Recently I had an unsettling experience: A reader of one of my novel manuscripts told me that at one point, she found my story so depressing, she had to put it down for three days before continuing.
I was stunned. Although I try not to sugarcoat the difficulties of life, driving readers to psychiatrists is not my goal. Ideally I would like to make them feel better. That is why I never write stories in which everyone dies at the end, although that worked well for Shakespeare.
In fact, no matter how rough my stories get, I try to identify threads of genuine hope. By hope I not mean fake happy endings where villains turn good and heroes get everything they want. Fake happy endings are like scary clowns; they give me nightmares.
By hope I mean a place where something promising glimmers in the darkness of struggle or hardship. It might be big or small. But hope assumes the possibility of despair. It means acknowledging the unpleasant emotions.
In the offending passages of my novel I wanted to depict life as I saw it; in doing so, I had apparently called forth the terrifying visage of the kraken. I confided to someone my concerns about what my reader had said about having to escape my novel for three days.
My confidante responded, “Wow, what an awesome compliment.”
I blinked, wondering if I had understood correctly. “A compliment?”
“Of course. How is it not a compliment?”
“Look. If someone had to put your book down, it meant that you had the ability to move them. They felt so much for your character that they had to stop reading. That is power.”
I was silent a moment, absorbing the shift in perspective, and I had to agree. The criticism from my reader had created a knee-jerk feeling of shame, but how often have I blogged that creating fiction is not about pleasing anyone, that it is about writing what I like and being honest?
Besides, “dark” writing is among the most powerful. Two of my favorite books, A Separate Peace and Flowers for Algernon, are sad. I have read each of them over five times, not because I love sadness per se but because the books are so powerful and beautifully written; they made me feel. However, some people I know hate the books for the very same reasons I love them.
Fiction is all about making readers feel, yet emotional stop signs seem to be everywhere. They come from editors, agents, critics, readers, and writing “authorities.” They are confusing, and if you succumb to them, writing ceases to be a vehicle of expression and becomes a matter of not being rude, which taps into my good girl southern upbringing: “Be a lady. You may evoke this emotion, but not that. You may evoke anxiety but not fear. You may evoke joy but not grief; you may discuss life, but not death.”
I admire writers who ignore the stop signs from readers, critics, and editors, writers who are willing to explore the dark underbelly of life, who illuminate the sensitive places that others would rather not see. Someone once summed up this idea by telling me that the best art “comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable.”
I like that. Often, what comforts the disturbed is honesty. Disturbed people know that there are times when life holds no punches, when it reveals its starkest face. They are likely to become more depressed by forced cheer than negative imaginary events. They do not flinch when they see the face of the kraken because they have seen, and dealt with, worse. Fiction should not shy away from the fact that sometimes it is unbelievably hard to be human.
On the purely technical end, writers like Stephen King have advised: Be “mean” to your fictional characters. A character who suffers is usually a sympathetic character; besides, conflict is the engine of drama.
But is it possible to go too far? Is there an emotional intensity limit? I confess, I have read some great books that horrified me so much, I had trouble turning pages. An example is the novel All Quiet On the Western Front, a fictional account of German soldiers on the battlefront during World War I. The novel plunged me into a world far more grisly than any zombie movie, partly because the story was so believable. The book conjured images of belching corpses and gory, dehumanizing violence. The hopeless atmosphere formed a death-scented cloud that followed me around for days even after I had set the book aside.
When I complained to my brother about how the book was affecting me, he said, “Maybe that’s why it’s such a big classic. Think about it. All you see is tiny printed marks on a page, but the author used them to make you experience the horror of war. He made you feel something of what the soldiers in the trenches of World War I really felt. Pretty amazing.”
My brother was right. Although I have no urge to reread All Quiet On the Western Front, I have great respect for the author, Erich Maria Remarque, a World War I veteran. I admire the courage it must have taken to so intimately confront his personal nightmares in order to communicate them to others.
Like All Is Quiet On the Western Front, much “literary” fiction delves into depressing aspects of life. Another novel that was hard for me to read was The Idiot by the Russian author Dostoyevsky. In general I love Dostoevsky, but the book was just too much for me; it ends with the girlfriend of the main character being killed in a grisly way and the main character going insane. I hated the experience of reading the book, but it had every right to be written.
However, I prefer that my own stories not end in utter morbid despair, with everyone dying or going insane, but there are writers who have made it work. No emotion is wrong. Writing deals with life in every aspect, though not all readers will approve.
My reader was certainly not happy to see “the face of kraken” appear in my fiction, but some readers have told me that what they enjoy most about my writing is my willingness to delve into areas that other writers go out of their way to avoid.
That being said, I am not all about conjuring fictional misery. Hope is a reality and deserves as much acknowledgement as suffering. I write not just to evoke painful emotions, but to celebrate the promise for finding some good in the rare experience of existing, even if it is only an insight, a resolution, a kind gesture, or a transcendent taste of Rocky Road ice cream.
That being said, it makes no sense to celebrate hope without acknowledging despair, suffering, and fear. I once read that some parents had complained to J.K. Rowling that her Harry Potter stories were too scary, and that she should “tone them down” to prevent their children from having nightmares. Rowling responded by saying that she did not write fiction so that children could sleep more soundly at night. I heartily agree with Rowling.
Now I have a decision to make. Should I tone down the more disturbing aspects of my novel for increased palatability? There appears to be an attitude typified in Hollywood movies that commercial fiction, particularly in genres like fantasy, should never get too “deep;” to sell, they should be happy, escapist adventures, universally enjoyed and ultimately forgettable.
This attitude ignores the abundance of wildly successful books and movies that evoke painful emotions, yet made a lot of money, such as the bestselling novel Bridge to Terabithia. In 1928 All Quiet on the Western Front, the book I could hardly stand to read, made 2.5 million dollars during the first 18 months and was translated into 22 languages.
Although my genres, fantasy and science fiction, are generally considered escapist, I want my writing to offer more than amusing diversions. I have to decide: Is it worth comforting the disturbed to disturb the comfortable?
I believe it is. Besides, fiction thrives on contrast. Hope burns effulgent against a backdrop of shadow. Death reveals life to be the rare gift that it is. Pleasure is more potent after suffering.
In writing no emotion is off-limits; to forbid any one of them shackles the writer and drains power from story telling. Writing addresses every aspect of life, the good and the bad. Sometimes it is necessary to risk depressing a reader. “Summoning the kraken” may cause some readers to flee, but showing its face, in all its uncompromising starkness, is the most potent way to reveal, demystify, and tame it.
If you enjoyed this post you might like my other writing. Take a moment and sign up for my free starter library. Click here. Also my new novel “The Ghosts of Chimera” will soon be published by the folks over at Rooster and Pig Publishing.