In Defense of Darkness
In the interest of full disclosure, I should start with noting that I am biased. I write dark contemporary fiction, so I have an ulterior motive in defending it. However, I write it because I loved reading it and that’s what I wanted to address.
Very few of my friends and family members understand my passion for dark contemporary fiction and film. They say they don’t get why I’d want to immerse myself in things that are “depressing,” and tell me I should seek out things that are lighter and happier.
I’m not going to pretend that there isn’t a time and place for easy entertainment. I love comedy and bad reality television and game shows and a cheesy romance as much as the next person. However, I do tend to find myself especially drawn to the darker stories. All of my favorite novels and films are dark – and almost all are contemporary (or contemporary to their time, like The Great Gatsby).
I feel there are a number of reasons dark contemporary fiction has significant value. For starters, the world isn’t always a happy place. Being able to talk about it and process it in literature and film (and other arts) is critical for many people. We don’t live every experience, but books and movies can allow us to understand the perspectives of people who do. For example, nearly 7% of American adults experienced a major depressive episode in 2014, according to NIMH. It’s a small percentage, but it represents almost 16 million people. The 93% of people who aren’t reflected in that group gain a lot by seeing the world through the eyes of the 7%.
Secondly, as someone in that 7%, I may not seem like an ideal reader for books that deal with dark topics. Some people say, “the world is depressing enough. Why would you want to deal with that willingly?” The truth is, dark fiction doesn’t depress me. In fact, if often relieves the feelings of depression. In reading about dark subjects, one of two things happens. First, I see my own emotions normalized. This goes for both the good and bad coping strategies. Characters who handle their problems well help to make things seem achievable, while those who don’t make it feel less shameful when it’s not always that easy.
The other reason dark stories help with depression is that they give perspective. This is not to say they minimize one person’s experience by showcasing someone who has it
worse. Instead, they show that humanity is full of gray areas. While it can sometimes seem like the rest of the world has it figured out, these stories can help express that, in fact, very few people really do. Even if the person’s experience is totally alien, it helps to recognize that the beautiful perfection of social media is usually just a façade. It’s the gentrification of the human experience. Pleasant to look at and to distract us from the internal structural damage we all carry.
By no means am I stating dark contemporary fiction is the best type of fiction. It’s just a personal favorite and it has its place. It doesn’t get showcased as often in either literature or film, because it’s hard to create a fandom about a story about death, depression, loss, or fear. Still, these human experiences are just as crucial to our lives as are the escape into the worlds of Hogwarts, Panem, and others.
Here’s a list of my ten favorite dark contemporary YA novels, as a jumping off point. Be prepared and have tissues at your side. This is no particular order.
Shine – Lauren Myracle
Hate List – Jennifer Brown
Someday This Pain will be Useful to You - Peter Cameron
Some Girls Are/Cracked up to Be – Courtney Summers
Love You Hate You Miss You - Elizabeth Scott
13 Reasons Why – Jay Asher
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – Jesse Andrews
Before I Fall – Lauren Oliver
Why We Broke Up – Daniel Handler
Leverage – Joshua Cohen