Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Something Borrowed Something Blue

Okay, so the post title doesn't exactly fit, but I wanted to build off of Scott's "Old and New" post yesterday. Shoot me.

I AM going to talk about something blue, however, and surely these thoughts are borrowed, mostly from Harold Bloom. Maybe "Something Harold Something Blue" would have been a better title.

I'm a slight depressive. I like to be depressed. I used to fight it--being surrounded by people who are happy made me think that I was supposed to be happy too. Then, a few years ago, I had a shift in my world view. I decided that I liked experiencing a fuller range of emotions. I didn't mind feeling sadness as long as I wasn't sad all the time. (Strangely, this made feeling sad a happy experience, which perhaps messes up my logic.)

It's probably not surprising, then, that some of my stories are about depressing topics. I used to think this was amateurish--don't we seem to dwell on the depressing dramas when we first pour our hearts out? But, as I was recently reading some criticism by Harold Bloom, I saw how he was celebrating many dark writers. Bloom doesn't admire Faulkner because Faulkner knows how to show and not tell. No, Bloom admires Faulkner because Faulkner has explored and beautifully rendered the dark side of his characters. So, while a trickling steam of rejections has been depressing me lately, I feel hopeful after reading about the classics discussing depression.

Same thing with sympathetic characters. I can get caught up in rooting for a protagonist as much as the next reader. But, I'm still fascinated by the Momoi Gimpeis and the Joe Christmases and the Brods and the Mahlkes--the characters that seem to maneuver despite their hopelessness and nihilism.

But, I wonder: has the range of literary acceptability gotten smaller over the decades? Do people--even a small subset of people--still want to read about darkness? Or, more generally, do people still want to explore books about a variety of emotions, or have we centered more on reading for joy? Or, am I alone?


  1. Davin, I assume you mean do readers want a dark protag, because most books have some darkness in them--to have a conflict, or a bad guy to root against. It's hard to say from a mainstream perspective, but I honestly haven't read many things more compelling than the Bell Jar. I even liked the movie, and I didn't think I would.

    I know it's another movie, but I've been sick and unable to focus on much so I've been watching movies--I just watched Rachel Getting Married--which has a "dark," certainly depressed, protag as well.

    I think people do want to read about these issues for two reasons--because a lot of people can relate, even if in their daily life they pretend they can't, and people want to understand.

    Getting people to think, or to step outside of a comfort zone is a good thing!

    That being said, it takes me awhile to "recover" from reading or watching something depressing. Probably because I can succumb to that feeling more easily than I usually admit. So I might have to be in the mood for it--or maybe not in an already down mood to be able to take it in.

    Really nice post.

  2. I see a lot of darkness in books. Our book group noticed recently that we had chosen a string of dark books, many of which were award winners: The Book Theif, by Marcus Zusak, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, The Gathering by Anne Enright, When We Were Orphans by Kazuro Ishiguro. Wonderful literature, yes. Cheerful? Definitely not.

    The surge in supernatural themes in YA is certainly looking at the dark side. Vampires are now being replaced by ghosts. Most of the teens I see in the library are reading these books, as opposed to the Gossip Girl type of high school stories.

  3. I think books can get away with tragedy better than film. I don't mind a strong literary ending (tragic or uplifting), and I usually despise a neat and tidy "Hollywood ending."

    People still yearn for a range of emotions. Look at the success of THE LOVELY BONES, a very tragic tale at its heart, its characters conflicted and depressed, but still a great read (and a bestseller...5 million copies sold for a debut author? May the rest of us be so fortunate!).

  4. I'm thinking the downturn in the economy and jobless rates even readers who embrace literary will want something upbeat. We'll see . . .

    Me, as a reader? All the pieces that moved me the most are huuggggge downers: Tess of D'U, "As I Lay Dying", The Road, Wally Lamb and Flannery O'Connor's works. I embrace darkness.

    As a writer, a majority of my stuff is hopeful, go figure.

  5. As I've gotten older (full disclosure: I'm only 26, so take this with a grain of salt), I've realized that I prefer reading things that explore the dark side of human nature more than the ones that are all sweetness and light.

    Does this mean I don't need the hopeful, happy things as filler in between the dark stuff? No, of course not. You can't read about darkness all the time ... you'd go bonkers.

    That being said, I think higher of someone who can write darkness without slipping into what I've termed "unrelenting teenage angst." It takes a skilled wordsmith to do that.

  6. Some days I like to channel Sylvia Plath. I can't always be bright and airy, spouting rainbows and butterflies. It just doesn't feel authentic - when I try to "right" myself by writing positive fluff, it always backfires and sounds canned. Great post. - G

  7. Personally, I tend to be a very happy person. But I find when I push myself and write in darker themes, I write better.

  8. Davin, these are questions I ask myself all the time. I agree with Beth - I'm a generally happy person, and I love happy endings and positive themes, but the darker themes and protagonists are what I end up appreciating the most, and where I write better as well.

    I've always thought it takes a more talented writer to make a darker book appealing than make a lighter book appealing. If that makes sense.

    I've grown the most during my darkest times. Last night, actually, I had a particularly rude "writing" wake-up call that sent me tumbling into a dark corner. It's one of those moments I'll remember for a lifetime, and something that will help me keep growing.

  9. This one is complicated for me. I tend to get depressed and so have avoided some books and movies I know are very dark because I don't think I can take more. And I don't want to be left alone in the dark--unless the author can explain why I'm there and what possiblities of hope there may be. I think Margaret Atwood accomplished that in "The Handmaid's Tale," which is devastating but leaves a door open.
    I also love dark that is balanced with humor and last-ditch hope. For instance, I'm a geeky Buffy fan because it is witty and real, despite vampires and other things that bump in the night. But it is also dark and painful: she kills her first love and runs away from home, loses her mom to a tumor, has sex with a really Bad Boy, battles her gone-evil best friend, gives up her life for her sister and many more spirit-crushing events. And I watch it over and over.
    And I love the no-happy-ending of Romeo and Juliet and Tristan and Isolde. So why is that? Because life sucks and sometimes we cry? I don't know. Sometimes crying is good.
    I think it all comes back to whether the story hits a universal chord.

  10. ...I think dark and depressing aren't necessarily the same. Many times they're not. Something really light could be depressing, could cause negative feelings when people realize that such lightness could never exist in real life. Something really dark could cause positive feelings because it could make people appreciate that normally life is not that bad. Plus, a positive ending on an almost completely dark-seeming story could change the whole story into a hopeful one. (There's a perfect illustration of that sentence in a well-known movie, but I won't name it because that would spoil it.)

    My writing is often depressing, but not necessarily dark; only sometimes is it the latter. Dark writing is still being read, people still want to experience dark fiction--look at all the violent books and movies that keep selling.

    Depressing writing's another story. Depressing writing is difficult to sell at any time, and very difficult at this time. In my opinion, an artist's current society will usually resist extreme sadness with everything it's got. Then, maybe after a focuser-on-sadness artist is dead, people will finally give in as I guess they like the hopeless-artist-life, hopeless-artist-death equation. As long as the depressing stuff winds up totally mirroring the artist's real life, society loves it! Isn't that nice? :/

    I do think that today most people read for escapism, not for enlightenment, not for enjoyment even, but to escape the world's and life's depressing problems. Ultimately, they want happy, happy, happy! Ignorance is bliss...or maybe bliss is ignorance.

  11. Jennifer, Thanks for your thoughts. Michelle and I have chatted about this topic before, and she also mentioned this idea of needing energy to read dark or depressing literature. I think that's true. I also think what you say about people wanting to be able to relate to the material is true.

    Michelle, Really great points. Thanks! I'm at the end of Olive Kitteridge and I recently finished Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro. That book truly is heartbreaking and gorgeous. Thanks for reminding me!

    Rick, I'm surprised you didn't bring up The Road! That's also a dark one--I won't ruin the ending for anyone.

    Rebecca, very interesting points. I also like to read downers. My writing is often down, but I think sometimes I chicken out and try to tack on a faux happy ending. I should stop doing that.

    MattDel, I agree with you that variety is important. That's how I feel about it. And, you are all reminding me that there are still plenty of dark books out there.

    Georgina, good point. I wonder if we are all destined to just write what we are meant to write.

    Beth, wow that's very interesting. I wonder why that is! I had guessed you for a happy lover, but I can tell that you can do dark too. :)

    Michelle, thanks for your thoughts. We need to chat! But, I'm glad that you can see what happened to you as an opportunity to grow.

    Tricia, very beautifully said. Thank you. I agree that it is complicated. I think that's why my own thoughts on it feel confused.

    F. P., Thank you very much for jumping in and for pointing out this difference. Yes, I agree that there's a difference, and I realized I had gotten sloppy about it in my post. I have to say that the book I mentioned before, "Never Let Me Go" is one that makes me think of you. I really loved this book, but it took a long time for it to sink in because it is so original of a concept. I wonder if you would like it.

  12. Enjoyed this post – I think that all art (not just literature) is essentially about communicating thoughts and feelings, and a full range of feelings includes the "bad" ones.

    I don't think depressive literature is necessarily amateurish, although I think people often dismiss it as such. Sure, sometimes we want to read for escapism, but sometimes we read for comfort, or to have our minds broadened.

    Some of the greatest novels ever written are essentially books about angst – Nausea, for one.

    I guess it has to be done well – to avoid the "teenage angst" Mattdel mentions, but I think that's the same when you write about any emotion.

  13. There is so much variety in what kinds of literature readers like, and what kinds of literature readers feel like reading at different times. I don't think there will ever NOT be a market for dark books, or light books, or any particular type of books. Maybe within one single publishing house, but not in the publishing world.

    Personally, my favorite books delve into darkness honestly and bravely, but they also have humor and a variety of other emotions throughout the story. One thing I dislike in a book is emotional sameness. I HATE unwaveringly gloomy books as much as I hate 100% fluff stories. Books that make me feel various emotions and blended or complicated emotions maintain a play of tension that keeps me interested.

  14. I actually don't read for joy. I mean, yes, I love happy endings, but I love a book that can bring me to tears. I also like dark, brooding characters. I just like when nice things happen to them at the end.

    I must say, that after a certain age, I think everyone expects a certain degree of darkness in their reading. After all, life isn't kittens and moonbeams, so a book would be very unbelievable if it were.

  15. N. God Savage, well said. And, I appreciate another book reference. Seeing this list of dark or depressing books has been eye-opening for me.

    Recessionista Genie, very good point. Having that range of emotions is something I try to pay attention to, even if there is an overall mood or tone that can be depressing. I think you are absolutely right.

  16. Dominique, thanks for saying that. It is a real pick-me-up to hear that people can still read depressing stuff! What you say is interesting because I feel like as people get older they tend to steer towards happier stuff. Maybe it cycles. Hmmm...

  17. Davin, firstly, sympathies on the "trickling stream of rejections" - nothing more depressing that that! :(

    Secondly, you've touched on a very important issue. I suggest that the reading world (although this applies to movies too) is steadily splitting into two extreme camps: one where everything has a Pollyanna glow and provides the reader with sheer escapism entertainment (nothing wrong with that; there are always times when we need to be cheered up!) and the other extreme camp is the camp of readers who want erudite tomes which explore the darkest side of humanity.

    This is where I have a difficulty. Yes, there are times when I want light and frothy, but there I also times when I want to stretch myself with the books I'm reading. My problem is that most of the books that stretch me have the most depressing endings and, as I'm highly susceptible to atmosphere, I can walk around depressed for days.

    What I would like to see is these two extreme camps move towards a centre point. Why can't we have stories that explore the deepest darkest parts of human nature but, at the same time, offer us as reader some sort of HOPE that all is not lost, that all life is not meaningless, and human nature is not so twisted that the darkness inevitably wins. Yes, in real life darkness often wins, but sometimes miracles happen and there can be happy ever afters.

    Oh, I'm not explaining this well. Let me use a quote that encapsulates what I'm trying to express.

    "We have enough people who tell it like it is. Now we need a few who tell it like it can be." Robert Orben

    What I believe is that writers *can* write deep, challenging texts with a happy ending which, in hard times, can both entertain and challenge their readers. This writer will be unafraid to show the dark, depressing side of life (the way it is - the hopelessness we all feel at times) but at the same time will offer hope that there is something, even a tiny little thing, that can bring joy & hope (the way it can be - something we can aspire to, even if we don't yet experience it in reality). Remember the last scene in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot? A few small green leaves appear on the bare, sterile tree and offer a tiny bit of hope, despite the hopelessness. That small touch shows that the tree (and thus Vladimir and Estragon) hold the potential to be something greater than they currently are; perhaps, even, regain their lost paradise (what they were before they were tramps and lost hope)

  18. Actually, I've read Never Let Me Go and I had mixed feelings about it; it's well-written and I was so engrossed in it all along, but then I found it so hopeless in the end! I was so depressed afterward that I was angry I'd read it; I kept cursing it when I'd think about it lol, which I guess shows its power. Your heartbreaking is the best way to describe that story. As far as very depressing books go, that's one of the best I've read.

    But I generally see a problem with works that don't have contrast, that I think aren't balanced. To me, contrast makes lights look lighter and darks look darker, makes happy look happier, and sad look sadder, and also makes a complete whole. If there's NO light, that's unnatural, that's unfinished somewhat.

    In NLMG I can't remember if no light exists, no happiness; I can only remember so much sadness, I couldn't catch my breath at times. Usually with little-to-no-contrast works like this, readers become hypnotized by and therefore desensitized to the extreme content, and the extreme content loses its punch. But I think Ishiguro managed to pull off this story anyway because the other aspects are so good technically, they compensate for any balance issues.

    In my own work I always shoot for balance. Most (not all) of my depressing writings are simply depressing, not extremely slit-your-wrists depressing, as I'm very depressive in real life and I know how bad that can feel; I don't want to make others so depressed. So I often use humor to cancel out some of the sorrow. My writings are more about how people can and do work through all this, to come out the other side at least a little. I sort of write "problem novels," but for adults.

    I think NLMG is the slit-your-wrists kind of depressing. These books are very difficult to sell; I'm surprised that one did. I guess it's true that exceptions always exist. And as I often say: don't worry about what people supposedly "want to read"; you've just got to write what you want to write and somehow convince others to read it. It seems Ishiguro did this.

  19. I think F.P. makes a good point that there is a difference between books that are about serious subjects and unhappy outcomes, and books that are unrelentingly grim. I don't so much care for those latter books, though some readers' tastes tend in that direction.

    Certainly I don't worry about if my own work is "light" or "dark." It is what it is, though I do like to have contrast in my writing, with the darkest moments being offset by comic passages.

    In the end, I think the whole "light/dark" issue is beside the point. Write what you care about.

  20. Ann Victor, thank you expressing all of these thoughts. I do understand what you mean, and I think that I tried to do this with Rooster. But, for me, that attempt to keep balanced might have also been a chickening out at the end. I wanted hope, but I'm not sure how much hope there really was.

    F. P., I definitely understand what you mean. I'm glad you have read it so that we can both know what the other is talking about! And, I get what you mean about wishing you had never read it. I don't feel that way about NLMG, but I have about other works. Regarding balance, I think that I strive for balance, but my view has been toward a body of work rather than a book. I see myself writing lighter books, happier ones, and some that are dark and depressing, rather than balancing all that within one book. For me, both ways can work, though.

  21. I enjoyed reading this post and its comments. Goes to show I'm not the only one that writes in a dark state of mind. I agree with Lady Glamis, "I've grown the most during my darkest times." When I first started writing I thought I was too depressing and no one would enjoy reading anything I wrote. But as the years went by, I've had good response to my work. I've done spoken word/poetry slams and the pieces sometimes are somewhat morbid, but people say I tell many truths in them yet ask, "how do you have the courage to stand in front of everyone and put it all out there?" I tell them, 'why I lie, isn't that the way life really is?!'

  22. Davin- I was really, really tempted to mention THE ROAD!

  23. I like to read! I like variety in what I read. I don't want everything I read to end in 'happily ever after' for all the characters.

    Case in Point - Frodo in Lord of the Rings. He didn't end up 'happily ever after'. I don't think he was truly ever happy back in the Shire. Perhaps he found happiness in Valinor . . . perhaps not. That part of the tale hasn't been written.

    I think, for me, characters are more relatable when their dark emotions are explored. Yes, I want an escape when I read, but I also want a bit of realism as well. I think when a writer can artfully combine both those aspects, it's a very, very good thing.

    Great post.


  24. Davin - are you really me in disguise???

    I'm a slight depressive. I like to be depressed. I used to fight it--being surrounded by people who are happy made me think that I was supposed to be happy too. Then, a few years ago, I had a shift in my world view. I decided that I liked experiencing a fuller range of emotions. I didn't mind feeling sadness as long as I wasn't sad all the time. (Strangely, this made feeling sad a happy experience, which perhaps messes up my logic.)

    In my own writing I've found that I write more 'intense' than 'dark' characters but I always have to have some little redeeming sense of hope within them. Because as we all know, life is not a fairy tale but at least we can try to think so.

    In my own personal reading I stay as far away from dark/depressing as I can, why put myself over the edge if I don't have to. So mostly everything I read has to have a happy ending. If it doesn't, like F.P. it sticks with me for days and I curse the book and myself for even picking it up in the first place.

    Fantastic post!

  25. I know I am a little late in the day to reply, but I wanted to throw in my two cents. I'm a depressive like you, and I love, love, love when a story makes me cry... like The Bridges of Madison County, my favorite sobby-read.

    I like to explore a range of emotions in reading and writing, but I would personally rather read (and write) a heartbreaker than to have the loose ends neatly tied in a last-page bow. Happily ever after isn't realistic, so I don't want stories to end that way. Give me regret or give me death, and (please) give me a reason to be moved to tears.

  26. I don't feel like I read for joy or darkness. I just want interesting characters and something that makes me realize something I didn't know (or forgot I knew).

    I think as a kid I wanted more happy endings. And I wanted characters to make good (like morally good)choices. Now, I'd kind of rather see characters ruin their lives a bit.

    I like sad books too. I loved The Road. The movie comes out Friday! I cried when I watched the trailer.

    This post also made me think of Flowers for Algernon. A very sad book, but so memorable.

  27. I'm not a "happy" person either (I think 90% of people fake happiness anyway.)

    "has the range of literary acceptability gotten smaller over the decades?"

    No. Books with dark protagonists have always been a minority compared to those published with good protagonists. It's not because readers don't love dark characters either.Readers will root for the bad guy but we have to have a good reason for it. We have to identify with the character. One key element in a good bad character are "good" intentions. However Pete Dexter's characters are balanced razor blade's edge-sometimes even their intentions aren't good and yet somehow readers identify with the characters.

    Anyway I've read through a couple of your posts and you sound like a ship that's lost its anchor. Even a little depressed about "conforming". I've got a couple of theories on this but nothing finite.

    1. Actively not conforming is form of conforming. Its also a great source of frustration.

    2. Conforming is feeling of compromise- compromise of our-self (and thus integrity) or with our- self.

    Interestingly (or not) all forms of comprise come down to ego. What the ego has defined as boundaries. Sometimes compromise is the act breaking down self-imposed walls. Some times it's exposing those walls.

    The ego hates both because they expose self truth and ever scary change.

    Once upon a time I used to give riding lessons. I'd tell the students to do x. Sometimes they'd do y which was completely wrong, but most often they would attempt x. Only they didn't enough. Their brain said "I change a lot." And often they'd shout at me "I'm doing it!"

    "Then do it more!"

    Among drug addicts there's a myth that changing location is key to recovery. There's also a saying, "put an asshole on a plain in Cleveland and you've still got an asshole when he/she gets off in LA."

    My point here is that our perception of change is always greater than the degree to which change occurs- we fight with our-self to get an inch and the brain says "we've changed miles. This is bad. I don't feel comfortable here." In the end we regress only to have gained a measly centimeter. Only we don't know that. It feels like we've changed a lot.

    The trick to getting better isn't to write a novel in thirty days or to have an unconventional character, or to follow all the rules or to ignore the all either. The trick is to remember the voice that's preaching "wrong" "no" "bad" isn't referencing to the words on the page or the techniques being used. It's referring to change.

    And it keeps you in a box. It makes you chase your tail. It makes progression and tedious slow.

    Just as "object in mirror appear closer then they appear" personal growth is often much smaller than it feels.

    And above all else, PUSH so the above truth is marginal.


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