The appeal of ‘depressing’ books – Pamela Erens

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By Pamela Erens

My novels have never been called cheerful, optimistic, or especially funny (I happen to think each has some chuckle-worthy bits, but only the rare commentator points these out.) Some readers find somberness a failing, in my work or in any work of fiction. They want to know why any author should expect them to suffer through something “downbeat” when life is already hard enough.♥

Reading tastes are subjective, certainly. I would never say that there are right and wrong reasons to read. Some readers want an experience assuring them that people can master their circumstances, that happy endings are possible. They don’t want unsoothed sadness. These readers are naturally irritated when they stumble unawares into a narrative that portrays certain kinds of hardship, particularly emotional hardship, as unremitting.

I am a different kind of reader. Even as a child, I liked it when books made me cry. To me, reading about some of the darker psychological states — intense loneliness, depression, or despair — is purgative. I go down into that deep and fearful well and arise lightened by the sensation that someone has admitted that these feelings exist. I am less alone, less afraid of the challenging business of living. In our everyday lives, it is not polite, and usually not helpful, to acknowledge suffering. We have buses to catch, jobs to do, meals to cook. Other people generally would not know what to do about our pain if we told them about it, and we would not know what to do about theirs. There really is nothing to do, most of the time. Pain is part of the human condition, and not always fixable. A narrative that acknowledges this strikes me as life-affirming rather than otherwise, in the sense that it embraces all possible human outcomes rather than validating only the sunnier ones.

When April and Frank, the married couple in Richard Yates’s classic Revolutionary Road (a book that always makes me feel as if I’ve been hit over the head with a steel bar), try desperately once again to love and be loved by each other, and once again stumble instead into rageful recrimination, I feel not that every marriage is doomed but that Yates has anatomized a certain kind that is. When the unnamed narrator of Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You decides not to return to the US to be with his father who is dying, unable to forget what has passed between them, I recognize once again that forgiveness, while desirable, cannot always be willed.

I admit that there are certain kinds of material I don’t want foisted on me in fiction. I can’t bear to read about torture. I know that torture happens, that it’s part of our reality, but I find extreme cruelty between human beings so disturbing that I need literally to turn the page.

So I avoid tales with heavy doses of violence. And readers are wise to avoid my novels if they know they prefer something with an unequivocally optimistic ending. But I object to the term “depressing” as a slam. Depressing, in my experience, is often moving and beautiful. It is sometimes even oddly hopeful: a truth-telling that gets me through the night.

Pamela Erens is the author of three novels, including her latest, Eleven Hours. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in a wide variety of literary, cultural, and mainstream publications.

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