Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fighting the Darkness

I gripe a lot about the prevalence of darkness in fiction because that affects me both as a reader and as a writer. I read for fun, to escape, and my personal taste tends toward the funny. I'm put off by things that take themselves too seriously, and so much of what's in bookstores today is waving the DARK! banner so vigorously that it feels like it's trying too hard. I don't mind a bit of darkness and angst, but I prefer it when it's mixed with a mostly optimistic view of the world. I guess that's why I'm a big Doctor Who fan -- it can be serious and dark and angsty and dramatic, with the fate of the entire universe at stake, but it never entirely loses that sense of fun and optimism and hope. The Doctor is never really jaded, in spite of all he goes through, and that's such a contrast with the typical world-weary urban fantasy protagonist.

It also affects me as a writer because this trend is really bad for my career at the moment. I don't think I could write something truly dark if my life depended on it because I don't see the world that way. If I tried to write dark, it would probably come across as fake and pretentious. I don't necessarily have to write flat-out comedy, but anything I write will probably fall on the lighter side of things.

Theoretically, the current economic climate should lend itself to light and funny. The Great Depression was the heyday of the screwball comedy. It does seem like funny is what's most successful at the box office right now. Even a modestly reviewed comedy will beat out almost everything else. And yet the publishing world is mostly mired in unrelenting darkness where the only humor is the occasional dry-witted quip and all the heroes are Dark and Dangerous with bad attitudes.

I was on an online chat the other night with a New York editor, and I asked about this, whether the trend was about to turn with what's waiting in the wings, since we're currently seeing the books bought a couple of years ago, but she said that lighter books still aren't selling nearly as well as the darker stuff. Readers really seem to want the dark. Her view was that reading the darker stuff made the real world seem lighter and easier to take in comparison. I can kind of see the point, since I'm the person who watches Battlestar Galactica and Band of Brothers as stress relief. But those only work for me when I'm dealing with a specific stress that I need to put in perspective (and the attractive men in uniforms also probably have a lot to do with it). When I'm just in a general-purpose bad mood or life is getting me down, that's when I want something escapist. I want something that makes me laugh. This holds even more true for books. A TV episode or movie is an hour or two, and then it's over -- it's quick catharsis. I spend hours with a book, getting deep into the characters' heads, so spending that much time in darkness is only going to drag me down further rather than put my life in perspective.

However, "light" doesn't necessarily mean "lightweight" just as "dark" doesn't always equal "deep," even though that's the way the world tends to see them. Something funny and heartwarming can still have substance and seriousness. I think my ideal combo is something that makes me both laugh and cry -- and I probably won't cry if I haven't laughed at least a little bit first. That gives me the full emotional release that eases stress and makes me feel better. If something is unrelentingly dark, my barriers go up and I feel no connection at all to it. The best lighter fare is funny because it does touch on serious truths. Take Terry Pratchett and all the social commentary he works in. He also doesn't shy away from making things difficult for his characters, but I don't think you could call his work "dark" by any stretch of the imagination. Those classic screwball comedies from the Depression dealt with some very real issues and had a strong social conscience while offering a sense of hope. This was a big reason why I loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It showed characters dealing with adversity and hard times while still prevailing and finding light in the darkness. It was a book that had enough in it to make my own life seem easier and lighter in comparison, but still wasn't dark. And, when you think about it, real life is probably going to seem easier than even most comedies because fiction needs larger-than-life conflict and strife of some kind to work. Meanwhile, it's very easy to have shallow darkness, with characters who are edgy and moody for no good reason other than that it's cool and with a grim outlook on life that doesn't actually say anything about the world or the human condition.

Since there is almost nothing light in bookstores and since books get so little publicity that it's nearly impossible to find the light stuff while darkness is getting all the buzz, I wonder how publishers can say that light isn't selling at all. You can't sell what isn't there, and when you go to the store too many times without finding anything, you quit going. At least there's one publisher brave enough to try chick lit again, and that same publisher (Sourcebooks) is reissuing a lot of the old Georgette Heyer books, so there's something I can read that I can let myself get emotionally involved in. I also liked the first book in K.E. Mills' Rogue Agent series and have already bought the second for my "vacation" reading. That got dark in places, but I wouldn't characterize it as "dark" overall. But I need more light, and it's so hard to find right now.

Or am I just a weenie who can't handle dark? Am I that out of step with the mainstream? I guess the readership here is self-selected, since if you're reading my blog, you probably read my books, so you're predisposed to like the funny. The whole thing is kind of depressing. I may have to start looking for a real job if publishers aren't interested in what I write -- and that might be sad enough to enable me to go darker. But I suspect it would just be moody and depressing and not the Sexy!Edgy!Dark that's popular now.

On the up side, with so few books I want to buy, I may be able to stretch out the bank account a little longer. Current publishing trends are great for my budget.

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