Taking us down, with style

Why is it that so many gifted writers provide us with work that is so mind-numbingly depressing?

And why do the rest of us read it?

Last night, I spent a sobering two hours in my recliner, switching back and forth between “The Animals,” by Christian Kiefer, and “The Splendid Things We Planned,” a memoir by Blake Bailey.

Both were exceedingly well-crafted, and as a writer, I enjoyed seeing how they had built and polished  their narratives.

The problem was, when I finished reading, I felt like I needed a drink as badly as one of Kiefer’s dysfunctional characters.

This is what Kirkus Review says about Kiefer’s novel: “Eloquent and shattering, this novel explores, in gritty detail, how penance sometimes does not lead to redemption, a modern take on the story of Eden. Kiefer is a master wordsmith, and his dense and beautiful language intensifies the pain and isolation of the main character… Devastatingly beautiful. This novel embodies why we write and why we read.”

OK, fair enough. But to me, this was in the same vein as a lot of other brilliant but dismal fictional dirges, books like Russell Banks’ “Affliction,” William Kennedy’s “Ironweed” and Larry Brown’s “Fay.”

I’m about 100 pages into the “The Animals,” and it seems obvious that the protagonist, Bill Reed, is on a collision course with disaster. Chances are, he’s going to take the lovable inhabitants of his animal refuge down with him. Everything that surrounds Bill is dark,. gloomy and, yes, “gritty” — his trailer, his friends, his memories.

Maybe I’m just too sensitive.

Meanwhile, Bailey’s memoir is about his drug-addicted brother, who has also been placed firmly on the path to destruction by page 20. You know that this is not going to end well, and I found myself wondering: “Maybe it’s cathartic for Bailey to recall how his family spiraled downward, but do I really need to read about it?”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that all novels and memoirs should wear happy faces. That would be boring. Nor do I necessarily demand happy endings.

Recently, I’ve finished a couple of novels by William Hazelgrove, a writer you probably never heard of. One was called “The Pitcher,” the other “Real Santa.” One has a happy ending, the other just sort of ends.

The point is, these books dance across the lines between problem and resolution, humor and pathos. They aren’t all dark, and found myself feeling good when I finished them.

Hazelgrove challenges his characters, but he doesn’t seem compelled to torture them.

By contrast, consider “Affliction” (and, to be fair, Russell Banks is a wonderful writer, some of whose work is not depressing). It’s not enough that his main character hates his job, hates where he lives, hates his father and only barely tolerates his girlfriend. Or that he gets snowed and rained upon for most of the book. Or that the story slowly and depressingly drags its way toward an awful conclusion. On top of all that, Banks gives his unfortunate protagonist a toothache that periodically afflicts him.

I read the whole thing, thinking: “Wow, he;’s a good writer, but geez …”

Is this just me? Or do a lot of people like depressing books because it makes them think: “You know, my life sort of sucks sometimes, but it’s not even close to being as bad as that.”

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Recently retired after 35 years with the News & Advance newspaper in Lynchburg, VA, now re-inventing myself as a novelist/nonfiction writer and writing coach in Lake George, NY.

3 thoughts on “Taking us down, with style”

  1. I agree, some books, even though written well, are hard to read. I don’t think they should all be rosy, but I don’t want to walk away feeling totally obliterated either. Books that deal with truths ‘should be’ truthful, and that’s not always pretty nor easy to write, or read. A well balanced book is enjoyable, even if there are depressing events in it.


  2. This is a good, fair, and very interesting question. Most of the books you list are my favorites. Strangely enough I most often want a “happy ending” (of sorts) in my film viewing but long for a more ambivalent (at best) ending in my reading (and, obviously, in my writing).

    Thanks for giving me something to think about! And thanks for reading The Animals!


  3. People buy books for entertainment, not to be reminded of what they need to escape. Most of us lead lives with _more than enough_ bad things happening. We want escape, or to feel that we can “make it past the bad points.” I could write several books detailing my problems of the last 42 years. (Four serious knee injuries, and surgeries, plus a disabling back injury that turned me into a Paraplegic. No one wants top read that, unless it’s to see how I survived and overcame.


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