Reading about Sadness is a Pleasure?

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I have often wondered why I am attracted to darker books. Happy stories tend to bore and frustrate me – I prefer to read about characters battling against adversity or enduring situations that I hope I never come close to experiencing. I have often thought this behaviour to be strange so it was refreshing to hear Lionel Shriver talking about the subject at Vintage Classics Day. She also loves darker books, stating that it allows her to:

….experiment with emotion in a safe way.

When tragedy is present in books it intensifies all the emotions, increasing the significance of the happy periods and allowing us to see a greater range of the character’s personality traits. I love the roller-coaster of emotions produced when hardship is encountered and agree with Lionel Shriver that for a book to speak to people through the generations it must contain some degree of tragedy.

Can you think of any classics that don’t contain a tragic element?

What I can’t explain is why books with no happiness appeal. An example is Beside the Sea, a book in which all happiness is masked by dark sense of foreboding. It was one of my favourite reads last year, but it seems weird to actually enjoy reading something so devastagingly sad.

Why is reading about sadness a pleasure?  

Do you share my passion for sad books?

Or, can you explain the joys of happy books to me?


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35 Comments

  1. Chick's Lit says:

    I am in complete agreement with you.

    My favourite book of all time is Jane Eyre and I think fits exactly into this category.
    I love to read stories where the protagonist has to go through many difficulties but there has to be (or at least the certainty of) a happy ending. I need to know that all the suffering hasnt been in vain otherwise I feel cheated. I think this may be why I dont choose to read true life stories as very often they end tragically and I would find that too depressing.

    Loving the blog

    1. Jackie says:

      Chick’s Lit, Yes – Jane Eyre has that rollercoaster of emotions that I love, but I’m afraid I can’t agree with you about the happy ending. I often find books with a sad ending the most powerful and therefore strangely satisfying.

      True stories are often more affecting because the events have actually happened to someone, but I normally prefer fiction because the characterisation tends to be deeper. I’d hate for all books to have a happy ending – the not knowing makes it all the more exciting ;-)

  2. I’m not keen on books that start sad and end sad, but I like a good battle against the odds, for sure.

    A book that is all about happiness doesn’t exist, I think (but that’s maybe not the type of book you meant). There always has to be friction and (some) suffering in a book or it’s not going to work for the reader.

    1. Jackie says:

      Judith, Happy books do exist (For example – Hector’s Search For Happiness which I hated) Many childrens books are happy all the way through and there are a lot of other books (whose names are escaping me at the moment) which have bored me with their non-stop joy. They don’t work for me, but a lot of people like that sort of thing – are they the weird ones?!

  3. Sam Ruddock says:

    I partially agree with you, but don’t think that ‘happy’ books need to be less enjoyable.

    Troubling books can be wonderful, and some of my absolute favourites are harrowing emotional rollercoasters that do, as you say, allow you to experiment with thoughts and feelings in a safe way. This is a major aspect of reading pleasure. I also think there is a certain aspect of schadenfreude that comes into reading: that misfortune of others can be pleasurable to us. And perhaps we associate more with the struggles of characters than their happier times. Or perhaps some do and some don’t: if we all liked sadness so much then the love story, not matter it’s tragic elements, would no longer have a readership.

    Although the dominent notion is that happy books are unable to be as satisfying as sad books, I don’t think this needs to be the case. I often think that good writing about happiness is the great unexplored territory in literature. There must be good writing out there, dealing specifically with happiness, but I don’t know much of it.

    Ecstacy, now that is great for writing about. It can be manic and used and a momentary escape from everyday struggles, but it is still happiness. Think about Dave Eggers and his brother in part two of A Heartbreaking Work, or the couple in A.M. Homes Music for Torching. There’s a piece in the forthcoming Granta (115) by Maja Hrgovic called Zlatka in which a night of clubbing ecstacy turns into sexual excitement and it is wonderfully written and thoroughly emotionally satisfying.

    The great truth about literature, and art in general, is that it is rarely simply about happiness or sadness. It is the interrelation of the two, the struggles of characters we care about to escape one and reach the other. Without these two extremes, literature would be a far less interesting artform.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sam, Thank you for such a thought provoking comment. I’m afraid that I haven’t read any of the books that you mention, but can see how the extremes of ecstacy could make interesting reading.

      I agree that it is normally the balance of happiness and sadness that make the best reads, but I find it strange that I can enjoy dark books and yet quickly become bored by characters on an even keel. Perhaps I just haven’t found any good writing about happiness yet? I’ll go and dig my copy of A Heartbreaking WOrk off the shelf….

  4. I think that tragedy is often at the heart of a book. I think it makes for a great momentum behind peoples actions both in the lead up and afterwards. I also wonder sometimes if people write because of a tragedy or to write one out of their system? Maybe thats me looking too deeply.

    I found ‘Cats Eye’ by Margaret Atwood incredibly sad and it clings to you, whilst also evoking your own childhood sadness, so if you havent read that try it as its amazing.

    I’m not good on happy books, they tend to annoy me – what that says about me I do not know.

    1. Jackie says:

      Simon, I think a lot of authors find writing about the tragic events in their lives cathartic and I guess that if you are going through the same thing then it is reassuring to know that you are not alone, but that doesn’t really explain my love for books about things like the Holocaust or extreme survivial that I hope I will never have to experience.

      Happy books annoy me too – at least we know we aren’t alone in that :-)

      I haven’t read Cat’s Eyes, but own a copy – thanks for the recommendation!

  5. I’m a very introspective, and low-key person and always find that I am drawn to darker books and stories about dysfunctional families. My own childhood was dysfunctional so it seems I can relate in some cases.

    I can’t handle light, upbeat stories, and find the fluff to be such a waste of time. The same is true about overly-bubbly people in real life…LOL

    1. Jackie says:

      Diane, LOL! You sound exactly like me. Over-bubbly people are too much for me too. I find light, upbeat books to be a waste of time, but I do occasionally like watching TV programmes/films that are along those lines. Wonder why I can’t tolerate my books like that?

  6. Laura says:

    Jackie this is an interesting post. I too enjoy sad. dark, or intense books. If a book is “too happy,” it can feel lightweight and less intellectually stimulating. Sometimes I need that especially if I’ve read a long string of tragic novels, but for the most part I like my reading with a bit of hardship.

    1. Jackie says:

      Laura, I agree about the sad books being more thought provoking. Sometimes I feel as though I need something a little more lightweight, but I almost always find myself disappointed by it. What I need is just a change of scene and perhaps something with a faster pace, but never something lighter/happier.

  7. Charlie says:

    I’m similar, I like sadder or darker books. I think for me it’s the fact that they often provide more food for thought than happy books, because although you can delve into elements in happy books it’s just not the same, you can explore issues in sad books whereas of course in happy books there aren’t as many. I agree with the significance of happier periods, you can appreciate the happiness more.

    1. Jackie says:

      Charlie, Yes – the happy sections are always even more rewarding/happier if the characters have struggled to acheive it and been through a tough time. I love that extra postive feeling :-)

  8. Alex says:

    I’ve actually noticed that as I grow older I have less tolerance for extremely depressing and melancholic books. 10 years ago I enjoyed reading the likes of The Grapes of Wrath, Jude the Obscure, Germinal and the Russians, but now I probably wouldn’t give them a chance. I often wonder: how could my 19-year-old self actually go through all three in the “A Child Called It” series ?! It would be unthinkable today.

    Still, like you said most books have a piece of tragedy, and some of my recent favorites included The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Room and Lolita, which are sad in different ways. I just move away from those books which seem to say “humanity is doomed, we’re all savages, might as well give up”. Does that make any sense? It’s hard to explain what attracts me to some stories and puts me off others.

    1. Jackie says:

      Alex, That is interesting to know – it sounds like a good excuse to cram in as many depressing reads as possible before I go off them :-)

  9. Sandy says:

    Well, life isn’t all happy and sunshine, right? I love books that have hope for the future and everything, but it’s the ones that crawl around in the dark slimy stuff that leave me saying with admiration “Whoa. That was intense.” Those are the ones I remember forever.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, I couldn’t have put it better myself :-)

  10. Lucybird says:

    I too love to read sad books but I really couldn’t tell you why! Possibly it’s because I like books to make me think and sad books do that more often than happy books.

    I recently lent my boyfriend ‘When God was a Rabbit’ and after he started he said ‘Why did you lend me this, is so depressing?’ but I loved it

    1. Jackie says:

      Lucybird, Am I strange in finding ‘When God was a Rabbit’ a happy book? I laughed almost all the way through that…I think my idea of a depressive read is seriously warped!

      1. Lucy says:

        lol no. I didn’t get why he thought it was depressing at first but then he said that within the first few chapters you find out something about the Jewish man (not wanting to spoil for your readers) then someone got ill and I guess when you see it like that it can be seen as depressing, he has almost finished it now so we will see how found it by the end

  11. Amused says:

    I like to do a mix honestly. I definitely get in moods where darker books totally feed my need and I get all broody and it makes me feel more, maybe elevated to read something deeper with books about these intense feelings with serious characters. But there are also times when I need to kick back and have a fun easy read too! There is something comforting in knowing that everything will be ok in the end when your life isn’t go so good at the time.

    1. Jackie says:

      Amused, I don’t like to read two similar books in a row, but all I need is a change of setting/pace/time period – they can all be as dark as each other :-) I guess I’m strange in not wanting a happy ending each time.

  12. Jessica says:

    My two best friends only read either chick-lit or Mills & Boom so they always make fun of my ‘depressing’ stuff (in a good natured way). I think they read those books because there is a large amount of fantasy fulfilment for them in those books whereas I dont read for that reason.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jessica, A lot of chick-li will still have some element of tragedy in it though – there will be deaths/divorce/disease etc. It is just a bit different in that you can almost guarentee a happy ending and the trauma is more realistic/likely to happen to you. Perhaps the chick-lit is actually more depressing because you are reading about lives similar to those around you?

  13. Karen says:

    A really interesting post Jackie! I tend to agree with you in some ways in that I wouldn’t necessarily say I “enjoy” sad books more but I definitely feel I get more from them as a reader. I think this is because sadness, trauma, tragedy etc… tend to be described and experienced as more intense emotions than happier feelings – at least that is what I find. The more intensity the better the read perhaps??

    1. Jackie says:

      Karen, I agree that the more intense a book is, the better. Perhaps there is a gap in the market for reads about extreme happiness?

  14. “Experimenting with emotion in a safe way” is a lovely, deft way to describe why many sad books appeal to us as readers.

    I can’t say that I enjoy “blue” books, but one of my favorite recent reads is Peter Geye’s Safe From The Sea — a book marked by a moody atmosphere, family tragedy and secrets. I wasn’t sure what to expect and wasn’t in the mood to be depressed, but the book was anything but sad in the end . . . despite its sad subject matter.

    Despite loving “happy” books, you’re right: most of them don’t become personal classics, and I find myself remembering the depth of emotion held in the pages of darker books far more often.

    1. Jackie says:

      Meg, I have heard so many wonderful things about Safe from the Sea. It is on my wishlist, but there isn’t a copy in my library system yet. Hopefully it will turn up one day :-)

  15. JoV says:

    I like sadder and darker books too, only that they have to be tastefully and artistically rendered. Opposite is true for me, as opposed to what Shriver said, I have experienced hard time and I read books like that to comfort and reassure that I am not alone in the dark, but also there are far worse that is happening out there than what I have experienced.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jo, I agree with you. A part of me is always thinking that no matter what my problems may be there is always someone worse off than me. I think I sometimes annoy people by being so calm in a crisis, but I have read so many terrible things that any problem I encounter seems insignificant in comparison. I think it helps put the world in perspective and leads you to appreicate what you do have.

  16. Jenners says:

    I do share your fondness for sad books. They are more interesting and full of more conflict. And they tend to be more memorable than happy books that are quickly forgotten.

    1. Jackie says:

      Jenners, Perhaps that is why I can’t actually remember the titles of the happy books I’ve read!

  17. Jenny says:

    I’ve read happy books that I totally loved, but I agree, they don’t have the emotional impact that sad books have. One of my favorite nonfiction writers, A.D. Nuttall, wrote a book about this very thing, tragedy and why it gives pleasure, but it’s never in at my library.

  18. Dan Holloway says:

    Almost all of us have parts of our lives that are joyful, and parts that are intensely sad, and we are often brought up feeling that it is OK to share the former, whilst the latter are to be kept to ourselves, hidden or just not inflicted upon the world, and so a gradual pressure builds up as we see a whole part of ourself not just suppressed but disconnected. Reading about sadness gives us a sense of connection, eases some of that internal pressure, makes us feel less alone, makes it OK to cry for that part of ourselves. I think that’s why it’s important that sadness doesn’t always give way to a light at the end – that realienates us. For most of us our inner sadness is unresolved. We don’t want, or need, to know that it will be OK in the end – for most of us it won’t. What we need is to know that it’s OK that life isn’t OK if that makes sense.

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