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11 April 2010 @ 12:40 pm
Is Depressing Fiction Effective?  
I recently got into a conversation with Stan Robinson about the efficacy of depressing fiction. I then began chatting about it with some of my Clarion classmates, and I thought I'd open up the discussion to y'all.

First, let me say that I'm using a relatively narrow definition for the word "depressing" here. I don't, for example, mean to include all fiction in which the protagonist or someone she loves dies. As Heather Albano has posted on her own blog, a story can be uplifting despite, or even because of, the death of the main character. Think of the noble sacrifice, or (Heather's own example) the death in an epilogue of the protagonist after a long and fruitful life. Or think of King Lear, where nearly everybody we love dies, but where the effect on the audience is a sense of completion, even redemption.

Nor do I think that a sad ending is necessarily depressing. We can witness the loss of all that we hold dear, but in a context where it makes us realize just how dear those things are to us, or we come to understand that we would give up something precious for a cause, or (in science fiction or political fiction) we become committed to preventing a certain outcome from occurring, or we understand the plight or subjectivity of others in a way we never did before, or we see our own role on good or evil in the world, or where we comprehend the complexity of certain notions of good or evil -- well, you get the point. Sadness is a tool.

By depressing, in this context, I mean "fostering hopelessness." A depressing story is one which says, "Things are going to hell, or things are permanently already in hell, there's nothing good or redeeming about it, and there's nothing you can do about it." Back in the day, the catch-phrase was, "Life sucks, and then you die." Or, to use Brecht's lyrics, "The world is poor, and man's a shit / and that is all there is to it."

Now, I've seen books and story that are depressing at the beginning, but find their way to uplifting, hopeful or redemptive conclusions. The first fifty pages of John Varley's Millenium, for example, is about as depressing as anything I've ever read. But then the story really gets going, and the ending -- well, no spoilers, but it ends well, or at least it did for me.

Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, in its combination of political pessimism and pessimism about human behavior generally, may be a good example of depressing fiction. One ends the book disillusioned about nearly everything. I suppose it's not completely hopeless, in the sense that Orwell was imagining one very particular progression of political events, which could be (and perhaps have been?) deflected at many different points. The reader might, therefore, end the novel thinking, "Well, at least I can work to make sure this never happens." But if one believes Orwell's humanistic premise, then the political commitment may not be sufficient to dispel the hopelessness about our fellow men and women.

By contrast, I don't find Huxley's Brave New World depressing, despite the dystopia (or "negative utopia," as he called it), because the book presents a puzzle for the reader to solve -- what do we want out of life, and what do we actually want our culture to do for us?. The puzzle may be insoluble, but I can chew on it like a happy puppy for a long time.

But I have read some stories lately that say essentially this: "(1) the world is in the grip of corporate and geopolitical forces far beyond your control, that will (2) result in a future where nearly everyone is miserable, and where (3) 'good' people will prove to be craven, selfish, ungrateful and cruel." There are even a few authors who seem to specialize in this kind of work. Now, the futures they warn me about are realistically bad, and the corporate and political forces they speak of are pernicious, and it's good for me to be alerted to the danger. But when the message is so hopeless, especially as relates to the impossibility or improbability of human beings behaving in a loving or noble way toward each other, then why do I read it? If I see a story by author X, knowing that author X makes me want to drink hemlock, will I open the story? If he has something good to say to me, will I ever find out?

But what about the argument that such literature serves a political or social function, that it can serve as a warning bell? (Think of the TV movie The Day After.)

Back in college, my teacher John G. Monroe and I had a disagreement about the functions of literature. John claimed that literature was either political or entertainment, or else contained a combination of both elements. I claimed that there was a third function called art; John said that what most people called "art" was either entertainment or politics, depending. I said that there was a "moral uplift" or "ennoblement" that could be experienced in literature; John said that that experience was either illusory (hence entertainment) or spurred one to support a cause (hence political). I suppose John (although he's not here to tell us) would say that literature could be effectively political but devoid of entertainment, and consequently could be depressing and still work.

So, now I open the discussion. Can depressing fiction be effective, for any purpose? Are there some purposes for which it is more effective than others? Do you even believe in my label, "depressing fiction?" Have at it.

Current Location: New England
Current Mood: pensivepensive
Current Music: Jewish liturgical melodies
They Didn't Ask Me: white-wedding-scenedr_phil_physics on April 11th, 2010 07:30 pm (UTC)
Fail Safe is depressing, but hopeful at the end that a wide WW III was avoided.

On the Beach is depressing, but very human and offers a civilized way to slip quietly off into that good night as the world ends.

The film The Quiet Earth is depressing, but the ending is... well... what the hell, we don't know what the ending means. (grin)

When I wrote my first novel I populated an entire crew of a small starship, some 52 individuals, and you learn about all of them. And yet I planned on killing them all at the end. My first reader's comments indicated that killing them all wasn't the distressing thing -- that they didn't do more to get out of their situation did. In other words, I was "allowed" to do depressing, but giving up was out of the question. Thus I think it serves the getting something uplifting out of a depressing story function. I am (very slowly) putting in a different ending which, while it does drag the (inevitable) end further out, does succeed in making the players act more human.

Reminds me of the joke regarding how James Cameron pitched the movie Titanic to Fox -- "Everyone knows the story, everyone dies, it'll cost more to make than any other movie and there's no chance of a sequel." "Great, do it!"

Dr. Phil
Ken: Winkken_schneyer on April 13th, 2010 01:43 am (UTC)
Thanks, Phil!

Although I'm embarrassed to say that I haven't actually read either Failsafe or On the Beach (I know, I know...) from your description, they don't meet my definition of "depressing" because of the factors you mention.
girlspell: book chairgirlspell on April 11th, 2010 08:50 pm (UTC)
Sometimes you can take an upbeat novel like A Room With A View, change the ending in the name of literary license and destroy the novel with a depressing ending. There was nothing wrong with the classic book. A young English couple meet in Italy. But a televised version of it completely changed the ending, in turn changing the entire book. Instead of a happy one, the hero is killed almost immediately after the couple marries. The Heroine travels back to Italy (the scene of the romance in the film and the crime in the film) and falls for an Italian driver who was a minor character in the book! So this becomes depressing. For what purpose? Yes, there are books that people struggle all for nothing, but I want some kind of victory in a struggle. I'd settle for a tiny one.
Ken: Hmmmmmken_schneyer on April 13th, 2010 01:44 am (UTC)
Thanks, Rachel.
shaunaroberts on April 11th, 2010 09:21 pm (UTC)
I think we can all agree that depressing fiction can be effective for one purpose: depressing people.

I don't think depressing fiction works well for other purposes because (1) its depressingness causes readers like you and me to avoid it and (2) it assumes a view of human nature too negative to be believable. The horror of the Nazi death camps proved that even the most terrible of circumstances cannot totally destroy the human spirit. Some people did good, some people risked or sacrificed their lives for others, and some people still hoped.
Ken: Blowing Kissken_schneyer on April 13th, 2010 01:45 am (UTC)
I love that answer, Shauna, especially the first sentence. And your last sentence is very well-taken.
Words, Words, Wordsdavidkudler on April 19th, 2010 09:51 pm (UTC)
There are basically three kinds of stories in the world: those that embrace the world and life as it and attempt to explain it or portray without in any way trying to suggest any change or pass moral judgment: merely holding a mirror up to nature; those that paint it as it is and show the listener/reader a better way; and that actually buy in to Peachum's peachy little dictum that you quoted above. Naturalism, progressivism/idealism/mysticism, and nihilism.

Brecht actually didn't buy the Beggar King's position; he wanted to piss off the audience and foment change.

Nihilism.... Bleh. It's always been a bit of a pet peeve of mine. It's a very romantic position to take, I guess—but it's a form of romanticism that always sort of pissed me off. When I was a college freshman, we read The Sorrows of Young Werther, and by the time Werther threw himself off of the bridge, I cheered.

When Quentin killed himself in The Sound and the Fury, though? That devastated me.

I guess my answer then is rather a question: how nihilistic are we talking? I mean, I've read plenty of dystopias—1984, Brave New World... heck, The Giver—that I've found to be moving for all that they were depressing. And I personally found them effective only insofar as they actually seemed to be serving as either a reminder about human nature or a thought-experiment about society—and therefore a warning about mistakes we might be making. (Actually, I found them moving only insofar as they made me care about the characters.)

I guess, to put it another way, if you've given us terror and pity, are you going to give us catharsis?

Oh, and hi. I'm still alive. I just found the chapters you sent me on the carcass of my dead laptop; I am looking forward to reading them!
Words, Words, Wordsdavidkudler on April 19th, 2010 09:54 pm (UTC)
And yeah, I do remember that the "Naturalistic" movement of the 19th century was actually highly progressive, politically. But, you know, it seemed like the aptest label. ;-)