Thursday, January 30, 2014

Depressing Books

The Telegraph recently published its list of the Top 15 Most Depressing Books. Scrolling through, I find only two that I've read- Jude the Obscure and Never Let Me Go. And they were both pretty depressing, but not the most depressing I've ever read.

That dubious honor belongs to Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, a book so depressing that I had to go onto Wikipedia to come up with the title, because I repressed it. The story of Lily Bart, literature's ultimate self-saboteur (saboteuse?), it starts of bad and just gets worse and worse. And when you think it can't get worse, it does.  Ethan Frome wasn't a laugh a minute either, but The House of Mirth is just punishingly depressing. It holds you down until you're too beaten to fight anymore. It kicks you in the ribs and then laughs while it kicks you some more.

Literary fiction has produced some recent downers. Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being is pretty bleak although it ends well, but you can't say that for James Scott's The Kept. Rocks fall, everyone dies. Hooray. (James, you're a doll and your book deserves all the success in the world. But man.) Patrick Flanery's Fallen Land spirals down to some very dark places too.

Not surprisingly crime fiction is pretty good at producing depressing books. Massimo Carlotto's Death's Dark Abyss was so depressing I thought I'd never read him again. But then that book just does what it says on the label so it's probably my own fault for reading it. Gene Kerrigan's The Midnight Choir made me want to cry for humanity but I'm sure I'll come back for more.

I like books that shake me up emotionally, and I don't mind depressing books if they're good at being depressing, but looking over my shelves I find that I don't gravitate towards them. Or at least if I do, I discard them and then erase them from my long-term memory, and have to look them up again on Wikipedia. I like some hope. I like some redemption, some possibility of a future for characters I've come to care about. It's a tough act to pull off, to create characters your readers will want to follow till the end of your book only to flagellate them and by extension the reader.

How do you feel about depressing books? Avoid? Seek? Tolerate okay or throw across the room?

10 comments:

Tasha Brandstatter said...

Edith Wharton is always kinda depressing, but The House of Mirth (which I haven't girded my loins to read yet) sounds p*r*e*t*t*y bad. That was her unfinished novel, wasn't it? I remember watching an adaptation of it on PBS and being like, UHG.

Sandy Nawrot said...

OK, well I've read Never Let Me Go, The Road and We Need to Talk About Kevin. And yeah, they were all really depressing but SO good. I didn't mind that they were depressing, because the plot was so compelling. Of those three, Kevin did the biggest number on me. I could only read a little at a time, but it packed a huge huge punch. I'm not sure about The House of Mirth. It sounds bad! Even the title sounds bad!

Allison E said...

I don't really seek out depressing books per se but if I think back to my list of favorite books, most of them are actually really depressing. Perhaps I am subconsciously seeking out depressing books?

Lisa Hayden Espenschade said...

I've read four of the books on that list plus This House of Mirth and they are all supremely depressing but nothing tops Saltykov-Shchedrin's Golovyov Family, which is not only depressing but so claustrophobic I felt trapped. It's a great book, though, and some people even think it's funny. (Maybe I'll see the humor if I reread it?)

Jeanne said...

I find the word "depressing" interesting here, because the listed books make me thoughtful, not sad, and certainly not despairing. I avoid sad books in the winter because of SAD (seasonal affective disorder). And then there's the kind of sad one gets from reading something tragic, which can ultimately be uplifting. Think about The Fault in Our Stars if you've read it--it's so wonderful that they fall in love, and so terrible to contemplate taking the risk of loving.

Sheila (Bookjourney) said...

I had to check out that list and I have read Beloved (Morrison, We Need To Talk About Kevin (Shriver)and The Road (Mccarthy).

contemplatrix said...

I read anything w/ "depressing" or "bleak" attached to them in small doses and usually in the summer...

Will be reading Never Let Me Go for a class and will be (re)watching the film. The Road instantly came to mind for me, as well.

~L (omphaloskepsis)

Pam said...

It's probably just me, but I didn't find Never Let Me Go all that depressing (sure, there were depressing parts...).

Now The Road - that just depressed me because I like grammar.

ChaosIsAFriendOfMine said...

I guess I like depressing books because The House of Mirth is one of my favorite books! I think the most depressing books I've ever read is probably A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hossenini.

Audrey said...

I love that this honor goes to The House of Mirth. I hadn't thought of it that way, but now that I do ... :)