A little note on dark literature

Book cover

I ended my post on Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim with Carey’s point that, although at her death there was a belief that von Arnim’s work would live on, “her style of conventionally plotted novels, however rebellious, insightful or entertaining, soon went out of literary fashion”. This was because, claimed English novelist Frank Swinnerton, “her talent lay in fun, satirical portraiture, and farcical comedy” and these, he said, were ‘scorned by the “modern dilemma”‘. He was referring to Modernism, which, as Carey says, “didn’t believe in happiness” – and this, she added, is a value that has carried through to today.

Modernist writer, Albert Camus, for example, wrote

Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (1 January 1942)

Anyhow, Carey writes just a little more about this issue of our focus on gloom. She quotes literary theorist Terry Eagleton from his 2015 book Hope without optimism. Eagleton comments that it can be “arresting” when contemporary novels “fail to be suitably downbeat”. He said that for a contemporary novel to end on a “joyfully transformative note” – as Jose Saramago’s Blindness does – “is almost as audacious as if Pride and Prejudice were to conclude with a massacre of the Bennet sisters”. Love his example of course.

Eagleton goes on to say that

In this era of modernity, gloom appears a more sophisticated stance than cheerfulness.

Carey picks up this idea, suggesting that this attitude is the key to von Arnim’s demise. She says:

It has become more respectable to be depressed, an attitude that signals virtue, and almost socially irresponsible to be happy – a state that is associated with vacuousness. After all, if you aren’t depressed by the mess the world is in – ravaged by fire, flood and plague – you are clearly insensitive or uninformed. Perhaps that is precisely why no one reads her novels anymore, because amid our infatuation with darkness, being cheerful has become not only unsophisticated but morally suspect.

This made me stop and think … because, while most times have been difficult in one way or another, it does seem to be particularly so now. The pandemic, climate change, the current war in Ukraine, not to mention, in Australia, our government’s refusal to meet our First Nation’s people half-way, their inflexible hard-hearted policy regarding refugees and asylum-seekers, and the continuing violence against women, are all a bit overwhelming. No wonder we feel gloomy.

But, here’s the thing. My personal life here and now is going OK. Of course I’m concerned about all the things I’ve just mentioned – I’d be “insensitive” and “uninformed” if I weren’t – but in my daily life they are (with perhaps the exception of the pandemic) “just” concerns. What I mean by this is that I have the luxury of choosing whether to worry about them or not, rather than that they are issues that spoil my generally comfortable life. It should therefore, theoretically speaking, be easy for me to be cheerful. This is something that, coincidentally, I’ve been pondering rather a lot lately, so Carey’s comment hit a nerve. I DO feel it would be “morally suspect” of me to be cheerful.

This is because – to use the word du jour, if it’s not already passé – we are now “woke”. We are acutely aware of our privilege in a way that past generations may not have been, and this is not only uncomfortable, but we feel uncomfortable about being uncomfortable because, well, we are not really uncomfortable. It’s too easy, in the situation, to become smug in our “wokeness” …

So, where does that leave us? Cheerfulness in itself is not a bad thing. We achieve nothing by being gloomy all the time, but can we truly be happy being cheerful? I’m not sure I can. The best, I think, I can aim for, is to have a laugh every now and then – and what better way than through the arts – before I get back to the difficult job of living in this challenging, uncertain world.

What do you think?

(Meanwhile, for a different take on happiness in modern literature, check out this 2013 article from The Guardian.)

30 thoughts on “A little note on dark literature

  1. I was talking to my mid-twenties son about climate grief, and how I wasn’t sure I should say how much I was enjoying a few really warm days we had here in Ohio right around Christmastime, when it’s usually very cold. He told me we should enjoy what we can while it lasts, because that doesn’t keep us from working to do what we can about fixing what we’ve done to the planet.

    • I know what you are saying, Jeanne. I have enjoyed our last two warmer winters but have felt guilty for doing so. Your son is right I guess as long as it doesn’t stop us from keeping on trying to improve things.

  2. Very interesting to read this post, as it touches on my own current thoughts. It actually doesn’t help to be cheerless; I am fortunate enough to be naturally cheerful, but the Ukraine war is very depressing, taking us back to a WW2 level of brutality. So I have to turn to literature, currently finally reading The Portrait of a Lady, which is both escapist in one’s immersion in a long lost era (of relative innocence?) but which also raises profound questions about how to live, and how inadequate advantages of education and intelligence can be in the attainment of happiness. I wish I read more of your posts!

    • Yes I’m naturally optimistic too Rob … at least I assume you probably are too. That’s a good example of literature that lets you escape as you say but that isn’t frivolous in its concerns.

      And thanks for your last sentence. That touched me.

  3. A thought-provoking post, Sue!
    I don’t really have an answer except that while I think it’s important to keep abreast of the concerns you’ve mentioned and my reading tends to focus on social issues of concern, I think it’s bad for mental health to have a steady diet of books on dark themes especially not when we are already well-informed about whatever the problem is. (And are hopefully, doing whatever we can to redress the problem, whether with voluntary work or regular donations or hassling politicians or using our vote to get some action on it.)
    I’ve just read Paddy O’Reilly’s new book Other Houses, which is a realistic portrayal of the vulnerability of the working poor and it leaves us with no illusions. But it doesn’t wallow in misery nor is it a depressing experience to read it. It makes its point, and it makes us care, but it’s also funny, because the central character has a great sense of humour. This was the approach that Dickens took with his social novels which did so much to raise awareness about the problems of C19th industrial England.
    I’ve read my share of grim contemporary novels, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone to read nothing but books of that sort.

    • Yes, good point re Dickens approach, Lisa. Vera also uses humour with a tough subject. I’ve seen notices about Paddy O’Reilly’s latest. I thought it was short stories. Is it not? Or is it, but they’re connected. Anyhow I’m keen to read it and you’ve confirmed that. When though. We are currently in Rutherglen en route to Melbourne again.

      • No, not short stories, that was the one before.
        Rutherglen, such a lovely spot. I haven’t been up that way for a long time, but we are soon off to Beechworth which is just glorious in autumn.

        • Thanks Lisa. Yes, all this area is lovely really. Enjoy Beechworth. We finally got to see Lake View House in Chiltern. It’s always been closed until this visit.

  4. I think your post is to the point, ST. But wokeness has become, in my eyes, horribly OTT -: the matter of offence being the best|worst example. As to happiness and whether one ought be ‘allowed’ to experience it taking into account today’s world .. when something recalls me to certain times in our life I can be transported. What a life I had ! I tell you here and now that nothing is going to make me feel as if this should not occur.

    • We’ll that’s good M-R … neither it should really. You have a right to being transported by good memories of the past. Like anything the idea of “wokeness” (I don’t like catchphrase much, anyhow, preferring plain terms) has been taken over by extremes and whatever good sense it did have has been lost I think. But I couldn’t resist referring to it.

  5. I must admit to cheerfulness too. At 80 I’m part of a very lucky generation.I am grateful for that happiness as it allows me to help my children and grandchildren, who are having a bumpier ride than i did.

  6. Thankfully Mr Books is a naturally cheerful and positive person. I’m generally optomistic but sometimes need a nudge to be cheerful! I’ve learnt the hard way over the years, how much ‘grim’ I can take on. In my twenties & thirties I read a lot of books about the Holocaust and Rwanda to try and understand man’s inhumanity to man. And all I discovered was that it happens, every generation, time after time all the way down through history. Lessons are not learnt. Rather disheartening really.

    I was very active in marching & petitioning against the Gulf War and have worked hard for the climate since my teens. It all feels to no avail. The Gulf War happened. As did the next war and the next. The hole in the ozone layer has decreased showing that worldwide protocols do work, but it seems like such a one-off event. I must admit to feeling very helpless about all the things going on in the world right now. I spend too much time imagining myself in the shoes of those in Ukraine and how I would react/cope if it was Sydney being bombed. I have to limit how much news I watch/listen to.

    Reading is a solace and a source of information, but I also worry that it is becoming a way for me to bury my head in the sand. Thank god for Mr Books and his ability to make me laugh!!

    Like you we are about to head off for a family holiday. Hopefully some sunshine and a change in routine will help.

    • Good for you Brona for all that activism. I am happy to petition, and donate, and write letters but I don’t match a lot because I hate crowds. I did go to the Woman’s rally last year because I was confident it would be peaceful.

      But I agree with you about lessons not being learnt… I was so idealistic and hopeful in my teens and twenties on the 1960s and 70s. Some progress has been made but way less than I expected or assumed.

      Have a great holiday.

  7. In this cynical, shabby, postmodern, pre-apocalyptic world, I have to tread very carefully with what I say here. If I come across as a sentimental fool, Sue, it’s because your line of enquiry is particularly pertinent to me, as I suspect it must also be to a lot of other people right now. Let me give it to you as a series of not-quite bullet points:

    Humour has roots in tragedy and absurdity, and the best humour should celebrate life without forgetting its pain.
    Be grateful for small mercies, and for the impulses towards goodness and care.
    Sometimes hardship and foulness, small-scale or large, have to be borne with resilience. And sometimes they have to be actively combatted.
    I still feel that Modernism expanded our awareness and understanding of Life (I’m on the fence about Postmodernism). But these understandings came at the price of our faith in benevolence and protection, connection and solidarity. Perhaps at least some of these losses go back further than Modernity (to the Enlightenment, for instance, or even further). Either way, the losses represent a challenge for us to gain something back, if we can. And without categorising all the forms that these ideals can take, I think most of us at least hope for their existence somewhere. You only have to look at the stories we tell our children, and the wonder and freshness and enthusiasm we try to instil and prolong in them, to see this.
    Our faults and frailties, as evidenced in our personal spheres and the world over, can be the hardest things to accept, let alone forgive. And it is probably true that hypocrisy is ubiquitous in the human condition. Perhaps it’s fitting, or perhaps just pragmatic good sense, when a monk in “The Brothers Karamazov” advises a woman who is suddenly, painfully aware of all this: “It is enough that you regret it.”

    Actually, the first novel I thought of when I read this post was Jessica Anderson’s “Tirra Lirra by the River.” Rather like von Arnim’s work, this book also ends on a comparatively rare note nowadays–that of consolation. It’s perhaps one of the largest of the small mercies I mentioned before. And it might just be the lifeline we need under the threat of disillusionment and despair.

    • So much here Glen… I can’t comment on it all as I’m on the road with little time to spare but I love all this, including your comment on Modernity and the Enlightenment, and what’s been lost as well as gained. And your point about the stories we tell our children.

      I also like your point that “the best humour should celebrate life without forgetting its pain”. You are right… I will remember that.

      Anyhow thanks for all this… Including the wonderful reference to Anderson’s Tirra Lirra…

  8. This is a very thought provoking post, WG and I very much appreciate you bringing in Modernist theory. The failure of the left to prevail in the years since my youth fills me with anger over and over – and I put at least some of the blame down to postmodernism – but whether that makes me an optimist or a pessimist I’m not sure. That ‘above ground’ ice on Greenland and Antarctica will melt maybe even in our lifetimes and sea levels will rise by 10m is a fact not the result of my ‘pessimism’.

    I don’t need fiction to persuade me that contemporary society is dystopian – the time for that was fifty years ago – and in fact prefer happy endings. It is fiction after all.

    • Thanks Bill… I only touched on Modernism, partly because I didn’t want to write a treatise, but I did want to mention it because, one, Carey did and, two, because, although it was pretty well over, officially, before my time, it was behind so much of the literature I was taught, and that I related to.

      There’s a lot about post-modernism that makes sense to me too, but it’s been taken to such an extreme that its impact seems to be to destroy (deconstruct!) rather than to construct, and that is ultimately negative isn’t it.

      Fair enough re happy endings. As you say, it’s fiction!

  9. A very thought provoking post and very timely too. Sometimes I feel quite overwhelmed by everything going on in the world right now and it is so easy to become depressed by the state of our politics, our earth and the future we are bequeathing our young people. I tend towards the more serious kind of reads too and although I enjoy a good laugh, anything too cheery with a too good to be true happy ending does seem a bit flippant to me. Years ago people hardly knew anything at all about what was happening on the other side of the world. Now we know too much, and for those of us living reasonably comfortable lives, the guilt of comfort and contentment can be all too real. I actually prefer the idea of contentment rather than happiness. Happiness can be all too fleeting, but even in contentment we still have the means and responsibility to do what we can for those who are not. A balanced reading life is important though I think. We’re not much use to others when we are wallowing in too much misery. I must remember to schedule in a few happier reads though.

    • Thanks Karen. Sounds like we are on a similar page.

      Generally I prefer contentment too. It’s what I expressed to my children, before they left home, because you can’t expect to be always happy. It’s unrealistic. But re the issues we are thinking about here, contentment doesn’t feel any better or more valid does it. Still we don’t do any good for others if we are gloomy all the time I agree so we have to find the balance.

  10. A great, great and important topic.

    Generally I don’t seek out books that feel like they rate too high on the Macbeth-scale. And yes, I have noted that contemporary lit has a tendency to focus on the dark difficult stuff – a lot more than genre fiction, which I also read, when I have the chance.

    I mean, don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a sanitized library. I try to sanitize my news consumption and generally I don’t watch movies that are too dark. But with books the balance is more equal, I feel, because there are aspects of books that make it possible to endure and deal with the dark stuff, even if the ending is not a happy one – or there is not a single spot of cheerfulness in them.

    For example, one of my favorite books is Tim O’Briens collection of linked short stories about the Vietnam War (The Things They Carried) and it is anything but cheerful reading, and most of the soldiers, obviously, don’t have happy endings. They get blown to bits.

    But still, much of the writing comes off as so hauntingly beautiful to me that that is enough – enough to make me happier in general for having read it. (Its the same ideal I try to pursue in my own writing even if I will never measure up to these authors.)

    So, I feel, it can be said that misery and happiness are not *complete* opposites. At least not in books. Sometimes it can be beautiful to delve on what is dark and difficult, especially if writers. like O’Brien, who master storytelling and bittersweet humor, can show us how to do it, without losing out minds. (I think the same goes for musicians.)

    There is a limit to everything, obviously. Hemingway and Woolf are generally my favorites authors among the contemporary classics, but also the most depressing to read (except Woolf’s Orlando). I guess everyone has to find the balance that works for them, with regard to reading and other media habits.

    But contemporary books don’t need for me to end on “joyfully tranformative notes” in order to leave me feeling happier, at least in my own definition of happiness.

  11. Super interesting post and love all the comments too.

    I just wrote a post a few weeks ago on joy. Joy can be found in even the darkest corner of the world. Joy being distinct from happiness and cheerfulness which are fleeting and contingent on circumstances. I read somewhere not long ago, and sadly I can’t even remember who wrote it, that our gloomy and/or apocalyptic literature shows a distinct lack of imagination. We can imagine all sorts of horrible tragedies but we can’t imagine positive transformation, contentment, joy, etc. At first I thought that couldn’t be true, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if it might be.

    • I am a bit behind reading your posts Stefanie and did see this post heading when I was clearing my blog email folder. I did not clear out your posts!

      Joy is a great concept … and that’s an interesting point re lack of imagination and gloomy literature. Is it lack of imagination though? Or is it that positive writing tends to get panned, or is it intended by writers to play the same role as those distressing ads do and is aimed at shocking us into action?

      That said it’s probably true that good positive writing is hard to do? It’s probably not hard to get a gloomy tone but is hard to be light with serious matter?

      Thanks for your thoughts.

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