THE BLOG
07/29/2013 10:09 am ET Updated Sep 28, 2013

New Releases in Downer Lit

My literature students used to whine, "Why does all the lit we read have to be, like, so depressing?" I was reminded of their complaint while reading about new releases (NYT), wherein six authors "take a dark view of things."

They are Alissa Nutting, Tampa; Jodi Angel, You Only Get Letters From Jail; Sarah Butler, Ten Things I've Learnt About Love; Lindsay Hunter, Don't Kiss Me; Katherine Hill, The Violet Hour; Kristiana Kahakauwila, This is Paradise. Number seven, reviewed in the same NYTB section, and clearly in a special category of dark, is Matt Bell's In The House Upon The Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.

Ms. Nutting's plot flips Lolita, wherein a 14-year-old middle school boy gets lucky with his hot, 26-year-old female teacher (okay, I'm listening). Ms. Angel's stories feature teenagers living in "nothing California towns" watching snuff movies and doing other self-destructive things (one can always read short stories for technique). Ms. Hunter's stories include a cat lady with "dunes" of cat litter on her floors, and women who get dumped and pissed on, literally, by the men they love (um, not really for me). Mr. Bell's abusive husband forces his wife through several pregnancies and miscarriages, including swallowing an expelled fetus, a "fingerling," and feeling it come alive inside his stomach (good God).

Some of these novels and story collections clearly fall into the category of "Downer Lit": fiction composed in the darkest canals of the human spirit, destined to draw flies when released, and with no future but to dessicate in the light of day. Still, we should not dismiss them just because we prefer a sunnier view. We can read depressive fiction for the same reasons that we watch Dexter and Californication, or look at graphic car accidents online. We all have darkness inside us.

But I used to tell my writing students that going to the dark side is easy: we simply turn our worst selves inside out, and write down what we see, what we imagine. The hard part of fiction writing is pushing our characters through the dark and out the other side, into some kind of daylight, even if weakly slanted. I'm talking good old epiphany here. Where, for all the trouble you've marched them through, your characters emerge stronger, better people, and more useful to the world.

Still, I'll give these new releases a look. These authors are clearly doing something right to be published and reviewed, and authors have to start somewhere. If certain of our books have short lives, the next one might not, and we wish these writers a long career.