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  1. #1

    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.

    Characters?

  2. #2
    Quote Originally Posted by fybonacci
    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.

    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.

  3. #3
    Yobmod Yobmod's Avatar
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    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.

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by Lfex
    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.
    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.

    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.

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by Yobmod
    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.

    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.

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by fybonacci
    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.

    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.

    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).

  7. #7
    Master Obfuscator Dawnstorm's Avatar
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    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.

  8. #8
    Quote Originally Posted by Lfex
    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).
    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?

    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.

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by Dawnstorm
    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).
    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.


    The set up is that Romeo and Juliet will quite happily and peacefully run away. Instead they kill themselves from sheer accident.

    Quote Originally Posted by Dawnstorm
    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).
    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.

    Quote Originally Posted by Dawnstorm
    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.
    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.

    As to loss of innocence... I'll have to think about that.

  10. #10
    Yobmod Yobmod's Avatar
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    I can't think of a good book with a tragic ending that i didn't like, if that what you're asking.
    I've never finished a brilliant book but thought 'it was good but the ending was TOO sad'

    And while i admit there's tonnes of different, non-cliche fantasy out there, I think 99+% of the time the hero wins, maybe 5% of the time there some ambiguity or tragedy to the endings. Obviously the point of heros is they are supposed to win, but i think its only since the victorian rewriting of fairytales that a happy ending is seen as normal, especially in fantasy.
    Greek tradegies / Shakespeare etc have many more tragic endings.

    Happy endings are ok, but can be too stale. Films actually get the balance more to my liking. Some more Casablanca / Beaches / Gone with the Wind endings would be nice.

    Even Ghost has a bittersweet ending! With Whoopi Goldberg gurning in the background

  11. #11

    hmm

    I do sometimes read a book that is too tragic, and I usually put it down and don't finish it. I know, I'm lame, but I read fantasy to read about heroes. Now I don't mind if unbelievably harsh crap happens to the hero or his friends, as long as he has a chance to even the score or recover.

    The criterion I use is simple - I decide if the tragedy is so heineous that the hero can never recover. If he can't recover, I stop reading.


    ********* SPOILERS FOR HOBB AND MARTIN **************






    For example, I was reading Hobb's Assassin's Apprentice series, and it was great. But my god, after all the crap that went down for Fitz, after he was actually murdered and brought back to life, but had lost his humanity (and his true love), I just thought "There is no revenge he could get that would ever even the score for what happened to him." To me, there was no point in reading on. This guy had lost.

    In Martin's Game of Thrones, I was greatly enjoying the book, but only about 100 pages in, a 7 year old gets pushed out a window and dies a choking, horrible death in the courtyard. I just thought "No matter what this kid's dad does to try and right this, he will still have lost his son." It was an unrecoverable position - he couldn't win. Again, I just didn't want to read more.

    P.S. I literally stopped reading Martin's book while the kid lay dying in the courtyard, so if he lived, let me know and I'll keep reading!

  12. #12
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by phil_geo
    P.S. I literally stopped reading Martin's book while the kid lay dying in the courtyard, so if he lived, let me know and I'll keep reading!

    You know, when I hit the quote button and was getting ready to type this post, I was going to tell you whether to keep reading or not, but then I thought to myself, "Self, what's the point? If he isn't even willing to trust an author to tell the story they want to tell, why bother? If he's going to decide for himself what's too much for the hero to go on and not let the heroes themselves decide, why bother?" (Don't get me wrong. You have every right to stop reading a book whenever you like. It's part of the author/reader relationship. It just seems that you leave those heroes out to dry pretty easily)

    So perhaps it's better for you that Bran be left suspended in a pre-death/wounded state in that courtyard for all of eternity, sort of a Schroedingers Cat. If you really want to know, here's a spoiler you can highlight to find out (or you could read on just a bit in the book to see):

    EDIT: I remembered at the last moment that when the system emails out responses it doesn't exclude the spoilers, so I took this out so as to not spoil it for people who don't want to know. If you really want to know, I can PM you.

    But if you have a problem with him falling down and possibly dying there, you are probably better off not reading further into that series, as there are things that happen later that would probably stop your heart completely.

    And nothing in that post is supposed to sound at all antagonistic. It just seems silly to stop completely when the possibility of something like that is just hanging in the air unresolved like that and then deciding that it's just too much without even seeing how things play out.


    And as far as Hobb goes, there is another whole trilogy starring Fitz....that's pretty good mileage for someone who is already down for the count after two books, I would think. (And perhaps revenge isn't the issue at hand, but rather growth. That which doesn't kill us makes us stronger)

  13. #13
    Phil - that's a very interesting criterion. Does death of a hero bother you as much as a living hero who can't recover?

    SPOILERS FOR HOBB


    It's all good at the end. If you finish the Tawny Man trilogy, you'll see. Liveship traders is her best trilogy though, IMO, and I seem to recall that all's good at the end of that one too.


    SPOILERS for MARTIN


    The kid is still alive at the end of Storm of Swords. But the amount of death, violence, random horrible things, betrayals, rape, etc in those series is immense. Though if you think of fantasy in terms of heroes and villans, well, Martin doesn't draw a very clear line, so maybe you can convince yourself that the bad things happen to the ones who deserve it.

  14. #14
    Quote Originally Posted by phil_geo
    only about 100 pages in, a 7 year old gets pushed out a window
    lol it's more like 30 pages in

  15. #15
    Illustrious Gambler saintjon's Avatar
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    I was only sort of half-thrilled when I heard there were going to be new Covenant books, just because after being stretched on the emotional rack for two trilogies I was glad I wouldn't have to go through reading them any more. I still read Runes of the Earth and it was good, but I think he's going to give another good dose of misery with this series.

    I think tragedy boils down to wasted potential. At some point something that could have turned out very well, be it a person, an event, a nation, just goes off the tracks and that golden opportunity is lost forever. This is the trouble with people coming back from the dead and such, it revokes the tragedy.

    Guy Kay's probably the king of the bittersweet fantasy IMO. There's almost always something that goes terribly, beautifully wrong in his books.

    As for the bad guys winning, if it's never happened in fantasy it may be because the authors feel the biggest gift they can give in their writing is to break what seems like a rule of the real world, that yes the bad guys do win a whole hell of a lot.

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