Last week I talked about how light, escapist fiction may not be so escapist at all. Does this mean I don’t like fiction that deals with darker issues? Not in the least. I will admit that the outcome of the story will have a lot to do with whether I decide to go back to the story at some future date, but even with those books I know I’ll never read again or movies I won’t watch again, I often take away something that makes me think.
If light stories remind us why we live, dark stories often supply the tools that help us forge ahead when living seems to be too demanding. Frodo’s anguished determination as he slogs through Mordor. Or Tell Sackett’s lone stand against those who murdered his wife and now want him out of the way, as well. Or… You must have your stories that inspire you, even in their darkest parts.
One of the greatest compliments I ever received was in a series of e-mails from a reader who told me that my Firekeeper books had kept her going during a really bad time in her life. I assumed this was because the books had let her escape. The final e-mail I received from her showed differently. She mentioned that she was going on a trip to Europe with her mother and that, although she was afraid of going to strange places and of snakes and of several other things, she was “going to be like Firekeeper and be brave.”
Even those dark stories in which the challenges aren’t mighty and heroic can be wonderfully heartening. When I was in high school, I read Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This is not a light story, but it has remained with me all my life, serving as a talisman about trying to find victory even when surrounded by what looks like defeat.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the tale, it recounts one day spent by Alexander Denisovich Shukhov, a prisoner the Stalin-era Siberian labor camps. The final paragraphs, in which Shukhov seeks value where most would concentrate on the horrible conditions in which he lives (including the fact that he’s imprisoned for no justifiable reason at all), are worth quoting. Here they are in Ralph Parker’s translation:
“Shukhov went to sleep fully content. He’d had many strokes of luck that day: they hadn’t put him in the cells; they hadn’t sent his squad to the settlement; he’d swiped a bowl of kasha at dinner; the squad leader had fixed the rates well; he’d built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he’d smuggled that bit of hacksaw blade through; he’d earned a favor from Tsezar that evening; he’d bought that tobacco. And he hadn’t fallen ill. He’d got over it.
“A day without a dark cloud. An almost happy day.
“There were three thousand, six hundred, and fifty-three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail.
“Three thousand, six hundred, fifty-three days.
“The extra three days were for leap years.”
Nor did I stop with this fictional account with this very qualified “happy” ending. I also read Solzehnitsyn’s very long Gulag Archipelago. Powerful stuff. Horrible stuff. Frightening stuff. Inspiring stuff.
There are other dark stories that have nothing to do with overt violence, rape, and mayhem. A tale like Citizen Kane is about forgetting what you really care about – in that, it’s very depressing. It’s also uplifting, if you choose to take from it a reminder of what you do care about.
Going back to Winston Churchill for a moment. (For those of you who didn’t join us last week; Churchill’s life is what got me started on this train of thought.) His life wasn’t a novel. Readers bring expectations to novels – and believe me, I’m still getting angry fan mail from readers who feel I violated their expectations as to who Firekeeper should have settled down with!
The boy Winston didn’t know as he struggled with his erratic academic career (at one point, his father despaired of him as sub-intelligent) that he would be remembered as a brilliant writer and historian. The young Winston, who broke with the Conservatives on matters of principle, didn’t know that twenty years later, he’d be welcomed back. The political “exile” didn’t know that exile would end. As far as Winston knew, he – like his father – would find that standing up for his principles would mean his political career was over.
One of the things that sustained Winston Churchill thorough all of this were stories: stories about idealism and heroism, stories about friendship, stories about valor. He was a historian, and so knew all too well how vicious humans could be to other humans. However, he chose his models and tried to live up to them – even when he was aware of how often he failed.
Now, I’ll admit, I don’t particularly like reading stories about nasty people doing even nastier things to other people, but I can find value in them. When I find myself getting upset, I look at why I’m so offended by the content. Often, in the process, I learn what I value. That’s worth something in itself.
When I was in college, Stephen R. Donaldson’s “Chronicles of Thomas Covenant” were on everyone’s “must read” list. As the series unfolded, I noticed something interesting. Darkness, grittiness, and edgy content weren’t enough to sustain the readership. As Covenant refused to learn and grow, the series lost readers… It never recovered.
In fact, I suspect that most readers of “dark” fiction are waiting for the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m willing to be told I’m wrong. I’d be curious as to your response.