January 7, 2017

The fine line between catharsis and reader trauma

The sadness experienced when a literary character dies or is struck by misfortune, or when a book as a whole is depressing, can take very different forms. I was mesmerized by the dark beauty of burned forests and ravaged cities in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”. I enjoyed reading “Officer Factory” by Hans Hellmut Kirst, “Cancer Ward” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, George Orwell’s famous “1984”, James Clavell’s equally famous “King Rat”, Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and many other books that depict individuals struggling in a bleak, cruel world. On the other hand, I generally feel melancholy and drained of energy after reading even a couple of pages of something that was intended to be warm, humorous and family-friendly. I’m usually not amused by the humor, don’t appreciate the optimism, and crave a darker storyline and complicated, flawed characters. 

As a child, I was a very sensitive, empathetic reader. I had trouble remembering that the characters in a book weren’t “real.” I saw them as real, so their pain was my pain, their grief was my grief. Because I learned to read at age 4 or so, had unlimited access to the bookshelves at home (my parents didn't feel they needed to act as censors) and read voraciously throughout childhood, I began reaching for fairly serious reading material before I was emotionally ready for it, and occasionally got hold of stuff that left me feeling helpless, a bit ill, and wanting to reach immediately for something nice like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series.

Oddly, though, character deaths and tragedy as such didn’t necessarily disturb me. I could handle the sad endings (sometimes desperately sad) of H.Ch. Andersen’s fairy tales, and absolutely loved the ending of “The Brothers Lionheart” by Astrid Lindgren (a wonderful story of love, courage, death and hope). Other books, though, left me angry and frustrated. I always cared about the characters, so I felt particularly bad when the author made them act foolishly and then suffer as a result (Carlo Collodi’s “Pinocchio” immediately comes to mind). 

As an adult, I’m naturally much more resilient, simply because my ability to distance myself from the story has grown. If a book is fairly well written (I try not to read anything where the style is atrocious), only two things still have the potential to seriously spoil my mood: cruelty to animals and incorrigible character stupidity.

For some reason, as a reader I have infinitely more empathy with suffering animals than with human beings. I’m not bothered by  characters’ deaths or even the deaths of their children (yeah, I’m that callous), but a sick or dying animal will be really difficult to bear, be it a dog, cat, horse, wolf or tiger. Patrick Hockstetter’s refrigerator in Stephen King’s “It” is a prime example. (Since Hockstetter was only a minor character, I sort of skimmed over the descriptions of animal torture and kept reading, but I wouldn’t be able to read an entire book about someone who captures animals and starves them to death.)

Weirdly, though, I find scenes of cruelty and torture involving human beings much easier to handle. I might enjoy the book immensely, feel disgusted or merely disappointed with the artistic quality (I’m not a fan of gore), but I won’t feel haunted and unable to shake off the images. I’ve learned to distance myself.

There’s something else, though, that discourages and depresses me, and I’ve already mentioned what it is: character stupidity.

Not one-time mistakes, no matter how embarrassing (I’ll skim over them and read on). Not slight character flaws such as awkwardness in social situations. Full-blown stupidity that makes the character blithely push on towards a catastrophe, and ultimately often destroy others’ lives as well. I found “Madame Bovary” an extremely depressing read for this reason (in case you're not familiar with the storyline: a shallow, narcissistic woman who fantasizes about being rich gets entangled in two extramarital relationships, brings financial ruin to her husband and daughter, and ultimately kills herself). On a lighter note, I was also very disappointed with “Bridget Jones’s Diary” because Bridget seems such a silly bumbling fool.

Different readers find different things depressing, and occasionally I’m surprised to hear that someone felt very sad after reading a book I would personally describe as uplifting, or at least deeply moving and cathartic. One thing is certain, though; when I write, I never write stories that have the potential to make me depressed! If anyone reads anything of mine and ends up feeling blue, then we have a different threshold of sensitivity.

At the end of the day, the immense diversity on the book market means it’s easy to find fiction that fits your taste, whether you prefer dark supernatural horror, bleak literary fiction about the hopelessness of human existence (I have a taste for books like that!) or warm fuzzy romantic comedy (the sort of book I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole).

Thoughts? Comments? I’m always happy to see feedback!

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