Depressing Books

I enjoy depressing books.  Russian authors?  Bring them on!  Shakespeare’s tragedies?  Can’t get enough!  And my love of these books once led me to suggest them to others.  However, I quickly learned that other people, most of the people I know, don’t like to read depressing books.  Suddenly, I feel as if there’s something wrong with me.  But, I have a theory.

I had a strained and unhappy childhood.  There were happy moments.  I don’t expect you to feel sorry for me.  But, overall I had to deal with a lot of grownup crap that many people don’t.  My theory is that because of this melancholy childhood, I enjoy reading about people in novels that experience the sorrow and difficulties that I have experienced.  I enjoy reading novels that portray what I consider to be “real life,” and sometimes “real life” sucks.  It isn’t a fairy tale.  At least, it wasn’t for me.

One of these depressing books is Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh.  It is about the three women who are all married (at different times) to the same man, Mr. Kimble.  These women are compelling and strong.  They each face difficult challenges and react differently to Mr. Kimble’s fickle affections.  The first wife, the one with two young children, has difficulty getting out of bed after Mr. Kimble has left her.  She is young, uneducated, unemployed, and overwhelmed.  Her son at one point eats dog food because he is so hungry and his mother isn’t functioning. Eventually the neighbors step in and the children are fine.  (Stop panicking!)

I related to this young mother.  After having my first child, I sunk into a depression and had difficulty adjusting to life at home with a crying baby rather than life at work with my friends.  I had to realize that my shirt would look like several birds had attacked me with their excrement at some point during the day rather than wearing my perfectly pressed outfits from Banana Republic and Ann Taylor.  I had to wake up several times at night and allow a tiny, yet powerful mouth to bruise my body and continue to deprive me of much needed sleep.  I had to say goodbye to my husband every morning as he continued life as normal, while I contemplated all of the things I was probably missing.  Motherhood is a difficult transition, and I admire my friends and neighbors who seem to do it so effortlessly.  I did not do it effortlessly, but these years later I think I finally have the hang of it!

Anyway, I suggested Mrs. Kimble for a book club meeting several years ago in my neighborhood, around the same time I was first experiencing motherhood.  In my naïveté, I went to the meeting keyed up and excited for the discussion and expecting everybody to give it rave reviews. Well, the book certainly elicited discussion.  But to my extreme disappointment, the ladies mostly disliked the novel.  They criticized the young mother and declared the book to be depressing.  I earned a reputation for liking depressing books.

In a recent conversation with a student, he mentioned having read “the most depressing story ever” in his Introduction to Fiction class.  It was a short story by Isabel Allende that I had not read or heard of, but he seemed truly disturbed by it.  The plot involved rape and revenge.  Despite his intentions to major in English, he told me he does not like depressing literature.  Maybe he had an extremely happy childhood?  But because we had been discussing Anna Karenina a few moments before his analysis of Allende’s story, I backtracked and told him that he probably wouldn’t like Tolstoy after all.

Do people with happy childhoods hate depressing books, or is my theory wrong?  Despite many of my friends’ dislike of “depressing” books, I maintain that depressing books must be liked by more people than just me.  I admit that the end of Gone with the Wind disappointed me, but according to one of my favorite college professors, “Large numbers of people find the resolution to be satisfying.”  He applies this to all literature, and if large numbers of people didn’t find tragic resolutions satisfying, there wouldn’t be so many depressing books.


29 thoughts on “Depressing Books

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  1. i do like the way you write, girl. i like this post, too. there IS something about depressing books that i like, too. not sure what that says about MY childhood, but there you have it. initially thought ur student was talking about ‘death & the maiden,’ but that’s not a short story, but a play, & it’s NOT wirtten by allende. she is good. i like what i’ve read of her. as i’m sure you know, she is from the ‘magical realism’ school of gabriel garcia marquez. anyway, i love reading your posts. you are an educated & interesting person, one i’m proud to call ‘friend.’ bee good…

    1. Thank you, Alex! Your praise means a lot to me. 🙂 As to Allende, I’m not sure I like her work. It doesn’t seem as sophisticated as Garcia Marquez’s work, but she does tell twisted and interesting stories.

  2. I agree with your analysis that people with happy childhoods don’t appreciate “depressing” literature (or for that matter, depressing film and TV). I have always found comfort in entertainment that portrays life as it is, even with the unpleasant parts. Isn’t that what makes life meaningful? How can we appreciate happiness if we never know, acknowledge and accept the dark and unhappy parts of life?

    I think that for most people, it’s impossible to appreciate the beauty in sadness until they’ve actually experienced difficulty in their own lives. And some folks don’t get a good dose of sadness (or, in my opinion, reality) until later on in life. I feel like the penchant for a shiny, plastic, happy sheen on all forms of entertainment in American culture does a great disservice to people. It sets young people up for huge disappointment when they beging to understand that life isn’t a fairy tale, that bad things happen to everyone, that misfortune is totally random. This is why I much prefer the cold, hard reality of French films to big hollywood productions any day.

    Some people call me a pessimist. I say I’m a realist.

    1. You are so smart. I love your insight. I think that “shiny, plastic, happy sheen” not only sets people up for disappointment, but it creates feelings of inadequacy for those of us who already know life isn’t perfect. I still try to live up to those ideals in the media that I logically know aren’t possible or even realistic. I’m a realist too, but I still let myself get caught up in all of the fake.

  3. I’m with you on this all the way, Emily.

    I like life to be portrayed real….whatever that looks like. I am a melancholic and tend to see the glass as half empty — it’s just my nature and I won’t apologize for it. But my entire life people have sought to change me and force me to live very much on the surface of things, to ignore the not-so-pretty, pretend the bad doesn’t exist. I don’t dwell on the depressing, nor do I walk around in sackcloth and ashes sounding the death knell. I am simply realistic about life and like to look deeply. I’m not afraid of what’s there, partly because, I think, of the experiences I have had. People I know who don’t like depressing films or books are typically people who have either had a happy childhood, OR who simply can’t bear to look at the truth.

    And it is this truth that makes literature great, I think. The ability and willingness to go deep and to write experience the way it comes. This Mrs. Kimble seems to do that, at least with this one character (and by the way, your postpartum sounds pretty much exactly like mine….). I feel like my life and time on this earth is too short to spend time on shallow books, films, and conversations. I do not mean this as a criticism, simply that as I’ve grown older I have become more comfortable resisting the pressure to live life on the surface. No life is all happy all the time. Suffering builds character and strength. In suffering we learn and grow. I will take depressing, real literature any day.

  4. I’m one person who had a happy childhood and yet enjoys depressing books. Maybe I’m a rare breed. I certainly like some happy books, too, but I agree that something about them feels trivial and unrealistic. My favorite character is someone flawed who struggles greatly, preferably because of their own faults. I suppose I can relate there. And I can relate to you with enjoying books that others don’t. That’s how I felt about Madame Bovary. I pitied her because she was miserable, but the others in my book club couldn’t stand her. Honestly, the end of a book’s plot doesn’t usually matter to me as much as the characters. I guess I should say I like depressing characters rather than depressing books.

    1. This makes me happy! I am glad to have found somebody who shares this with me, and not necessarily because of an unhappy childhood. Thanks for making my day. I think that’s also why I love blogging so much. I find people who are actually like me, where in my real life that seems to be rare.

      1. I know what you mean! I feel the same way and I really value my fellow blogger-friends. I’m glad I made your day!

  5. This is very interesting. I think regardless of whether you gravitate towards certain books you can still read something and recognize as it as a great piece of writing, no matter if it’s a happy or sad ending. Which is why a good critic can separate him or herself from personal preference and do just this. Whether it’s films, books, art, music etc. Because there are some beautiful works that are deep and uplifting, and ones that are beautiful in their tragedy. Because a general rule of thumb of is to see the comedy in the drama and the drama in the comedy. That’s real life. Black humour is how we deal with the worst things in life. It gets us through it. (And if you try to be funny, you never are. The funniest things are those which are not intended to be.)

  6. I’d describe my childhood as happy and yet I love depressing books. I’m not sure the reason. I just like FEELING something. I like crying. I like messy, twisted, broken characters and lives. I feel like it’s representative of the way most of life really is – complicated, frustrating, disappointing. Wow, maybe I’m depressed myself. Huh.

    1. Maybe you are just empathetic and deep thinking, and we usually think more about situations when they are complicated or changing or difficult. I see this principle at work a lot with my research, where theorists constantly advocate to studying something during a disturbance or a change. That is when the interesting stuff happens.

  7. I love depressing books! my writing is quite often of that nature. (

    It seems to me that most of the greatest artists in the world have a natural tendency to enjoy exploring the depressive side of life. Perhaps due to the detachment created by the artist’s constant questioning of the world. The age old complex of one searching for meaning only to find meaninglessness.

    I enjoy your blog, thank you for sharing your ideas 🙂

  8. Just saw this entry off your newest posting, Emily! Now that I read this, it might help explain our different reactions to the April 2015 Literary Wives read! I just finished reading three “really intense” books and was searching for something light. However, when I picked up the two books I want to read prior to an April author event, those were both intense, too! So…I don’t mind “depressing” reads, though I like to mix it up a bit and do prefer at least a bit of “hope,” especially at the end. I’m reading a children’s book before returning to the intense stuff! Whew!! 🙂

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