It always surprises me how depressing media is seen as more relevant or significant than non-depressing media. Oscars invariably go to actors portraying people who suffer, literary prizes go to authors who torture their characters, museums are filled with paintings and sculptures of people not running around in the sunshine picking flowers.
Why is this? What’s our fascination with bad things happening to good people? Why do we feel like we’re wasting our time when we feel good, and why do we feel empowered or entitled when we suffer or surround ourselves with people who suffer?
Let’s examine this by expanding the literary example. When naming a list of literary classics, you’re more than likely to come up with some very tragic, dramatic novels. Are these books fun to read? Perhaps not in the traditional sense. Anyone reading about Catherine’s death in Wuthering Heights and then laughing out loud, well, we’d probably call them a sadist. So why is it that we tend to regard depressing novels as more literarily significant?
In some professions, the more difficult an accomplishment, the better it is rewarded. So could this be the deciding factor? Are depressing novels more difficult to write? Let’s see. Say we give two writers a task. The first has only 5 minutes to sit down with a pen and paper and come up with a funny idea. This idea needs to be completely original and fresh, because a joke we’ve heard before just isn’t that funny. Plus, it needs to be universally recognizable so our audience can relate to it.
The second writer gets the same 5 minutes to come up with 20 sad ideas. They don’t necessarily need to be original, because sad things stay sad, no matter how many times we hear them. And sad things tend to be universally recognizable anyway, so he doesn’t have to worry about that either.
Now tell these writers that their lives depend on them successfully completing their tasks.
Which of these writers would you rather be? I’d definitely choose the latter. I predict that, perhaps somewhat ironically, the comedy writer will meet a dramatic end, while the drama writer will walk away in the sunshine, possibly stopping somewhere to pick some flowers.
The truth is that it’s just not that hard to think of examples of tragic people in dramatic situations. Without even using 1% of my admittedly limited brainpower, I can throw something together. How about a person whose cat dies, on the very day he wanted to commit suicide? Now he has to postpone his suicide to bury his cat. That’s pretty sad, isn’t it? Add the fact that he doesn’t have a shovel. He has to go out and buy one, but it’s Sunday and he’s flat broke. Also, it just started raining.
Okay, fine, that didn’t make you cry, what did you expect from a meager 1%? But you get my drift.
It actually takes a good setup followed by a constant stream of interesting and new ideas to keep a reader thinking that a novel is funny. It only takes a good setup followed by a mild sense of ongoing brooding or suffering to keep a reader thinking that a novel is dramatic. So it’s clearly not the difficulty involved that activates our sense of experiencing something of deeper meaning.
What is it then? What is it about the paintings with the dark clouds and the corpses on the battlefields that gets them into the museums while the ones of good friends enjoying a hearty handshake will escape the public eye forever? What is it about Sean Penn playing a retarded man who has trouble finishing a sentence (I Am Sam) that has him preparing an acceptance speech, while his hauntingly accurate portrayal of a teenager having such a good time that he has trouble finishing a sentence (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) has him ridiculed?
I think it has something to do with our admiration for people who have suffered through an ordeal. We can’t help but wonder if we could have done it. How well we would have held up. And, for some reason, we are more than ready to extend our admiration to people merely pretending to be people who have suffered through an ordeal. The actors acting about it, the authors authoring about it, the painters mixing colors about it.
So, if you ever want to write a true masterpiece, a future classic, make sure you torture your characters sufficiently.
Graham Parke is responsible for a number of technical publications and has recently patented a self-folding map. He has been described as both a humanitarian and a pathological liar. Convincing evidence to support either allegation has yet to be produced.
No Hope for Gomez! is his fiction debut: Boy meets girl. Boy stalks girl. Girl already has a stalker. Boy becomes her stalker-stalker.
You can also find Graham’s blog here.