July 16th, 2005, 12:32 AM
What is tragedy? Can there be more tragedy in a book than you can bear?
This is a question that's been on my mind for a long time, though I do not want to claim originality for it, since Gkarlives seemed to be asking something similar.
Here are the assumptions: You come home from a long day at work and you want to relax. You do not want a broken heart at the end. You do not want to have clinical depression because of a book. (You also do not want to feel like you're choking on sugar. But sugar aside, since usually sugar isn't so bad.) Another necessary assumption, so that this discussion doesn't turn into a mere rant against badly written or badly structured books, is that the books we talk about are generally high-quality (where by quality I mean things like good writing style, existence of a nice plot, character development, etc...).
Here is the basic question: What factors make a not entirely happy end truly heartbreaking? Is it ever the case that though a book is wonderfully written and had a strong impact on you, it is so distressing that you wouldn't want to read a book like it again? Or at least, not when you're looking for a nice book to pass an evening after work? Is it ever the case that the book is truly heartbreaking but you would want to read another like it anyway? What distinguishes these two possibilities? I will note here that I have encountered heartbreaking books of both sorts. These question might be very personal and we may or may not find commonalities. I would gladly hear opinions.
Some of my opinions:
On SciFi: I find that SciFi in general is unbearably tragic, so I rarely read it. I feel I must make a list of works from which I draw this generalization: all of Ray Bradbury, Dying of the Light by George RR Martin, Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, Dune, Nightfall by Silverberg. I feel that SciFi is the perfect genre in which to portray the failings of human nature, futility, meaninglessness etc. We see people quite like us, who because of technology do not have many of the problems we might have. You dont see SciFi heroes dying in an earthquake in general. Stripping away things like natural cataclysms and a lot of chance, we are left with pure human nature. Thus a level of technology controls for many factors like fate that might make for tragedy in other genres.
On fantasy: I feel that fantasy tends to be not at all like that, and it is fantasy that I pick up after work to relax. I will also list some of the fantasy I read: ASOIAF by George RR Martin, all by Robin Hobb, all Rhapsody books by Hayden, WOT by Robert Jordan, everything by Jaqueline Carey, everything by Julliet Marillier, a lot by Guy Gavriel Kay, Lotr and the Silmarillion by Tolkien...
Possibilities of what makes a book distressing:
Sex and violence: I think that neither the amount of sex and violence nor how graphically they are described has any bearing on how tragic a book is. Kushiel's series has tonns of either of them, but it was not distressing. Dying of the Light didn't really have either, but it was very distressing. I could give many other examples.
Writing style: I think this is one of the most important aspects. I think in a lot of fantasy the upsetting effects are buffered by the song-like epic writing style that makes sex and violence aesthetically pleasing. SciFi does not tend to have this style. It is a lot more matter of fact, and thus more depressing.
Plot twists: Some things are just upsetting, though it is not at all trivial to list exactly what they are or to determine if there is any commonality between them. I would very much like to hear opinions here. I don't think death or violence in itself distresses me in fantasy or SciFi. I must have become used to it. What seems more distressing to me are things like characters never learning information that they really really should know about, lies about things of import that are never caught, betrayals of people who do not expect it, manipulation of the innocent to vile ends, destruction of the beautiful, apocalypse, futility, yet another illustration of how life is meaningless, a character walking into certain death and dying.
July 16th, 2005, 03:22 AM
Originally Posted by fybonacci
Frankly, all those are things I like the most in fiction I read. I like tragedy and my biggest beef with fantasy genre is probably that there is so little of it. I would love to see more books in which bad guys win or hero dies a stupid and meaningless death after accomplihing his goal.
July 16th, 2005, 10:12 AM
I agree, there is too little tradgedy in fantasy, whereas there's lots in SF.
But i guess this is just another symptom of homogeneity in the genre. Heroes are expected to win, and their girlfriends will survive. Bit players can die, and it can be sad, but the main characters get over it. Wise advisor-types may die, but only once the hero has outgrown them (or they may get Gandalf disease and comeback more annoying than ever!). But as always with these generalisation, there are exceptions [maybe spoilers!! - how do you use spoiler tags??]:
Tigana by G G Kay springs to mind. The heroes win (of course ) but the enemy is portrayed so sympatheticaly that its still tragic. And Dianora's response is heartbreaking.
The Last Herald mage trilogy of Lackey ends with the heros death, followed by an epiloque in which his lover Stefen goes willingly to to his death. It was a bit too forced when i reread them, but as an adolescent they were very tragic.
I found Grendel by J. Gardner quite tragic, with it (obvious) futility to the monsters existance.
The book of skulls and Dying inside by Silverberg are fantasy imo, and both are essentially tragic, with a feeling that the protagonists had wasted their lives. They are victims of their own actions, but they are so well characterised that you don't feel the contempt that lesser writers invoke when a character makes stupid decisions.
So i guess i find things tragic if after all the stuggling the heros find themselves with nothing to live for (like Dianora and Stefen). The hero simply dying in the battle is not sufficient, tragedy depends upon a seemingly phyrric victory (or no victory), and a character developed enough to inspire empathy.
Other books without this first condition may be sad, but not tragic:
Thomas the Rhymer by Kushner shows the protagonist in his old age and on his death bed. Its very sad, but the character had lived a full life.
And the main character in Beauty by Tepper is basicaly put into a magical coma indefinately (until the end of the huma race?) at the books closing, but the hope of eventual restoration makes it satisfyingly sad.
Last edited by Yobmod; July 16th, 2005 at 10:15 AM.
July 16th, 2005, 11:51 AM
Originally Posted by Yobmod
Tigana. TIGANA. This thread is due mostly to Tigana and ASOIAF by George RR Martin. I am baffled by my reactions to these books. I read them and I love them and I want more. I couldn't read any writers but Guy Gavriel Kay for months after I read Tigana. There is so much tragedy in those books: a lot of the things I mention in "plot twists" happen in those books. Yet, I read SciFi with maybe similar plot twists, and I don't want more.
I conjecture that the difference is due to the writing style, and that SciFi is written "coldly".
I actually do not find that there is too much homogeneity in the genre. It may be the case that if you pick random books from the fantasy shelves you will find the genre pretty homogeneous. I think there is a lot of good and really original stuff to keep one occupied for a long time, if one knows how to find them.
July 16th, 2005, 11:38 AM
The question is do you like these things always or only sometimes? I noticed that sometimes I find them pleasantly refreshing and sometimes I find them too much and unnecessary.
Originally Posted by Lfex
A hero dying a meaningless death after accomplishing a goal isn't so bad. It's worse if because of a stupid lapse the goal is undermined and the hero remains alive and helpless.
I do not believe I have seen fantasy in which the bad guys win. Somehow the Dark Lord winning is just not done. But you might like stuff like Ender's game or Bradbury's writings.
July 16th, 2005, 12:40 PM
Originally Posted by fybonacci
Well, if they happened always, they would be predictable cliches, not the happy ending and hero winning, so I would probably be railing against them. Point is, they are far too rare in fantasy. I also can't think out of my head of even one case of epic fantasy with bad guys winning (it does sometimes happen in science fiction, but also too rarily).
July 16th, 2005, 01:08 PM
I like tragedy in fiction. I don't dislike happy endings. Always? Well, I'll try to go the way the book wants me to. I'm open for all kinds of endings, although if the book sets up a tragedy it can be very hard to get out of this and please me (I can't say I can't be done, though).
Famous example: I just can't see Elric of Melniboné (tragic, anti-hero) retire to Tanelorn (Utopia) and live happily ever after. That would have been soooo hard to pull off. And Moorcock didn't try.
You see, I don't read for relaxation. I watch a movie (Pirates of the Carribean, The Mummy) or I play a computer game, or I listen to music. Reading is never really relaxing to me (though, of course, there are degrees: I breeze through Harry Potter, whereas I plough through Naked Lunch).
Of course, I hate tragedy (as in, my immediate reaction: Oh, no! please, no...). But hating it is part of the experience I love.
I think that - for me - making sense of words is so much more difficult than making sense of pictures/music/words-complexes; which is why relaxing with a book is kind of ruled out from the start.
And if it's a list you're after: I hate the loss of innocence; like the naive Utopians fend of the nasty invaders, but now they know that there are nasty invaders. There's no place like home, and home is gone.
July 16th, 2005, 01:43 PM
What if a book sets up a happy ending and gives you a tragedy instead? Take even Romeo and Juliet for an example (I hate that play by the way, mostly because I hate Romeo). I suppose I should put a SPOILERS for ROMEO AND JULIET.
Originally Posted by Dawnstorm
The set up is that Romeo and Juliet will quite happily and peacefully run away. Instead they kill themselves from sheer accident.
I tend to find most movies so unsatisfying. Some of them are very nice, but I the nice ones seem run out very quickly. I am too bad at computer games to really enjoy them. I have no choice but to puzzle out words.
Originally Posted by Dawnstorm
I am after lists in a way. What I am after is sort of complicated: I want to see lists. I want to see if there is anything more fundamental that we might find in common in these lists. I want to see if what is deeply unusually tragic is linked to any sort of values that might be shared by many people and that we might be able to name. I also want to see whether my experiences with tragedy are purely personal or shared by many.
Originally Posted by Dawnstorm
As to loss of innocence... I'll have to think about that.
July 16th, 2005, 01:19 PM
I think my question was ambiguous. What I meant to ask is this: Suppose two similar bad things happen in two different books. Can it be that you enjoy one of them but not the other? What factors might make you like one and not the other?
Originally Posted by Lfex
You read a book. The hero dies at the end. You read another book. The hero also dies at the end. Suppose further that the quality (defined in any way you like) of the books is about equal. Can it be that one of the books is pleasant and the other too tragic to bear? Since "hero dies" is such a broad plot element, you can't really say that it's a cliche or that you didn't like the second since it ripped off the first.
July 19th, 2005, 11:14 PM
The Spacy One
I personally believe that certain the certain things that effect whether a book is "tragic" or not completely rely on the person.
*****!!!!! Spoiler for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince !!!!!*****
in the Harry potter series, Dumbledore and Snape were my favourite characters, and in this newest book, Snape KILLS Dumbledore! I almost stopped reading right there! Meanwhile, some people actually suspected. it! :O
*****!!!!! End Spoiler !!!!!*****
It's completly dependant on the reader.
July 19th, 2005, 11:57 PM
In my posts I may have placed too much emphasis on universality or at least possibility thereof. I do believe that some things might be, and that is interesting.
However, the hidden deep down purpose of this thread for me is to know myself. I want to know why some things break my heart and some don't, though objectively similar things have happened. I cannot easily place which events, values, images, and which implications of them have saddened me. It seems that it's important information about me for me to have.
I would hope that you, reading this forum and maybe writing to it, might have a similar goal for yourself. I would hope that a sharing of reading experiences and reflections upon them will be fruitful.
So please, tell us yours!
Last edited by fybonacci; July 21st, 2005 at 12:04 PM.
September 7th, 2005, 01:27 PM
Okay, I've read this thread and have thought about this for a few days and still haven't come up with a good answer. Phil_geo made some comments about the Thomas Covenant series and that since something very bad and unacceptable happened because of the main character, that he was unable to finish the book. I put the Thomas Covenant series up there as one of the best series ever written. But I have to admit that because of what happens at the beginning of the first book, that I almost quit reading it also. It was something that was hard to take and accept. There is absolutely no forgiveness for this action. However, the main character because of his circumstance, did it to prove to himself that the world he was in didn't really exist. Unfortunately, he is dead wrong. He has a hard time accepting the fact that after all of his years of suffering in his world that he can be in another world where he has no physical suffering and thinks it is all a dream or something his mind has made up and he can't accept that. But, granted, it is something that has an effect on many readers. And unfortunately, many people don't continue with the book or the series once they read that part.
So, after something so bad happens early in this series, what makes it such a good series? I think the fact that Thomas Covenant is so imperfect makes the series so much more believable. Plus, there is the fact that a lot of the other main characters in the series are so memorable and well developed that you really care about what happens to them. Even with Covenant's major crime at the beginning of the series, which he continually feels sorry for throughout the series, you still feel for him in his dilemma of trying to accept the fact that everyone thinks of him as a hero and he doesn't want to be.
On the other hand, too much tragedy has caused me to stop reading a series. There has to be some kind of balance or redeeming quality to keep me interested. Since I loved the Thomas Covenant series so much, I thought I would try another series by the author Stephen R. Donaldson. I read the Gap series (which interestingly enough is a sci-fi series). That series was so dark and tragic but I kept reading hoping for something redeeming to happen. One of the main characters in this series is a woman who seems to have one bad thing after another happen to her, usually at the hand of different men. I read the entire series up until I was half way done with the last book in the series (four books if I remember right). Even this close to being done with the series, I couldn't take it anymore and set the book down without finishing it. It was too depressing to finish even being that close to being done with it. Some of the things happening in that series were just downright disgusting.
So what made the things that happened in the Thomas Covenant series acceptable enough to still love the series and the things in the Gap series so bad that I couldn't finish it? It could have something to do with other redeeming qualities that come through in the series. Maybe I need some good to happen in a series to balance out that dark things that happen. But I have read some very dark books and enjoyed them just the same. For example, Clive Barker is one of my favorite authors and they don't come much darker than him. Many of his stories in The Books of Blood series have no redeeming qualities whatsoever, however, I just had to keep reading to see what the next story was about.
One of the attractions to the fact that certain authors don't seem to mind to let their main characters die off or do something unacceptable in society is that you never really know what to expect of them. To me, it makes the story even more believable and suspenseful. Where is the fun in reading something that you know that the main characters are invincible? I think what makes certain tragic stories easier to read is the way the author handles the death or the fall of the character. Is there something redemptive in the death of the character? Is there forgiveness or regret in the mind of a character that does something devastating? Has the author developed the character well enough that we care enough about them to continue reading to see if something "redeeming" will happen that will "save" the character?
And here is a question to think about. Why is it that it is easier to accept the "bad guys" in a book constantly doing things that are tragic or unacceptable to society and hard for us to accept the "good guys" making an occasional mistake even when it can be very serious. I have to say that there is a greater level of believabitly (is that a word?) when we see how tragedy, mistakes and death can affect characters in a book even when bad things happen to or because of the "good guys". But I tend to beleive that an author makes tragedy, mistakes and death more palatable by the way they handle the situation, the way they develop the characters and the way they redeem the character for the bad thing that happens. And yes, to me, too much tragedy in a book or series is just as likely to keep me from finishing it as is too many good things happening to characters will keep me from finishing a book. An example of this is the book by David Eddings "The Redemption of Althalus". This book was so hard to read because nothing much ever seemed to go wrong with the "good guys". I never finished that book because it was hard to beleive that everything they did turned out to be the right thing. Where is the suspense in reading something like that? Besides, I didn't really care if the characters all died in that book anyway. They weren't developed enough to care about and the weren't human enough to care about either.
September 7th, 2005, 04:14 PM
Inter spem metumque iacto
Just a very, very quick response. I loved the Covenant series for the reasons you mention. And then I read the Gap series - and it was even more nerve- and heartwrenching. But - in the end - it, too, was redemption, pure and simple.
Originally Posted by TCat
In many ways (and like many great authors) Donaldson is actually telling the same story over and over. And his tale is the tale of tragedy. And, as mentioned, redemption. And he does so with such a perseverance, such a literate and emotional intensity, as to be almost overwhelming. But he also manages to control this; he manages to create great and frightening things, but not be overwhelmed by them (although the reader might be).
This is the main reason why I consider Donaldson to be one of the very best writers in the fantasy genre.
Last edited by Julian; September 7th, 2005 at 04:23 PM.
September 7th, 2005, 05:40 PM
Books of Pellinor
I got bored with Donaldson. Too much use, as I recall, of the word "gelid" - but I did persist through three books... Although I do think the first couple of chapters of Lord Foul's Bane are wonderful.
Interesting thread. Tolkien (in his wonderful essay On Fairy Stories) would disagree radically that the LOTR is tragic (I'm using tragic in the classical sense, not the sense of "something bad happens", which might be sad but doesn't mean tragic). According to him, fantasy is inherently not-tragic, even if it is full of sad things: what defines it is the "happy ending", which he says is a sudden redemptive blessing, a glimpse of possibility beyond all the terrible events of the story. Not at all the "happy ending" of Hollywood movies, which ties everything up in a neat moral, but something Tolkien called "eucatastrophe" to distinguish it from the catharsis (the experience of horror and despair) that tragedy evokes. Eucatastrophe isn't about escapism; it doesn't deny that terrible things happen; but it brings the blessed relief of happy tears.
I agree with Tolkien, actually: I do think that's what fantasy is about. Guy Gavriel Kay definitely gets it. There are fantasies around, fantasies I like, that do different things - Elric could count, I would think, as a genuinely tragic hero. I'm not sure that Scott Bakker either would be so interested in eucatastrophe, though he's not merely dystopian, either.
I can't think of a fantasy book I haven't been able to reread becasue I couldn't bear it. Unless Kafka's Metamorphosis counts: I didn't read that again for a decade, I found it so traumatising. And later the unbearably beautiful and awful and just plain unbearable book about the Holocaust by Andre Schwarz-Bart, The Last of the Just, which really, really is painful.