Why So Serious?

Roy Lichtenstein's I tried – I really tried – to make it through Breaking Bad. Admittedly, I waited until the series was nearly over to even watch an episode, but within the first 30 minutes I could immediately see why people got caught up in it. The writing is topnotch, the acting incredibly good, and the conflict is constant and powerful. And the episodes were like crystal meth itself: almost instantly addictive, causing me to fall into nightly Netflix binges.

Still, I ended up bailing out late in the second season, for exactly the reason I’d been so reluctant to start watching the show in the first place: as I had feared, it just got too dark and depressing for me. I only watch TV late at night, and those just aren’t the kinds of thoughts and images I want to put into my brain right before going to bed.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the show since then, and at a broader level it has made me ponder this question:

Why are we drawn to dark, tragic, and/or flat-out depressing stories – both as audience members and as storytellers?

On one hand, I frankly question how healthy it is for us to focus on such dark topics, with so much lying, pain, suffering, violence and death. On the other, I wonder whether we’re drawn to such things because up until just a century or two ago, our own day-to-day lives were filled with far more violence, hardship and darkness than many of us now experience, so perhaps it addresses some psychological/emotional void we’re feeling. Or maybe it’s that awesome word schadenfreude, describing our propensity to draw pleasure from the suffering of others – in this case, even others who are fictional.

Going straight to the source

I soon concluded that I had no freaking idea what the answer was. And when I can’t find an answer, one of my first instincts is to find somebody who knows more about the given topic than I do. So I decided to take advantage of my friendships with numerous writers whose work is far more dark and serious than my own, and essentially ask them: Why so serious? Read on to see their answers.

The unreleased power of purposely hidden emotion

Booklist summarized Jessica Keener’s debut novel Night Swim like this: “When her mother is killed in a car accident, Sarah, 16, lives in ‘a cavity of pain,’ and each chapter in this eloquent first novel captures the teen’s anger, guilt, loneliness, and sorrow at her wrenching loss.” So yeah, I think Jessica qualifies for this questionnaire. Here’s what she told me when I asked her what drives her choices:

“I’d say I’m drawn to subjects that are often submerged, situations that we are afraid to disclose, and, in particular, emotions that are buried or purposely hidden. Why? I think there’s unreleased power in those things. We live in a culture where people are discouraged from showing their full range of emotions. Perkiness, cheerfulness, putting on a smiley face? Those things are applauded. That’s fine to a point. Tears and grief are acceptable for a short time, but no dwelling allowed.

 I’d say I’m drawn to subjects that are often submerged, situations that we are afraid to disclose, and, in particular, emotions that are buried or purposely hidden. Why? I think there’s unreleased power in those things.
~ Jessica Keener

“Yet, depression is rampant. I like to drag this heavier, gooier emotional matter out for airing, find out its shape, learn what it’s made of; make it less monstrous, perhaps. When we don’t, we become rigid and afraid. Relationships suffer. We snap. From there, we lose our sense of humanity and our ability to feel compassion.

“Taking on difficult subjects like shame or guilt, fear or anger, death and illness can open doors to the universe in a surprising way. Not all doors, but some. In the process, I’ve discovered that dark places can lead to places of light. I find that exhilarating.”

I found it exhilarating, too, when I read Night Swim. And I’m eager to read Jessica’s new collection of short stories, and not just because of its brilliant title: Women in Bed.

Illuminating serious issues for both reader and writer

Jon Clinch writes fiction that I have to emotionally gird myself to read – it’s that dark and intense. And yet reading his work is always a rewarding experience, even if I’m worried about how it might influence my dreams. From his debut Finn, which was named one of the year’s top novels by the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Christian Science Monitor, to more recent work such as The Thief of Auschwitz or the post-apocalyptic fiction he writes under his pen name, Jon has proven himself unafraid of going to the dark places. Here, Jon explains why:

I choose serious subjects because I believe in the power of fiction to illuminate them.
~ Jon Clinch

“I choose serious subjects because I believe in the power of fiction to illuminate them. Although many of the issues in my books are things that we’d probably rather not look at too closely – racism, poverty, the terror of the Holocaust – the tools of character and plot and pacing can draw us in and make us see such things clearly almost in spite of ourselves.

“That goes as much for me as a writer as it does for my readers. By giving ourselves up to the fictional dream, we can learn about the dark matter that lies underneath the world.”

Hmmm – that’s the second light-related reference we’ve seen in this post. Wonder if this will be a recurring theme?

Reaching inside to wrench out truth

I’ve been fortunate enough to speak on panels with Randy Susan Meyers at a couple of literary conferences, and the thing that struck me most was that for somebody who wrote such serious fiction, she is funny as hell! Yet she is another author whose writing takes us down some pretty dark paths: The Miami Herald wrote that her debut The Murderer’s Daughters “dives fearlessly into a tense and emotional story of two sisters anchored to one irreversible act of domestic violence;” similarly, the Huffington Post warned that her new novel The Comfort of Lies “will make you think and wince and maybe even cry.” Randy has blogged about her writing (and reading) choices in the past, and she’s given me permission to quote her sentiments on the topic:

“My favorite childhood books etched themselves on my soul, reached inside me and wrenched out truth. As an adult reader I still feel that way; I’m constantly foraging for books that offer glimpses into a character’s psyche, that go deep enough to make me part of the choir, saying, ‘Oh yeah, me too, tell it, writer. True that, uh huh.’

I try to write with a knife held to my own throat, so that my work will hold as much emotional truth as possible.
~ Randy Susan Meyers

“Now that I am a writer, I’ve learned that reaching so deep isn’t always comfortable. Hey, my daughter’s gonna read this! Hey, husband: this isn’t you! It’s far easier to skate on the surface. But my favorite books, the ones I return to time and again, are those ones gritty enough to have emotional truth (which is very different than the truth of events.)

“Thus, I try to write with a knife held to my own throat, so that my work will hold as much emotional truth as possible. I want to offer what has been given to me – and which, honestly, saved me again and again. Thus, to keep what I consider to be the writer-reader covenant, I work to dig beyond my comfort zone and keep that knife in place.”

From reading Randy’s excellent debut, I can tell you she is not afraid to use that knife.

Braving the darkness to glimpse light and hope

I have to agree with the San Francisco Book Review‘s assessment of Susan Henderson’s debut Up from the Blue as a book “that will continue to haunt you months after you finish reading it.” NPR concurs, calling her novel “an unsettling, yet beautiful story you won’t soon forget.” Here’s how Susan describes her literary passions:

“As a reader, I’ve always been drawn to darker stories – the human spirit set against plagues, orphanages, wars, death row, or behind the closed doors of what look like ordinary homes – to see what people do when faced with impossible choices, the soul stripped bare, trembling and ashamed. There’s a real catharsis when, from the safety of your reading chair, you can face your deepest fears or say, I’ve experienced this too and have always kept it a secret.

 I write dark stories because they’re what I like to read.
~ Susan Henderson

“So that’s my general answer – I write dark stories because they’re what I like to read. But the truth is, Up from the Blue was a story that haunted me until I finally wrote it down. An image kept coming to me of a child in the moment that would change her forever, and my instinct was to squeeze my eyes shut until it went away. It didn’t. So I decided to follow the image and see where it led, giving voice to this child’s grief, and discovering that, even in the midst of dark times, there is love, beauty, friendship. At times, while writing this story, it was hard not to shut my eyes, but I was determined to keep on until I could glimpse light and hope.”

Another light reference! What’s interesting is that I communicated with each of these authors separately, so they didn’t see each other’s responses. Definitely starting to see a theme here…

A reflection of some personal ghosts

Priscille Sibley is a nurse, poet, and author whose novel The Promise of Stardust was called “a gripping, thoughtful, heart-wrenching, and well-written debut that would be a great discussion vehicle for certain book groups” by Booklist. I knew this book dealt with extremely grim subject matter, so I was very interested in how she came to write about such a heavy topic. Here’s her response:

“Simply? I see dead people. (You’re supposed to laugh.) My novel is a reflection of some of the ghosts I carry. I’ve witnessed death – more often than most – because I am a nurse. I have struggled (and still do some days) with end-of-life issues.

 I’ve witnessed death – more often than most – because I am a nurse.
~ Priscille Sibley

“Years ago I took care of a child who was in a persistent vegetative state. His situation was tragic and it bored a hole in me. Later, when the Terri Schiavo court case dominated the nightly news, the story resurrected the ethical questions. In my opinion, the well-meaning do gooders who were trying to keep her on life support didn’t have a good grasp of the reality.

“My what-good-could-possibly-come-of-this frustration gave rise to my what-if premise. What if a woman in a persistent vegetative state were pregnant?

Check out Priscille’s book to see where that question took her. But you might want to have some tissues handy.

Deriving authenticity from loss or hardship

On a similar note, Deanna Roy is an author who uses her writing to advocate for women who have lost babies. Kristin Cook, founder of Faces of Loss, Faces of Hope, said that Deanna’s debut Baby Dust “sheds a light on the all-too taboo subject of miscarriage in a raw, compelling, and incredibly realistic way.” I asked Deanna to share what drives her writing and reading choices, well aware that I was likely delving into a very personal area. But she graciously responded:

“I am a strong believer that pain shared is pain halved. With that aim, when my own first tragedy struck in 1998, I put up a cute little animated-GIF emblazoned GeoCities web site spilling my guts. Hearing from other mothers whose babies had also died helped a lot, and I realized how much power writing could have in helping people feel more connected and less alone.

I am a strong believer that pain shared is pain halved.
~ Deanna Roy

“Almost all my books touch on loss or hardship in some way, and they all draw from personal experiences so that I can make both the descent and the climb back out as authentic as it can be. I’m not sure whether I write to pull myself out of a hole, or to show another person how to get there, but either way, it’s the type of books I’m always drawn to.”

I was really struck by Deanna’s sentiment about sharing pain, and I appreciate her candor. Deanna’s latest book is called Forever Innocent, and you can learn more about it here.

Six authors reinforcing one lesson

I want to thank all six of my friends for baring their souls like this. But I suspect that their willingness to do so is a big part of why they each write such emotionally resonant fiction. This is a lesson that keeps coming up, and we hear it from every angle – from agents, editors, fellow writers, and ultimately from our readers: As writers, we need to dig deep. When we do, that’s when we’ll make an emotional connection with our readers.

I hope you enjoyed the insights my friends shared as much as I did. They’ve definitely assisted in the ongoing process of opening my mind. But I’m still not sure I’ll ever go back to Breaking Bad – despite the fact that it served as the inspiration for my Halloween costume this year. Click here to see it, if you dare.

How about you?

If your tastes – in reading, writing, or viewing – lean towards the dark and/or tragic, have you ever stopped to wonder why? I’d love to hear your input, and gain more insight into what draws many of us to open a book that might in turn make us want to open a vein.

Likewise, if you share my reluctance to be voluntarily exposed to fiction-induced heartbreak and/or nightmares, I’d love to hear from you, too – if nothing else to confirm that I’m not alone. Either way, thanks for reading!

 

Image: Crying Girl by Roy Lichtenstein (1964)
From the permanent collection of the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM)
Lichtenstein-related MAM merchandise available here

 

 

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About Keith Cronin

Author of the novels ME AGAIN, published by Five Star/Gale; and TONY PARTLY CLOUDY (published under his pen name Nick Rollins), Keith Cronin is a corporate speechwriter and professional rock drummer who has performed and recorded with artists including Bruce Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Pat Travers. Keith's fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine, Amarillo Bay, The Scruffy Dog Review, Zinos, and a University of Phoenix management course. A native of South Florida, Keith spends his free time serenading local ducks and squirrels with his ukulele.

Comments

  1. Deb says

    Hello Keith,
    Just reading your post felt like a catharsis of sorts, and I think there’s a reason for that. To live deeply, you have to open yourself up to the possibility of suffering, and it helps to know you have company. One of my favorite old movies is Dark Victory, starring Bette Davis. It makes me cry every time, but I still love it. Love this character’s courage in the face of adversity, love the way I feel wrung out at the end, grieved but inspired. Thanks for interviewing these six authors, and for posting this. It was almost too much to take in all at once. I’ve got to go back and read through it again:-)

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  2. says

    Keith, I applaud your courage to address such a difficult question and you’ve done it quite well. I think these preferences are so personal and are hinged to what we believe about ourselves. I had a bit of a dark childhood so reading or watching dark stories is familiar.

    I love to read and write “quiet horror” and ghost stories because I believe in life beyond the grave and believe in unseen and supernatural powers. My desire to experience this truth in fiction is pretty high. As for pain and loss, this truth is so much easier to accept in a story than in the pain and loss of real life. Maybe fiction’s primary job is to prepare us for similar trials and that’s why we are drawn to certain stories.
    paula cappa´s last blog post ..What is Between the Darkness and the Dawn?

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  3. says

    This is a great question–one that I’ve often asked myself. Like you, I’m interested in dark once in awhile, but for the most part, I find life hard enough and I prefer to be “entertained” in a lighter way.

    I’m willing to bet that for many, watching and reading dark material is an outlet to explore their own pain because they don’t know how to access it.

    Another great post!

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  4. Lynette Eklund says

    If I want sunshine, I need only look at my own life (mostly), but I have dodged a few serious bullets along the way. I’ve seen people at their worst, and supported many through some pretty ugly times.

    I think it’s important for people to read about things beyond their personal comfort zone, so they can consider the pain others may be suffering. Judging people is easy. Understanding them isn’t.

    I write about people who, in some way or another, are outwardly unappealing. Sometimes my characters get into such bad situations, I have to stop writing for a while, just to figure out how (or if) they can get out of their situation alive. But my true hope is, that once the readers walk beside these people for a while, they can find themselves judging them less, and caring about them more.

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  5. says

    In general I tend to enjoy reading (and watching) lighter fare… my thinking has always been that too much of what goes on in real life, the news, etc., feels too heavy as it is. That said, lately I am gravitating more and more toward reading and writing and even watching more emotionally charged things. I’ve been wondering why, and what Jessica says (“We live in a culture where people are discouraged from showing their full range of emotions.”) makes so much sense to me. My own life is a bit crazy right now, and I don’t feel like I can “go there” openly, but through reading and writing and watching I can explore my feelings. Thank you for helping me understand a little more about my recent habits and motivations!
    Julia Munroe Martin´s last blog post ..NaNo Truths

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  6. Densie Webb says

    Thank you for bringing to light the darkness in fiction and providing insight as to why a pacifist like myself is so irresistibly drawn to it. I find that the books, the shows, the movies that linger (sometimes for years) are those that are dark and heartbreaking. Events are excruciating, but somehow inevitable—Bel Canto, The Marriage Plot, Post Birthday World, Me Before You. Clearly, I like relationship stories, but these are not your happily-ever-after fables. I find comfort in the fact that I’m not alone in my fascination with the dark side.

    You’ve also provided books to add to my reading list!

    P.S. Huge BB fan, BTW. My Facebook page pic is of me and a friend at “Los Pollos Hermanos” in Albuquerque. But that’s another story.

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  7. says

    Hi Keith, this post is right up my alley, as so far I’ve been writing some dark material, as did you in Me Again. I have several thoughts about why I do it, and one is the same as yours—you start from a place of despair and end up in a place of great hope. That creates a powerful story arc, and one from which we can all benefit.

    I do not fear darker topics—as a matter of fact, I feel challenged by finding the beauty and meaning in them. Plus, philosophically, I believe that the heights of our joy is limited by the depths of the despair we’ve experienced, our inner equilibrium is commensurate with how hard our world has been rocked, and faith burns brightest when it’s the only thing you have left.

    In a world where violence has become an everyday thing on TV and in gaming and in newspapers, these stories that lead readers through the darkness and into the light (love that) truly move us. Are they “entertaining”? Maybe that’s not the point. These books give us what we need to sustain us: hope.
    Kathryn Craft´s last blog post ..My Life as a Grand Bitch

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  8. says

    Despite the hype I’ve never seen Breaking Bad for the same reasons you cited, it seemed too dark. I was a huge Sons of Anarchy fan and find that this season something changed. The show didn’t change, I did. I don’t know why, but the darkness and violence just doesn’t appeal to me anymore. Call of Duty was my favorite game but now, I can’t play it. Again, the darkness doesn’t appeal to me anymore. Bad thing for a fiction writer? We’ll see.
    Thanks for the insightful post.
    Hugh O. Smith´s last blog post ..The Best of Dad Blogs Last Week

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  9. says

    I was just thinking about this topic in regards to my own genre (historical fantasy). I don’t think lean to the darker side of fantasy as a writer. And as a reader. But I just started a series recently and, as you did with Breaking Bad, I found my own personal line. And once it was crossed, I set the book aside.

    It had to do with a young teen who not only became a killer, but was shepherded to it by an adult. It was well-written and the tension on the page was fantastic, but I just couldn’t put myself in the skin of the protagonist anymore. Or maybe it just made me too uncomfortable to find I *could* put myself there.

    I always want to *feel* when I read. Easy-breezy is not my thing. But I’ve been finding there is a line. Thought provoking stuff. Thanks for delving deep, Keith!
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..Fatherly Inspiration

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  10. Sandra Kring says

    Years ago, I facilitated support groups for adult survivors of childhood trauma. Often, friends would ask me, “How can you stand hearing those depressing stories week after week? Doesn’t it drag you down?” My answer was always the same, “How can it, when every week I get confirmation of the strength of the human spirit?”

    I’ve always been drawn to dark stories, because that’s what I’ve lived, that’s what I know. But I survived those dark times with humor and with hope, so that’s most often how I deliver dark themes in my writing. When I read, however, I don’t require either element in a story. I read, only grateful that the author spoke the truth of just how deeply living can cut us.

    Thanks, Keith, for bringing the topic of darkness to light. And thanks to the stellar authors for their insights on the topic, as well as for the stories they write.

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  11. says

    I’m almost finished with the first book in the Game of Thrones series and I just want it to be over. It’s just one cruel, sad event after another.

    I write dark, but it’s always tinged with some light, usually in the form of biting humor.

    As a reader, I want someone good to prevail. It’s not enough for the bad guy to get what he deserves if he’s already murdered all the good guys.

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  12. says

    Thanks SO much for writing this post, Keith. I never really thought about why I write women’s fiction with “heavy” elements. Every one of my stories deals with a subject that most people don’t want to face, i.e. the death of a new baby, teenage cutting, coma victims, and the like. Even though they all have happy endings I believe people are drawn to those subjects just because of the fact that they’re generally “hush-hush”. Your post has opened my eyes to why other authors write about them. Very helpful.
    Oh, and I love your costume. Sometimes I have to stop watching The Sopranos, too, because the down-and-dirty gets to be too much for my mental state.
    Patti
    Patricia Yager Delagrange´s last blog post ..The Beatles and Edythe Kirchmaier Have The Same Message For Us

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  13. says

    I enjoy both dark and humorous writing, it really depends on the writing and the premise. Concerning Breaking Bad, I made it through the first three episodes of season one. I loved the premise and I agree, the writing is good, but after three, I decided it was too dark, all of it was dark, without much hope. That’s what was missing for me. It wasn’t quite what I pictured, but I can see why people love it.
    Laura Pauling´s last blog post ..Chocolate, Twizzlers, Hot Cocoa and Nano.

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  14. Carmel says

    I do *not* like dark and depressing books or movies. There’s enough of that in life. But I did ask myself the other day, because I love the TV show Scandal — Why do we like to watch people do bad things?

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  15. says

    There are real problems in the world, and there will always be new ones. Fiction helps deal with reality by allowing us to live vicariously the consequences of choices good and bad.

    Without novels, and without someone writing a story of how evil overcomes good – or good wins – we would have to figure out every single problem by ourselves.

    And there are still huge unexplored areas, such as how disability affects life, and whether it should affect all the choices a disabled person has. That’s the little corner I explore: what have we, as a society, pre-decided for those who are not ‘whole’ or ‘normal’ or ‘well’? And what does it mean to be normal – and then lose it?

    Every novel is a bit of a fairytale, a safe visit to a scary land. And some of the answers should surprise you, and some of the writers.
    Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt´s last blog post ..Added PRIDE’S CHILDREN – Chapter 8, Scene 2

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  16. says

    Thanks for all your replies so far – I’m glad so many of you are finding this a valuable topic to explore.

    And I have to say, I’m finding your comments as fascinating to read as the six authors I interviewed. It’s a reminder of how much we can all learn from each other, despite (or maybe because of) the differences in what drives each of us.

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  17. says

    I’ll just throw this out there. I tend to write light, I read light, I think light doesn’t preclude having depth or having meaning. It just isn’t as shocking as dark. As a culture I think we are infatuated with the dark, with tragedy, with people behaving badly and we have to push the parameters to keep interest. Not sure that’s a totally good thing.

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    • says

      I agree with you. Humor, joy, delight, playfulness can represent an equally authentic emotional experience and truth and they are just as important to share. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with exploring darkness (because I believe there is light in darkness and darkness in light), but there could certainly be more openness to joy.
      Andrea Blythe´s last blog post ..Book Review: Dying is My Business by Nicholas Kaufmann

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  18. says

    Interesting post, Keith. Although I like light fare too, I want stories to reveal the characters’ true being, which happens when they are faced with danger (emotional or physical) so great that self-deception is impossible.

    That said, I have my limits. There have been books that I’ve started and had to put aside because I just didn’t have the emotional stamina to read them at that time, maybe because of a stressful week or a subject that cut too close to the bone. I’ve stopped watching most tv dramas because they seem to be trying to outdo each other in being grisly and gory.

    I’ve also thought that this need for tragic stories grows out of our childhood fear of the dark that was always tinged with our curiosity about just what might be out there.

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  19. says

    I enjoy novels with a range of emotions and themes, but that have a good dose of humor…and write that way, as well. However, I tend to veer away from “issue-heavy” books or ones that are too “real life” in shocking ways. That said, I don’t mind the darker side of fantasy, or stories set in an alternate reality.
    Cindy Angell Keeling´s last blog post ..Transformations

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  20. says

    Good article! It’s what my best writing friend and I often talk about, because we both like dark stories, to write and to read.

    I enjoy stories that dig deep emotionally because the characters become more real to me, but I’m always looking for something positive, something of beauty as well. If a story doesn’t have that, I start feeling depressed and I go watch Fawlty Towers again on dvd.

    One of the most amazing books I’ve ever read is Beloved by Toni Morrison. It’s very, very dark, but I think it’s a beautiful story at the same time, and I can’t really explain what that beauty is. Maybe it’s that despite all the violence, the injustice, and the suffering, there’s still love, a love so deep it’s bigger than life. I don’t know… it’s hard to put in words. Needless to say Toni Morrison is one of my heroes.

    There’s nothing I wouldn’t read or write (well, apart from erotica because that’s just not my cup of tea), because what matters to me is how it’s done, and I think it’s important to keep writing about things like violence, incest and paedophilia, sexual violence against women, etc, because it’s important to keep talking about these things, most of all for victims. Not talking about it or not writing about it is not going to make it go away, and fiction is kind of a safe way to explore these things because it’s not about real people. The important thing to me is that it’s done in an authentic way, not to shock people purposely in a sensationalist way, because then the author is getting in the way of the story (look at me! I dare to write about controversial topics!).
    Andrea van der Wilt´s last blog post ..Decisions

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    • says

      Beloved is one of my favorite books of all time. The prose is stunning, and that in and of itself can sometimes be enough to bring me to love a very dark story. But as you mentioned, Beloved also has it’s light. In addition to the love, I think one of the things compelling about the book is the concept of forgiveness, how we forgive the ones we love who have hurt us and how we forgive ourselves.
      Andrea Blythe´s last blog post ..Proust Questionnaire

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  21. says

    Thanks for this post! In my view, the dystopian meme you describe is a disturbing trend. Visit a bookstore and see how many black book covers line the YA shelves. While hardship and tragedy are part and parcel to coming of age stories, I contend that these universal struggles needn’t be portrayed in such a negative light. To reaffirm that the Universe is in fact a force for good, and that It is eager to come to the aid of anyone who seeks to find their way, is a Truthful message. I’m not talking about spouting bromides or religious pablum, or extreme positivity, because, well, we all know that @#$% happens. That being said, however, I think cynicism is a disease that too many grown-ups are passing on to our youth. I think we need to say, Yes, life is hard, but there is a Way and the world is counting on you to find it.
    Grant Overstake´s last blog post ..‘Inspiring Maggie’ to Visit to Griffith Elementary School

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  22. says

    Add me to the “dark and tragic” column, and also to the “because then, light” column. Maybe it’s because I was a psych major that I’m intrigued with damaged people, and how to walk them away from the metaphorical edge.

    All your talk of light reminded me of this Remi quote, too: “The wound is the place where the light enters you.”

    The bigger the wound, the bigger the light.

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  23. says

    I’m only a fan of the dark and gritty when there is light at the end of the tunnel. I love watching characters grow, change, and rise above. Darkness seems to be a good catalyst for those types of situations. Stories with no hope, will not keep my interest. It’s the same for stories with no obstacles or darkness. I either can’t or won’t relate to them. Now, I can hang with a seriously dark story, if there is a Keith Cronin character adding a little hydrogen gas to the darkness.

    But I don’t know if a story could remain dark if Keith was in it.
    Brian B. King´s last blog post ..Final Day Awaken Is On Sale!

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  24. says

    Absolutely loved this post – Why So Serious?

    I’ve been surprised at the appeal of Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad. I didn’t have the stomach to watch heads roll and yet I’m hooked to the series, Boardwalk Empire. Outside of turning my head away when the sensationally graphic murder scenes turn up, I am fascinated by the choices the characters make. I know this is based on truth. The mafia were capable of heinous acts. What helps me get through this series is the period piece – the setting, the beautiful cinematography, the costumes, and the brilliant acting. There’s also the humanity that comes through. The love of family, even if you are a killer.

    As some of the authors interviewed have pointed out, reading dark stories helps us deal with the evil in life. We see how one wrong move can change a life forever. How and when a person makes that choice, either out of desperation or because there’s something amiss in their psyche is a question I’m constantly drawn to.

    Thank you for such a fascinating post.
    Diana Stevan´s last blog post ..Freedom Is Not Free

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  25. Sarah B says

    Great topic. When I’m writing or reading, I’m often aware that if I’d been born in a different time or place I could be facing circumstances as dark as the characters’–and I wonder what kind of choices I would make. A story can help us understand what others experience. It can also prepare us for situations in our own lives. Because the precise circumstances may or may not exist, but tragedy and terrible dilemmas certainly do.

    Thanks for the post, Keith!

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  26. says

    I found I had a similar problem when watching Breaking Bad. It was depressing me too much and I had to stop. I found myself disturbed by the hero worship Walter White was receiving too. It was almost as though people admired and somehow connected with him despite his complete lack of morality and obvious sociopathic tenancies. I have many theories on why so many people connect with the character, but that’s not what this is about…

    The funny thing is, despite my aversion to seriously dark reading and watching, I am all about writing dark. Maybe it’s different when I feel in control, maybe that allows me the feeling that I could change things if I really wanted. But what it really is for me I think is the challenge. I love to challenge myself to write things that disturb me, that scare me, because those are the things I feel are really important.

    We have all suffered in one way or another and I feel that if I don’t write about that suffering or explore it, I would be doing any potential future readers a disservice. I want to share the knowledge I have gained from my dark experiences, because that feels like the truth to me. I also like to share my happier experiences too, but I feel as though the dark stuff is where the learning is.

    Delving into the depths helps me understand my own traumas and face them and I hope by bringing them to light, it will also help others to possibly learn from my mistakes or from my understanding of the world. It’s my privilege to be able to write about the things I know (even if just broadly in the form of fiction) and I think in some way I feel as though it’s my duty to do so as well, because if we as writers don’t share ourselves and our lives, who will?

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  27. says

    Keith-

    So what can I add here?

    It’s easy to see why writers are drawn to dark topics. It’s also easy to see why readers, in general, avoid them. Pain hurts. Suffering is not fun.

    No matter how fiction may “illuminate” the darkness, or relieve suffering through sharing or buoy us with a dose of the human spirit…let’s face it, dwelling on the dark side is, for readers, for the most part, a downer.

    Shopping malls do not feature stores with Death in their names. Restaurants do not advertise food poisoning, even though you can get it in them. Shopping and eating on the dark side does not feel good. One wonders, then, why authors insist that the reading experiences they offer us must bear titles like “House of Pain”.

    It’s not just titles, though. Many manuscripts immerse us in suffering. Like you with the TV show, we give up. It’s too much. We don’t make it all the way to the redemptive ending.

    So how can authors balance their brave embrace of the dark with readers’ yearning for the light? There’s a clue, I think, in the comments above by Kathryn and Sandra. It’s the word “hope”.

    Here I go, out on a limb…ready? It’s irresponsible of authors to plunge us into darkness without the inherent promise of hope. Notice the word “promise”. A promise comes first, not last. A feeling of hope is almost an insult when it arrives in a novel’s final pages, and insulted readers will likely have given up long before. I don’t blame them.

    How is hope signaled even when it’s necessary to establish a story’s dark circumstances? Ah, it’s an art. You begin to feel it in the life spirit shining through the voice of a dark protagonist.

    To see what I mean, take a look at this long list of quotes from the narration of a classic dark protagonist, Holden Caulfield in “Catcher in the Rye”:

    http://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/3036731-the-catcher-in-the-rye

    Caulfield’s vibrant love of life, his yearning for goodness, come shining through–and *all* the way through the novel. He’s dark, yes, but he’s full of hope. That’s why we breathlessly read his story to the end.

    Embrace the dark…but remember that readers seek hope. Offer it to them–artfully, and right away–and they’ll know it’s safe to swim in your dark waters.
    Donald Maass´s last blog post ..A Christmas Hope by Anne Perry

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    • says

      Don, I would agree that many of us seek hope within the darkness of the stories in which we immerse ourselves. But what about stories that seemingly offer none? Why does that still sometimes work?

      For example, tragedy is a classic form of theater. Romeo and Juliet (and the many retellings it has inspired) is essentially a teen suicide story. Why does that story live on, centuries later? Is it because people are inspired by the strength and purity of the love the two main characters shared? Is that inspiration sort of like the hope or light we are talking about?

      With Breaking Bad, the whole mission statement of the show was to “turn Mr. Chips into Scarface.” The whole narrative arc is one of descent, and a happy or hopeful ending is just not in the cards. I suspect one of the things people find in that show is how empowered the formerly obsequious and meek Walter White becomes when he starts taking control of his life for the first time. Even as he races towards death, he feels alive for the first time.

      I’m with you, in that I need at least some hope in a story. Yet I see evidence that many others can still “enjoy” (if that’s the right word) a story where there simply is no hope.

      Got any thoughts to share on that front? Thanks for taking part – I always love it when you chime in, and I always come away from our conversations having learned something.

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      • says

        Keith-

        Briefly, to answer your question…there’s an audience for everything, it’s just that the audience for pure darkness, despair and pain is pretty small.

        I haven’t seen “Breaking Bad”. (In fact, I watch no TV and don’t even own a television.) I strongly suspect, though, that there is hidden appeal in it or, alternately, that its ratings have steadily declined.

        Finally, do you want to be a writer without hope to offer? Really? I imagine not. If not, then why worry about the few things that get into print or make it onto the big or little screens that seem to be exceptions? Who wants to be like them anyway?
        Donald Maass´s last blog post ..A Christmas Hope by Anne Perry

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  28. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    I wasn’t going to reply because I have my own preference tastes in dark and light like everyone else and opinions spark long and exhausting, (and sometimes pointless) debates.

    However, I think a fact is being missed that has nothing to do with the light or dark content of a material. The proof is in the pudding or sometimes even the meth tank. Who would have thought that a tale about meth cookers could have inspired such a huge following? When I first heard what Breaking Bad was about I didn’t want to watch it. I wasn’t interested in meth, or people cooking meth. But, after being coaxed to just open my mind and watch an episode, the storyline was so compelling it got me, er, hooked.

    And that’s the real point. It doesn’t really matter if the story embraces light or dark, or shades of grey. it’s all about the STORY. If it’s compelling enough it will enthrall an audience, and some members of that audience will be people like me with the premise of Breaking Bad. People who would normally never have been attracted to an idea, except that the tale reeled us in because the story was so compelling.

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    • says

      Well, yes, it is about the story, but a story is compelling because the characters are compelling, and characters are compelling because they’re in conflict on different levels (themselves, others, nature, society, etc.). The deeper the conflict, the darker the story. (If I’m missing something here… feel free to correct/add)
      But conflict needs some kind of resolution, and what I see in most of the above posts, the reader (viewer) needs that resolution to be satisfying in some way, not necessarily with a happy ending, but some kind of hope, or positive message, something beautiful, or… something “light” as opposed to continued darkness.

      I’m thinking of The Mission, a movie with Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons about a Jesuit priest who works in a village of the native people of a South American country. It’s a compelling film and one of Jeremy Irons’ best roles, (spoiler alert) but the ending baffled me… Everybody dies, and that’s the end. The bad guys win, on all fronts. I found out afterwards that it’s based on a true story, which explains the ending, but still… I felt cheated, because I’d rooted for these characters, and then one by one they were killed in front of my eyes. There was no light in the darkness.
      Andrea van der Wilt´s last blog post ..Decisions

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      • Lookinglass says

        Andrea, if we’re talking about the Mission, there was some hope for me. A few children survive the massacre, but it’s not their lives that bring me hope. You and I both know they’re probably in for a life of horror, suffering, and possibly premature death. And yet, it did move me at the end of the film when one child bends down to pick up a violin. That was hope for me there. Despite seeing all the evils mankind had to offer, we as humans still keep trying to create something beautiful.

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        • says

          I haven’t seen the movie, but I love that image.

          “Despite seeing all the evils mankind had to offer, we as humans still keep trying to create something beautiful.” — Yes, I agree with that so much.

          I think that what counts as hope or light at the end of the tunnel is different for everybody. So, where Andrea felt cheated by the ending and could not find the hope, this one image of a child picking up a violin was enough momentary beauty to find the hope.
          Andrea Blythe´s last blog post ..Proust Questionnaire

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  29. Cal Rogers says

    I may be the only person on this blog who watched, and absolutely loved, every episode of Breaking Bad. The title itself is slang for someone descending into darkness.
    In The Silence of the Lambs trilogy we don’t get a shred of what made Hannibal Lector a monster until the end of the last book, and even then it’s just a brief flashback to a tragic event in his childhood.
    In Breaking Bad we see the entire backstory of how a good Walter White (notice the name “White”) goes bad. Talk about a cautionary tale! The dramatic question throughout the series was: how is this going to end for Walter White? Will he suffer the consequences of his monstrous actions or get away with them? Who will bring him down and how? And just as riveting: what will be the collateral damage to those he loves?
    Unlike The Silence of the Lambs trilogy that left us hanging with what became of Hannibal, Breaking Bad answered all of the story questions in ways that not even its most devoted fans anticipated.
    For those who are interested, the following link contains the text of an email that Anthony Hopkins wrote to Bryan Cranston praising him for the series.
    http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/oct/17/anthony-hopkins-bryan-cranston-breaking-bad-fan-letter

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    • says

      Cal, I totally see why Breaking Bad is compelling – it’s sort of like the can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it sensation of watching a train wreck… but this is one that last several years. The quality of the acting alone is enough to keep you coming back, particularly Bryan Cranston, who I only used to think of as “Malcomb’s dad” from the kid’s tv show he was in. He’s simply amazing.

      But despite the allure of the cautionary tale, I just didn’t want to go to bed each night so bummed out (or grossed out, in some cases). But I DO believe that a totally negative story can work – just not for me. And I’m curious and fascinated to see how and why it works for others.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts – this has really been an interesting bunch of insights shared here today at WU!

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      • Cal Rogers says

        There seems to be a misconception of those who didn’t follow the series that Breaking Bad was a “totally negative story.” It wasn’t. It was a constant struggle of the good vs. the evil within Walter White. It was a clinic in how to write inner conflict. Doing the wrong thing for the right reason. Feeling remorse, but then doing it again. Killing some people, while risking your life to save others. It was a gradual turning loose of goodness, not an instant plunge into darkness where he then stayed for six seasons. We totally understood and related to on some level everything that Walter White did. We sympathized with his sickness. We rooted for him to survive, knowing somehow that he wouldn’t. His conflict became our conflict.

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  30. says

    Great post! And great question!

    I’ve been much maligned for writing about the sad and dark. My work in progress is even titled Cursing the Darkness. Why do I read such stuff like Nordic Noir, and James Ellroy, and other things? Why’s Hamlet my favorite Shakespearean play? Why do I focus on existentialism out of all the possible philosophical branches?

    I don’t know. I guess it’s about truth, and authenticity, though I can now see that there’s just as much inauthenticity in those who are always sad just as there is in those who are never sad. But there’s a certain directness to it, a basic, ground-floor honesty and frankness.

    The good news is that I hate purposely depressing music.
    Steven E. Belanger´s last blog post ..Quick Jots of November 12th

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  31. says

    I can’t make myself watch Breaking Bad. I don’t consider it dark as much as bleak. Dark implies light somewhere. Bleak is just bleak. I like some dark stories, like the BBC’s Torchwood. But the characters for all their troubles are trying to save the world. So, it’s dark–a lot of death. But it’s light–sacrifice, loyalty, and, well, saving the world.

    I write dark stories, but I think the characters have good souls (or hearts or whatever you want to call it). They have love and friendship. Someone can be trusted.

    But I didn’t start writing with the intention of writing dark. My stories just go there even when I don’t mean them too. I can’t explain why. Or rather, I can’t explain without a therapist to help me figure it out.
    Marta´s last blog post ..Finish Something

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  32. Tina says

    I watched Breaking Bad starting with the middle of the last season. Walt White had been a good man until he was diagnosed with cancer, then he decided to wage a war against the unfair world. He has filled with anger and hubris… cancer.
    Most of us would try to better our selves and our world before we die, I think, but Walter White turned that around and did as much damage as possible before his last goodnight.

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  33. says

    The Night Angel Trilogy starts out (literally dark and gloomy) and (literally) ends bright and colorful. It’s dark, hopeful, and compelling. It has a bunch of other stuff too.

    Probably the darkest story I’ve ever read. I’ll love it forever.

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  34. says

    Keith, I bounce all over the place with my writing, which can include the goofiest of characters and some absurdist premises. Yet I’m a sucker for a sad story, which for me includes dashed hopes, regret and longing, (Yes, I am a whale of a time at parties.) I’ve written a couple of stories that ended in suicide for a main character, because the story claimed that fate as the inevitable—though I hope not immediately obvious—pulling of fate’s chain.

    I’m often drawn to characters that are haunted. But in considering “haunted,” that implies a character that’s not lost to evil, but perhaps lost to how to get out of the evil around him or her. Even if the circumstances of evil were steered by the character, if there’s still some moral sense or struggle, that’s good for me.

    But total anomie or amorality? No. I like Don’s sense of a promise of hope, however that dream is deferred through the work. However, I loved Breaking Bad, for many reasons, one of which was that Walter was still struggling with his image of himself, though there was little redemption in the later stages.

    By the way, you do look dashing in your meth suit.
    Tom Bentley´s last blog post ..Editing: the Big Gazoombah to the Ant’s Antennae

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  35. Laurel says

    I believe as readers we all search for authenticity and many times that requires both dark and light, although sometimes authenticity commands that their be no light, just as it can be in real life. My boyfriend loves Breaking Bad, and I believe it’s for the reason that many others say they can’t watch it, because Breaking Bad goes places where others stay away from. It’s a unique story, so many writers pull their protagonist out of their descent into darkness before it’s complete, but Breaking Bad doesn’t, they let Walter White become Heisenberg because nature made it inevitable. I’m not particularly drawn to dark or light material, just stories that remain sincere to whatever they choose to present us with, no matter what sort of story it is.

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  36. says

    I read quite a lot of dark stories, from apocalyptic fiction to horror to general soul searching literary texts. I find the exploration of the dark places of the heart fascinating.

    But the key, also expressed by the authors here, is that there be some sort of hope or light, even if that light is only inside the self while the outside remains chaos. If that light isn’t there, then the dark story becomes too much for me.

    I think the only thing I don’t like about dark stories is that there is this belief that dark or serious stories automatically reflect a more important vision or a deeper emotional truth than light stories. Humor, joy, delight, playfulness — these things as the focus of a story are considered to be fluff, even though they represent the other side of human experience, which is an equally valid exploration. And, in some ways, writing about the brighter side of life is harder, because readers tend to not trust it or believe in it as easily as they do the darker emotional spectrum.
    Andrea Blythe´s last blog post ..Book Review: Dying is My Business by Nicholas Kaufmann

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  37. says

    There’s definitely a market for whatever this ‘dark’ is but I’m not sure it means what it used to. It’s been diluted by overuse. It’s become a marketing ploy. Just listen to anyone plugging the new season of pretty much any show that’s not a comedy: “Oh, yes, it’s darker this year.” Is it darker or do we just think it’s darker because it’s new—and darkness thrives on novelty—or because we’ve been told it’s darker or because it actually is darker? I’m sceptical as you can tell.

    Now ‘serious’ is not ‘dark’. Serious is a whole different ballgame. The thing about ‘serious’ is that it doesn’t always need to be that serious. Serious topics are often best handled when leavened with humour. I’ve never written—nor do I think I’m capable of writing—a completely serious book. I’ve read a few and aspired to write as many but as soon as I put pen to paper or start rattling away on my keyboard I find myself needing to lighten the mood. Humour is a coping mechanism and there are very few situations where we don’t employ it. I bet there are people cracking jokes at their own expense in the Philippines right now. It’s human.

    People write for many different reasons. Some are happy simply to entertain and that’s fine but that’s not me. I write to try and understand the human condition and you can’t do that without getting a bit serious and even a bit dark from time to time but, as I’ve said, that’s not all that makes us human.

    As far as schadenfreude goes I think one of the reasons we enjoy reading about the misery of others is that it makes us feel less alone in our own misery. If a man was alone in a room being tortured but knew there was another man in the room next to him undergoing exactly the same kind of torture even if he’d never met that man before and knew nothing about him he’d still feel better because he wasn’t going through his trial alone. And if he learned at the end that he’d been mistaken and that the man never existed would he someone feel cheated? Or would he laugh about it? Complicated things us humans.
    Jim Murdoch´s last blog post ..The Cavafy Variations

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    • says

      Jim, those are some GREAT insights – thanks for taking the time to share them.

      I totally agree about humor serving as a coping mechanism – I definitely use it that way, both in my fiction and in my life.

      And the notion that “we enjoy reading about the misery of others is that it makes us feel less alone in our own misery” really resonates with me. I think that’s what I was flailing away at trying to say in my intro, but this states it much more clearly.

      Good stuff – thanks for helping to make this such an interesting conversation!

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  38. Percy Kerry (@percykerry) says

    I like reading dark stuff- crime and spy novels mostly. This is, I think, because of the fact that I had an unhappy childhood and I’ve faced the darkness myself, in a way, so I want to go deeper and explore the psychology and other dimensions of this darkness. That’s why all my writings also have dark themes.

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  39. says

    The insistence on giving equal billing to hope in a discussion of darkness moves things immediately away from the creative process to the marketing process. I don’t doubt that more people have bought A WALK TO REMEMBER than will ever buy BLOOD MERIDIAN, but that doesn’t mean that we must value Nicholas Sparks above Cormac McCarthy. What it does mean is that Sparks is the more commercially successful writer, period. (He’s so commercially savvy, by the way, that his web site doesn’t even describe his books with that off-putting, English-class word “novel.” Hell, it doesn’t so much as call them “books.” It refers to them only as “stories.” I hope he’s not onto something.)

    For the writer interested in dark materials, hope can take many forms—most of them extremely subtle. In FINN, it appears as Huck’s eventual escape (with slave blood in his veins) into his own book. In KINGS OF THE EARTH, it shows up only in a state trooper’s slow realization that his view of justice has been expanded by coming to care about a pair of primitive old recluses. And in THE THIEF OF AUSCHWITZ, it lives only in the power of parental love to reach beyond death. These are subtle things, and readers have to be watching for them. There are no bright tomorrows. No happy endings. No promise of better days to come. Only a sense that there is very good reason for soldiering on.

    Often enough that reason, and I’ll dare to say the word out loud, is love. First Corinthians insists that “Love is patient,” and writers of dark fiction understand that in their bones. One of our messages is that despite the darkness, we must never lose patience. We must commit ourselves to pressing on.

    That’s an artistic concern, not a commercial one.

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