“Why Do All the ‘Great Books’ Have To Be So Sad?”

I’ll bet you’ve heard this question uttered from friends, strangers, or maybe you’ve asked it yourself at times as you stared out the window at a lonely, skeletal tree in the grip of winter.

God knows I get it when I recommend books, and people suspect my list of must-reads is really my secret plan to shatter their will to live.

At least I’m not famous: a year ago, plenty of ladies I talked to became fed up with The Oprah after she’d recommended both David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. While I found one to be gobsmackingly superb and the other quite good, respectively, neither has what you’d call the Hollywood ending. Or beginning. Or middle.

“Another depressing book? I don’t need any more of that in my life, thanks.”

You know what? Among the people I know, the ones who need the least additional sadness in their lives are usually the ones who enjoy the most tragic novels.

It isn’t because they want to compound their feeling of personal tragedy, but because these books feel more honest. Those readers would find something more truthful in Thomas Hardy’s thematic insistence that no child ever asks to be born into this wretched world, and that the tribulations of a human being, no matter how great, leave the Universe wholly unmoved.

Even if you aren’t a depressed person, I don’t see why a great novel should lose points just for its bleakness. Am I sad after reading a tragic novel? Sure. But you know how glad I am not to be Tess Durbeyfield? Or Angel Clare? That life has not been so unkind to me, and hopefully will continue its apparent policy of relative mercy? I see life’s potential for unspeakable suffering in novels like these, and I am grateful to have been spared.

And besides, when people judge a book based on where it lies along the Feel-Good spectrum, I’m compelled to tell them that they’re missing the point.

But still, this fails to answer the question, which I’ll now take a stab at:

“Really–why do all the ‘great books’ have to be so sad?”

Because great artists are sad people, mostly. I can’t say exactly why this is, but it’s true. Maybe they’re tapped in to something else, a sort of otherworldly frequency that makes the universe loom grotesquely huge. They take in frightening perspectives and knowledge that most of us can safely shut out. When you read about a great author committing suicide, in a sick way it seems to help legitimize that author’s genius.

You could argue that it’s merely our presumption that great authors are supposed to be sad, but the more you learn about geniuses of other fields—mathematical, inventive, philosophical—the more you’re convinced that genius is apparently hazardous to its possessor’s personal relationships, among other things (e.g. They just don’t think the way normal people do, and it makes for a lonely existence).

Here’s another question: The savant-like insight and talent that’s required to create a great work of art—does depression inspire artistic genius, or does artistic genius inspire depression?

It’s not uncommon for people to feel their creative juices seem to dry up once they go on anti-depressants. Maybe that creativity was one of the coping mechanisms that combated the depression while it was unchecked by meds? Unneeded, biologically, it goes away? If this is true, it’s a solid argument that suffering begets creativity.

So every now and then I wonder if I, too, like a Russian novelist, “vere to soffer,” then my supposedly latent artistic powers would rise like the phoenix and I would then produce a blazingly brilliant novel of my own.

But considering my current level of writing talent, life would have to give me quite a beating.

Anyway, something tells me it’s not that simple. I’m leaning toward the idea that the uncanny perspective with which our literary giants are endowed is what opens them up to personal tragedy, and not the other way around.

Then again, who says it can’t be both?

Whatever the truth of that, when I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles or another amazing tragedy, I think about the dire wisdom and emotional state required of the author to write it, and I’m filled with gratitude. Do you realize the shit the author went through to produce this piece of writing—aside from the actual writing process? Hardy becomes a kind of martyr to me. So does F. Scott Fitzgerald, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and William Shakespeare.

I benefit from their suffering.


2 thoughts on ““Why Do All the ‘Great Books’ Have To Be So Sad?”

  1. Interesting post. There are many great novels that are sad and they don’t bother me at all. That’s life. Some people don’t get their happy ending. It’s funny how so many people only want to read ‘happy’ books. I think even children should be able to handle the sad stories. Why change the ending of the Little Mermaid? I was able to handle it as a child and I thought it was beautiful.

  2. I think books with sad endings are much more fulfilling than happy endings. I think harder about them, I learn something. With happy endings, that’s all the offer, a happy ending. At least with sad endings I’ll search for something to take away.

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