Some year ago, the legendary music artist Bruce Cockburn sang “Gotta kick the darkness until it bleeds daylight.” This lyric has haunted me (in a good way) for almost twenty years. While it wasn’t a conscious choice, I realize that it seeped into my soul to become a motto for my own writing.
And, it’s become an important guiding principle in all the stories that I tell. Currently, I have two paranormal thrillers on the market (3 Gates of the Dead and Dark Bride) that, at first glance, look to glorify the dark. Just recently, a very good friend of mine, after meeting me for the first time said, “I thought you’d be this dark, sinister, brooding figure.”
At first, I bristled at the comment, because I get it a lot. Everyone expects me to be obsessed with darkness because of what I’ve written. But, I understand my friend and everyone else’s expectations. They’ve been conditioned by our current culture’s fascination with the darkness in their pop culture consumption. A quick look at the current book store shelves show how obsessed writers are with writing about “dark things,” such as dark sex (50 Shades of Gray), dark demons, dark murders, and dark anti-heroes. Everyone seems to be in a race to be darker than the next person. It somehow brings some sort of bizarre street cred.
And, the YA literary world is no exception. A few months ago, a co-worker was telling me how her stepdaughter loved to read and devoured YA fiction. My friend was torn because while she wanted to encourage the reading, she was also disturbed by the darkness that seemed to seep in every page.
To me, this latest fascination comes from what I call the “Martinization” of YA novels. George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones has become the best-selling series of books this side of the Boy Who Lived (Harry Potter). The hit HBO show has taken the books to even greater heights and made it a staple of pop culture conversation.
His books (and the show) are praised for their unflinching “gritty realism.” The world, most of them feel, is full of murder, rape, rampant corruption and ultimately, everyone is looking out for themselves. So, Martin, everyone believes, has an accurate point of view as to how the world “works.” He’s keeping it real, as the kids in the 1990’s used to say.
From what I’ve seen (as a YA novelist, Bram Stoker Jury member for YA fiction and frequent YA conference speaker), YA authors are falling all over themselves to be considered “gritty” and “realistic.” And so, they want to make their novels grittier, darker to the point of obsession. In the rush to be “taken seriously” by the wider book world, they go dark, yes, even in the realm of sexual attraction.
To be clear, I’m not a book prude, nor do I wish books to be burned, censored or otherwise destroyed. Neither am I saying books shouldn’t explore dark themes and the darkness of the human heart. Indeed, some of my favorite books and authors explore some very intense ideas. Flannery O’Connor is one of my favorite novelists, for example, and she explores racism, death, deformity and the struggle with believing in God. I explore some pretty dark things and ideas in my own novels.
However, none of these books—the ones I enjoy (and the ones I write)—seek to glorify terrible things. They have hope buried in their story lines. To me, these are the realistic stories. And, what I’m getting really tired of, what bothers me to the core, is how dark nihilism in YA (or any other) is being praised as “realistic” and “brave.” It’s neither. I hate the attitude that “being dark” makes you more credible as a writer. Yes, there are dark and terrible things in our world. Only a person with their head firmly planted in the sand would say otherwise. Yet, there is also goodness, beauty, truth, and justice. There are people who fight for these things on a daily basis, real heroes and real heroines.
Yes, it’s true, good and evil might be more complex than people realize, but they’re still real concepts. Just because no one person can fully define either of those terms, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Good and evil are real concepts that govern human thought. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, just listen to everyday human conversation and you’ll hear what people really believe.
My hope is that we start developing more storytellers with true courage to find beauty under the trash. Anyone call pull out trash from a dumpster and say, “look how terrible this is.” What takes true grit, courage and commitment is to find something worthwhile, good and meaningful. It’s not that people should ignore the trash, but they need to learn how to dig in to find the beauty.
How? The answer is simple and takes us back to Cockburn’s quote. Obsession with darkness only leads to more darkness. Loving the darkness means we’ve fully bought into the horror, the rape, the terror and all the destruction that comes with it. As an artist, if you stare at the darkness too long, it can take you over and become a part of you. Your work becomes sadistic and jaded. It glories in the awful.
Instead, of obsessing, writers need to “kick the darkness until it bleeds light.” By all means, write that dark fairy tale. Write that dark murder. But, don’t be satisfied with leaving the story there. That’s lazy writing and easy to do. Instead, footstomp the darkness hard until it bleeds, oozes and gushes the light.
Let’s face it; it’s why Narnia, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings are the most read books of the last seventy-five years. No one can accuse these series of ignoring dark themes, struggles or character flaws in their heroes and heroines. The difference is, each writer sought to find the light, magnifying it and showing the darkness for what it really is….
A weak and contemptable thing….