American readers and movie goers like happy endings. Forget the doom and gloom and don’t belabor reality? I’ve heard that often enough. Is it true? Many years ago, I taught freshman English. Students told me they liked to watch soap operas because the soap situations were so bad that the students felt their lives were tolerable. What about reality shows today? They’re over the top—disastrous life choices, casual adultery, fights, and suicides. Do they make the daily reality of many Americans seem okay?
I like candy—chocolate and fudge are my favorites—but a diet of candy? I don’t think so. I need something to bite and chew and digest. The Swedes produce some of the dreariest stories and most tortured fictional characters on earth. When I watch a Swedish detective drama on public television, even I, whose family has lived in America only fifty years, wonder when the gloom and frustration will stop. Sometimes it doesn’t. Does the character of Lisbeth Salander alone account for the popularity of Stieg Larsson’s trilogy or does the writer’s portrayal of a society with all its warts and characters trapped within the society contribute to the trilogy’s popularity?
Emile Zola, a French author, wrote reality stories that even today, when the circumstances he describes no longer exist, make me want to run out and demonstrate for change. Many of his characters are poor and unable to climb out of that poverty but they are still sympathetic and possess admirable qualities.
In junior high and high school, the strongest bullies can become local royalty. The desire to belong to the in-group can turn the nicest student into a coward, a liar, and a fake. It’s a shock for a young mind to find out popularity and apparent success doesn’t mean meeting an American ideal. Today, there are young people more concerned with having enough to eat rather than reaching their full potential. I know YA writers who struggle with how deeply they can explore in fiction real teen issues and conflicts without being accused of exposing young people to obnoxious material. Teens don’t hesitate to tell us they laugh at adults who believe they can protect teens from what they have already witnessed.
If readers want escape novels with plenty of candy to cushion the fictional characters, readers certainly have the right to make that choice. However, I like to read, at least some of the time, about characters and situations that resemble what I know exists close by.
Do you have dark stories that linger in your memory beyond stories that are so easy to race through?