Thursday, July 12, 2012

The appeal of dark fiction

Over at the magazine, there’s an ongoing discussion. Some of the staff are a little weary of all the dark and depressing fiction we get. Why, they wonder, does no one ever write a story with a happy ending? And some other staff, like myself, can’t get enough of those dark stories.  In some way, it seems like an easy answer. Shouldn’t we all prefer happy, wonderful stories (as long as they’re not sappy)?  And yet, I never seem to tire of dark stories, no matter what my mental state. So why have I never tired of dark fiction?

In my case, I’ve been reading dark stories since I was quite young. I used to collect all the Lurlene McDaniel stories, which always involved someone with a terminal illness. 

My love of these baffled my mother, who has a strong aversion to dark stories. 

Writer Charlotte English does a great job of explaining why she’s tired of seeing dark stories in magazines:
I’m not sure why [dark fiction is] so universally popular. Are these magazines responding to an overwhelming preference among readers? If so, why are readers so taken with the darkest of the dark? Why do we want to spend our reading hours wallowing in misery, and anxiety, and danger and shadow? Is it because it makes the real world seem brighter in comparison? Frankly my inner world is dark enough as it is: I like to be laughed out of it rather than descend even further in.
It's an excellent point. So why don't I agree? What makes a person more predisposed to like dark stories? Is it personality type? Class? One’s own personal history of tragedy?

Silly me thought that I could cover this in one blog post, but as soon as I started researching, I realized it would work much better as a series of posts. So until I have answers for why I read dark fiction (better than “because I like it) and why I write it (better than “those are the kind of ideas that come to me”), I'll leave you with a few quotes.  They're from a fantastic New York Times article that interviewed seven YA authors about why they think teenagers like dark fiction.

Unfortunately, the truth of the world around us is changing, and so the literature is morphing to reflect it. Teens want to read something that isn't a lie; we adults wish we could put our heads under the blankets and hide from the scary story we're writing for our kids. - Paolo Bacigalupi 
Schools are places where teens are subject to dress codes, have few free speech rights, and are constantly surveilled, where they rise and sit at the sound of a bell. Is it any wonder that dystopian novels speak to them? - Scott Westerfeld
Many teens feel “gamed” in this way…  The adult world has them in its cross hairs, wishing to separate the sheep from the goats, and they will do so, whatever it takes.  They feel trapped, forced into a world of tests that humiliate and unnerve them. -Jay Parini
Here's my theory: our world is getting increasingly complex. Teenagers face a huge number of choices and an almost paralyzing array of expert opinions on what constitutes right and wrong. In a culture defined by shades of gray, I think the absolute black and white choices in dark young adult novels are incredibly satisfying for readers. - Maggie Stiefvater
And finally, my favorite explanation:

No different from that quintessential literary adolescent Holden Caulfield, we want to hold on to the joy in life we felt as children. We want to hold on to our individuality, our humanity, our ability to love and connect to others. We have always wanted to hold on, but in today’s global communications network we can’t avoid facing overwhelming obstacles. The more we understand how small and powerless we really are against the immense forces that control our existence, the more we yearn to feel meaningful.
And so we read again and again about the child of dystopia who makes us feel hope for humankind, even if, in the case of M.T. Anderson’s futuristic “Feed,” it turns out that the society is beyond repair. All the protagonist can do in that failed world is begin to understand and care about where we went wrong — which is exactly what the reader needs to do now to prevent a dystopian future. -Lisa Rowe Fraustino
I hope you'll share your thoughts about the appeal of dark fictions, in blog posts or by commenting here. I've already got three or four ideas for blog posts to come.


  1. As I first started reading your post, I thought I didn't like dark fiction at all, because I was defining it as fiction that starts out sad and ends even sadder. I nearly always hate sad endings.

    But I really like dystopia when it's done right, and I think it is because of the contrast--white pops out when placed against a dark background, and hope pops out when placed against dispair.

    1. The original idea of this series of posts will be about stories that are dark all the way through, up to and including the ending. But I ended up getting distracted by the general discussion of dark fiction, especially as applicable to teenagers.

      I hate some sad endings... but I love others. And there's another post in itself. What makes some sad endings work for me and not others?

  2. I do like dark fiction sometimes, and I like light fiction (is that a term) as well. The thing is that this world has both good and bad in it. There are people who are true heroes, and then there are people who are more evil than any character I could ever imagine. Sometimes in life everything comes together in a way that is almost miraculous, and sometimes we helplessly watch everything fall apart.

    Dark and light stories both reflect this world we live in, and I'm not sure why some people prefer one or the other, or why I do, but I think we can find truth in both types of stories.

    I think teenagers are drawn to the darker stories because that is a time when life feels like it is in so much turmoil. Darker stories reflect that. I also think that they are breaking away from the lighter happily ever after stories that they have been exposed to throughout their childhood and ready to explore and try to understand the darker side of human nature.

    Very interesting post.

  3. For me, I think a story needs to have a good reason to have both a dark tone throughout and then end on yet another sad note. But I can't read these kinds of stories all the time. If they don't teach me something or make me a better person, I feel cheated at the end.

    Or let's say it was an author who usually gave her readers a happy ending after a long and dark journey. And then she decided to skip the happy ending in a new book. I'd feel really betrayed. (For instance, if The Host had ended the way Wanda wanted it to, I would have sworn off Stephenie Meyer altogether.) So go me, I think it just depends on the writer and the story.

  4. I think all stories need a balance of Light and dark. I read to feel, and Dark stories make you feel. Mostly sad, but still... What I hate is a dark story with no hope.

    That's my line in the no thank you sand.


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