M and I have been talking for some time about the apparent lovefest that publishing as an industry seems to have with darkness. I’m not talking about traditional light versus dark, good v. evil themes. I’m speaking specifically about the mistaken idea that the only way to make a character’s life interesting is to throw as much adversity his way as possible. We aren’t satisfied with his overcoming normal adversity; for the book to have meaning, for it to achieve some mythical grit that engages publishers (and supposedly readers) we must put our poor protagonist through hell.
As an example, pulled entirely at random, here’s this week’s number 1 bestseller on the New York Times listing. As I’ve not read it, I’ll deign from giving the name of the book, as I don’t want it to appear this is a criticism of what could be a brilliant work. No, my criticism is for the industry, which rewards darkness at the sake of readability. In the book, our protagonist is a slave on an brutal slave master’s plantation. Per the Washington Post’s review, “His slaves are whipped and beaten, of course, but they’re also raped and flayed and murdered in ways meant to satiate his own degenerate lusts and keep his human chattel in a state of debilitating terror.” It isn’t enough that they are slaves. Slavery, poverty, beatings, twelve to eighteen-hour days, undernourishment, and humiliation aren’t enough. To make us love and identify with the protagonist, we need her slave master to be among the worst in history.
Because writers are told that protagonists have to grow, and the way to make them grow is to march them through shit. Our literary well is poisoned, and we are fellow sufferers of Stockholm Syndrome, rooting for them to crawl out of the shit and perhaps marry another survivor in what passes for a happy ending. Yay! You didn’t die. I guess that’s great, right?
But see, there’s weak thinking here. First of all, we all go through a modicum of hardship, and the vast majority of us survive it. Life isn’t dark, and literature doesn’t have to be. We writers can grow our characters simply by taking them from normal levels of adversity to higher, uplifting levels. They can flourish in ways only the writer has imagined, and the work needn’t be full of hokum to achieve it. Growth from a shithole to just having one’s base needs met isn’t growth; it’s an illusion. Writers write 250 pages of misery in a 300-page story, and then agents sell it and publishers publish it. At then end, for all their work, the industry loses money on 90% of the titles they print, all the time wondering where they went wrong.
Here’s where they went wrong: the world is hard enough without having to suffer through some novelist’s belief that misery loves company. It may, but happy people DO NOT love the company of the miserable. I’ve met many people that love dark literature. I’ve met far more who wouldn’t read it at gunpoint. We become what we ingest. We are the ideas we accept, the worlds we build, the optimism or pessimism that we accept as normal life. The glass ceases to be half-full; instead, we’re just grateful someone let us have any bit to drink at all.
Think I’m being naive? Let’s look at another example: American television. I looked at the top 28 shows for 2015 – 2016, based on the important Adult 18-49 demographic, in other words, the folks they actually make TV shows for. Of the 28, 13 (46%) can be considered purely uplifting–comedies, sports, entertainment, and some reality shows like The Voice or American Idol. Fifteen (54%) are darker, but even of those 15, 6 are crime dramas and 4 purely fantasy (zombies, monsters, and haunted houses). So yes, people like crime, being scared, and even occasionally watching dysfunctional people having at each other (real or imagined). But few of these shows reaches the pervasive level of darkness commonly seen in modern literature.
This is by no means scientific, and proves little, except that if you extrapolate, one would expect people to want around 1/2 of their literary entertainment to make them feel good. Others like a good procedural (medical, criminal, etc.) that need only be well-written with good characters. Instead, too many books revel in making situations as repugnant as they can.
Trust me, although most of my stories are uplifting, I’m no Pat Boone. I grew up in darkness and have seen more than my fair share, or mine and yours for that matter. But this has gotten out of hand. According to Publisher’s Weekly, sales of Adult Fiction Print Books (the real stuff) ticked up from 139,000 in 2014 to 142,000 units in 2015, cause to celebrate, I suppose. However, this level is still below the 2013 figure of 151,000 units. Meanwhile, adult Non-fiction sales increased from 237,000 to 256,000 units in the same period. This isn’t definitive, and one can’t really make the claim that book sales aren’t growing because writers are obsessed with darkness, but I can make the assertion that not only is that the reason I don’t buy many books, but it’s the primary reason I started writing my own stories.
I wonder if I’m really the only one.
Of course, as Fran Lebowitz pointed out, when Ms. Morrison said that, she probably didn’t mean everybody. I’d like to see more of those who can’t find the uplifting stories they want to see sit down and begin to write them. I keep thinking of the Ernest Hemingway quote, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” The idea that people want all of this darkness doesn’t pass my shit detector, not by far. Even Hemingway, with his alcoholism and dark side, didn’t see endless despair in all of his writing. I’d like to think he’d agree with me, but who knows?