Friday, June 10, 2011

"We all go into the dark...." (critical engagement by an orthodox rebel)

This article by The Wall Street Journal was very interesting. Read it carefully before proceeding.

I wish to divulge a certain truth about myself: when it comes to fiction (and even real life), I like dark things. I like well crafted villains and situations of true peril. I like watching the hero struggle (victoriously, of course) through a dark night of the soul, culminating in new strength and resolve. I like evil, death, sorrow, and the like treated with a sense of respect and maturity. As I've pointed out elsewhere, the more seriously you take evil, the more seriously you take the good. The inkier the darkness, the more brilliant the light.

On the other hand, as Mrs. Gurdon points out in her article, dark things (like all good tools) can be abused. What I want to assert, however, is that what she has pointed out is not true "dark" fiction but rather a childish parodying of it. What she is pointing out is not darkness; it is depravity, and the authors involved ought to be ashamed for exposing children to such things. I applaud Mrs. Gurdon for exposing these travesties of fiction and their collective assault on the moral character of young adults and teenagers. However, for the sake of all things truly "dark," I feel compelled to try to offer (in a limited way) some parameters for what truly defines something that is "dark." I believe it involves at least two things.

First of all, anything that desires to call itself "dark" must have a sense of gravitas. I do not mean mere weight, nor do I mean boredom or pretentiousness, but rather a sense of seriousness. As mentioned earlier, there is a certain sense of respect and maturity given to the content of the story, all of the content (both the good and the bad). It is treated with gravity, not levity, nor is it treated flippantly, as though it didn't matter. The mark of any great piece of fiction (whether it be dark or not) is that it treats its content like it matters. It knows nothing of shock and titillation; only seriousness. When an author writes about our protagonist seeing a wall "covered with impaled heads and other dripping, black-rot body parts: hands, hearts, feet, ears, penises," I cannot take such a sentence seriously. It has no gravitas; it is simply gross. Gruesomeness does not equal seriousness, and anything that is truly dark has first and foremost a sense of seriousness about its contents.

Second of all, anything that desires to call itself "dark" must have a sense of somberness about it. If my first point stressed gravity, then this point is stressing tragedy. This is where most so-called "dark" stories miss the mark. They focus on the disgusting and the gross rather than the tragic; they expose the depravity rather than contemplating the tragedy. The problem with this is that depravity (aside from being repulsive and corrupting) has only superficial narrative power. Tragedy, however, has fundamental narrative power. It strikes deeper and last longer and is far more meaningful. Going into graphic detail about how some poor girl has sliced her arm "to ribbons" has no lasting power over the reader. It may shock and disgust you. It may haunt your brain as an image, but it has no fundamental effect on you. It has not changed your mind about anything, nor has it stirred you towards any physical or moral action (except, perhaps, buying a different book). What has been missed is that the cut arms of the girl are not nearly as potent as her cut soul, the latter being a far more universal (and thus relevant) reality than the former. Not everyone cuts their arms when they are sad, but everyone has been sad; and that which is truly "dark" focuses on that universal quality of sadness, on the underlying tragic elements of our lives.

A clarifications is in order. By "somberness" or tragedy, I do not mean merely a perpetual state of angst or ennui. A morbidly depressed character is not "dark"; they are just morbidly depressed. For a character to be "dark," they must be caught in the grip of tragedy, and either are struggling against it towards catharsis (if they are the hero) or have succumbed to it (if they are the villain). Sadness can never be the end unto itself, for that is the way of the villain. There must be a light at the end of this dark tunnel, but you have to go through the dark tunnel first.

That last sentence may strike some as odd (or old fashioned), but I claim it as the undeniable truth of true "dark" fiction, i.e., it is meant to offer us hope. As stated earlier, the darker the dark, the more stunning and sudden the light becomes. "Dark" fiction (perhaps more than any other fictive style) has this potential to make the light explode before us like a thousand symphonic stars, and it does it in this way: by taking us honestly and seriously through the dark. In perhaps the wildest of paradoxes, the authors that Mrs. Gurdon cites focus so intently on the dark that they cease to be dark at all; they become disgusting and depraved, mere repositories of vapid shock and titillation. For without light, darkness loses all meaning.

Jon Vowell (c) 2011


  1. Excellent response to an article that many people seem to have blown WAY out of focus.

    You not only deal with the literary merit of the works in question, but the issue of the "dark" subject matters/themes at hand. I think you are right on.

  2. Came here from your link at the bottom of the article.

    I don't think that gravitas is necessary for darkness, and perhaps, on the subject of children's/YA literature, gravitas is what isn't wanted in a book that is dark.

    The art of children's/YA books which deal with darkness is marking a book which gives hope to those people who experience true darkness in their real life. In that case, the 'duty' of the author is to validate their experience, and provide an outlet of hope. I paraphrase the author Diana Wynne Jones here, but she questioned children's/YA lit which contained distress but no hope. Those people who haven't experienced it will find it amusing or overblown or impossible, and those who have will find it depressing. Mostly, that comes across not as gravitas or tragedy, but as mockery for a real experience.

    I just don't think that tragedy is the marker of darkness, but as you say, neither is gore. Truth of experience is perhaps where darkness should lie, rather than a classical model of tragic theory.

    Blue Yeti

  3. I agree with your definition of these books as "depravity" instead of "darkness."
    When I think of darkness in literature, I think of books written by Poe, and Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These are truly gothic and are enjoyable simply by their sheer creepiness.

  4. blueyeti:

    You said:

    "I don't think that gravitas is necessary for darkness...gravitas is what isn't wanted in a book that is dark."

    And then you said:

    "The 'duty' of the author is to validate [the reader's] experience...."

    I agree with the last statement, though in light of the first statement, I would like to add that without a sense of gravity (i.e., respect and maturity towards the subject matter), such a validation is not possible.

    In other words, I believe that you and I are on the same page, though I think you misunderstood my meaning.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment, though. Cheers!

  5. Will:

    I agree.

    Old-school Gothic literature is usually a solid choice.

  6. Anonymous:

    I'm glad that you caught my deeper concern. I did fear that if we merely point out the abuses of "dark" fiction, people would lose sight of its uses. Abusus non tollit usum.

  7. Love it as always Jon. Being a book manager I was always disgusted with certain books. You were awesome in explaining the differences in "dark" fiction. Keep reading kind sir!