On “depressing” fiction

by look i have opinions

“I have never been able to understand the complaint that a story is ‘depressing’ because of its subject matter. What depresses me are stories that don’t seem to know these things go on, or hide them in resolute chipperness; ‘witty’ stories, in which every problem is an occasion for a joke, ‘upbeat’ stories that flog you with transcendence. Please. We’re grown-ups now, we get to stay in the kitchen when the other grown-ups talk.

“Far from being depressed, my own reaction to stories like these is exhilaration, both at the the honesty and the art. The art gives shape to what the honesty discovers, and allows us to face what in truth we were already afraid of anyway. It lets us know we’re not alone.”

—Tobias Wolff (in his introduction to The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories)

Those last three sentences sum up my feeling about so-called “dark” fiction, or at least the best of it. And yet the familiar complaint (“Too dark, too depressing”) has some validity.

For one thing, depending on the current trend, writers sometimes get an inordinate amount of admiration for tackling “difficult” subject matter, making their protagonists bad people, writing unhappy endings, and promoting bleak worldviews. Look at what happened to superhero comics after Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. Readers can persuaded to forget, temporarily, that giving Batman a “dark side” (or AIDS or schizophrenia or a Holocaust-related origin story) doesn’t necessarily make him “complex” or “relevant.” Unhappy endings can be as lazy as happy ones; despair can be as lazy as chipperness.

For another thing, it’s possible for depressing subject matter to be too real, too “relevant” to some readers’ lives. I don’t really want to give specific examples of this. Art ought to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, as the saying goes, but that isn’t always possible. Sometimes art disturbs the disturbed even more. Sometimes it disturbs them unfairly, without warning. Sometimes it gives the disturbed new things to be disturbed about. Often it comforts the comfortable, reinforcing our unexamined assumptions, justifying our complacency.

And I think it’s also possible to write depressing stuff with exquisite craft and sensitivity and yet, somehow, to fail to exhilarate. “It lets us know we’re not alone”—yes, but only if we don’t already know we’re not alone. If we’re already surrounded by fellow sufferers, if we’ve already had to face our fears, then honesty is likely to be redundant.