCann intends to say that a good novel provides a barrier to despair rather than a wide-propped invitation to step into the house of despair. Or perhaps his work really takes ugliness and threads it with beauty.
My experience of the physical as well as metaphorical is that the brighter the light, the more clearly shadows are cast. In brightest light, even shadowed places are not dark and can be quite beautiful. Only places extremely distant or completely closed off from light are completely dark. And there, too, there may be great beauty―think caverns―that is simply beyond human perception.
And sometimes too much light can be destructive.