What Constitutes "Dark" in Literature?

Jun 8, 2011

As I was standing in James Dashner's signing line at the Utah Festival of Books on Saturday, a teenage girl asked me a question. "A friend told me The Maze Runner is really dark. Did you think so?"

I was quite surprised by the question. I told her that the book was about a bunch of teenagers in a very horrible and sometimes violent situation. However, I didn't find it to be dark. To me, the book focused on these boys banding together to win over the atrocities that were done to them. While terrible things happened, it never felt dark to me.

With the recent hullabaloo about YA getting too dark, I found this to be an interesting question. Is YA getting too dark? I think it depends on your definition.

I'll admit, there are some subject matters in YA that I personally don't want to read. There are some books I would have to read myself and discuss with my (future) teenager before I'd determine if I'd let them read it. I do not like books in general that have intense amounts of swearing, sex, or gory violence, and I won't let my kids read books that have too much of any of those. (Though that's NOT to say I would order any book banned from general consumption-- everyone has a right to make their own choices.)

This is a personal opinion. And that is where the issue of darkness comes to: we all have different definitions of what is inappropriate, and different ideas of what "dark" means. I had a friend in high school who refused to watch the Lord of the Rings movies, because she said they were too dark. I was surprised. I found the story to be inspiring. Good triumphs over evil, right? How could Frodo and Sam's friendship be anything but inspiring? That doesn't mean I'm right and she's wrong-- we simply looked at the movie in different ways.

In my opinion, darkness isn't just something inappropriate. It's what you find when a terrible situation is presented, and in the end, the darkness wins. And actually, that's not even entirely accurate. In the book 1984, Big Brother wins. But I didn't find that book dark. Frightening, yes. But it was a warning, a message to be careful what we did with our world. Darkness is when something evil is portrayed as good, as acceptable. And that is a kind of book I won't read.

There are tough subject matters in many books, YA or not. I found The Kite Runner to be very difficult to read. It was eye-opening in a horrendous way, but I won't ever read it again. It's not one that I necessarily recommend, even though I didn't dislike it and even though it ended on a note of hope. There are books in YA that deal with some of the difficult issues kids face today. Some I've read; some I haven't; some I don't want to. Some I don't want my kids to read, either. Those books might be right for some people, but not for me.

So, my friends, I want to know. What do you think constitutes "dark" in literature? Are there things you don't read, and choose not to let your children read? What do you feel is inappropriate in books? I'll be taking part in the discussion in the comments today, rather than by email, so let's talk about it.


Margo Kelly said...

Great topic!

But first - - I LOVE your new profile picture!! You look great!

Back to topic: I did NOT think Maze Runner was dark at all.

I would consider evil and satanic themes to be "dark."

I don't want my teenager reading sex scenes and/or explicit drug use scenes. But - - that's my right as a parent.

I don't think any topic should be banned, but I would LOVE to see ratings on books. We have a rating system for video games and a rating system for movies ... why not for books? It would NOT infringe on free speech rights - - it would merely advise people regarding the content they are getting into.

Anonymous said...

I've never thought about this. I'm still a teenager, and maybe I don't know enough to figure out what is dark. I would say dark is different than inappropriate though. Confession: I sort of like topics regarding insanity and the like. I read Crank by Ellen Hopkins about a girl addicted to drugs and how her life gets fudged up. I guess a lot of people would say it was dark, but I wouldn't because the message was, "do not do drugs because they will screw you up". The girl took drugs, made bad decisions, but she didn't escape without terrible consequences. I guess to sum it up, where there is not a sliver of justice or consequences for bad actions, it's dark. Inappropriate is a whole other story.

Shallee said...

Margo- Glad you like the new pic. :) And I agree, some kind of rating system isn't a bad idea. To make people aware, like you said.

Madeline- I completely agree that dark and inappropriate are two different things. I like your idea that something dark show no consequences for bad actions.

Chantele Sedgwick said...

I thought the Maze Runner was great!
As you said, I think it all depends on the reader. Personally, I don't read the dark "issue" books. Like cutting and stuff like that. I just can't handle it. I'm sure those books are awesome, but I can't bring myself to pick them up. And it never has anything to do with the author, it's just not something I'd want to read about. The books with heavy swearing and sex I also stay away from. I don't really find it necessary to put heavy swearing in books. Teenagers hear it all day every day, why do they have to read about it too? And I'll stay away from the sex topic. I'm in the minority about my feelings on that. ;) I don't have anything against people that do have those things in their books, I just choose not to read them. It's my personal decision. And I'll definitely have a say on what my kids read, since I'm their parent, but I'd never try to ban a book so other people couldn't read them.
What it comes down to, is I'm just a "lighter" reader. And writer. I like happy or hopeful endings. I love how good triumphs over evil. It doesn't necessarily have to be a happy book overall, but if it's all about darkness being portrayed as good, then it would not be something I'd enjoy.
There. This comment was almost a novel! lol

Christine Murray said...

I don't necessarily think that 'dark' means bad. Life is full of light and shade, and all art should reflect this. I don't get why people say that a book is 'dark' as if it's a criticism. Some books are light, some are dark, most are a mixture.

Elena Solodow said...

I didn't find the Maze Runner dark either, but I really hate that word "dark". What does it mean? I agree that there's personal preference, and there's plenty of YA that's just not for me. But it's funny that no one calls anything too "light".

Shallee said...

Chantele- I'm with you, I have a hard time with some of the books that deal with tough, "dark" issues. It depends on what's being said, though-- sometimes those kinds of books are truly amazing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Christine- I love that you said art should reflect the light and shadows of life. Most books really are a mixture, and those are the books I enjoy most. They feel real, and very often give me hope.

Elena- It's true, the word "dark" is very ambiguous. To some people, it means evil, to others it means inappropriate or scary or a million other things. Not every book is for every person, and labels like "dark" really are confusing. It's a label I rarely use myself, which is why I'm so curious about what it means to others! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

MKHutchins said...

As for books/ratings, there is a really cool book review site that includes at the bottom comments on the language/sensuality/violence/mature themes. I really like this because it gives me a better idea of what kind of book I'm getting into (it's at http://www.bookshoptalk.com/ and they let anyone submit reviews, so if you have a book you want to recommend, it's a nice place to do so).

I have heard people call books like "The Maze Runner" or "Hunger Games" dark, and I never felt like that reading them. They're about interesting but still noble people doing their best in a depressing world. I didn't feel anything shown was gratuitous. Other books I've picked up seem to be of the opinion that "gritty" equals "serious" and ladle on the gunk...I put those ones back. Some of the most thought-provoking books I've read have been funny (Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching series jumps to mind -- the last book had some pretty serious issues handled with wit and grace, instead of just grittiness for the sake of grittiness).

Faith E. Hough said...

This is really interesting! For me, there is a difference between "dark," "edgy," or just "harsh." A lot of books about the Holocaust I consider harsh, but if they end happy, then I will still like and recommend them. I shy away from edgy books (with lots of sex, drugs, alcohol, etc) most of the time, as a matter of personal preference...although there a few that I have greatly appreciated. To me, "dark" will almost always be used in reference to fantasies, and in cases where "dark forces" like demons, vampires, etc. play a large role. Even if they're defeated in the end, I would still consider the book dark unless they're, well, overwhelmingly vanquished.
That said, I do get annoyed by another kind of darkness in YA, and that's the book covers! I am getting tired of black dust jackets...

Anonymous said...

I would use the word "dark" more generally than you are, to describe characters facing hard challenges in grim settings. The Hunger Games is dark IMO, and I would probably find the Maze Runner to be so. I would use a different word than "dark" to describe books I wouldn't encourage my kids to read--maybe "hopeless," "unredemptive," or "nihilistic." (And of course, being LDS and a parent, I also prefer no depicted sex.)

I think people confuse the market self-censorship that happens when people won't buy bad books (or won't let their kids read them) with government censorship. Everybody has the right to free speech, but libraries and parents don't have to pay money to support amoral or just artistically-lacking books.

(If you can't tell, I mostly agreed with the WaPo article. Of course it's good that there are books showing kids overcoming the real and hard things that teens face, but authors and booksellers need to be aware that books *can* also harm kids by leading them to experiment or triggering unhealthy behaviors they struggle with. And I do think there's still plenty of audience and market for downright happy books.)

Shallee said...

MK- I'm going to have to check out that review site! Thanks for the recommendation. And I like that you pointed out that "gritty" often equals gunk-- those are often the kind I put back as well. It's also true that lighter books can handle tough issues just as well as heavier books do.

Faith- Good point on the differences between harsh, dark, and edgy. I recently read Between Shades of Grey, which was a harsh world that I still loved. I can still enjoy those kinds of books, depending on how the subject is handled.

Zina- I think that's a great way to describe "dark" without it meaning "inappropriate." And I completely agree with you on the difference between self-censorship and large-scale censorship. I also like that you point out some of the heavy/dark/inappropriate books can trigger experimentation or unhealthy behavior in kids. I think that parents need to be the ultimate judges in guiding their kids reading so they can avoid the types of books they know their kids can't handle.

And I do love me some fun, happy books as much as the ones dealing with heavier subjects!

Jolene Perry said...

This is one of those - it's so subjective, I don't know where to start.

I spent all of high school reading nothing but horror - from that standpoint - almost everything is light fluffy and filled with kittens.

After reading a bunch of YA romance - Harry Potter feels dark (the first one, lol)

So yeah, good question, and too subjective for me to give any kind of meaningful opinion.

Unknown said...

To be honest, "dark" really is such a vague term. It's one of those words that every individual defines differently for themselves.

For example your friend in high school thought The Lord of the Rings to be dark, which baffles me. To me that is the last thing that those books (and movies) are!

Is subject matter in YA novels becoming more intense? Yes. Are there more vampires, werewolves, and other paranormal creatures in YA novels lately? Absolutely! Supply and demand. Some people consider vampires in any capacity to be dark regardless of the story.

I suppose I don't really understand what the uproar is about the newest swarm of YA novels being published. People act as if the only place their teens may buy books is in the Young Adult section of their local bookstore, which isn't true. The bookstore is filled with books of all genres that teens can enjoy! But if their heart is set on a YA novel, and the parent feels that what is being publish right now is too "dark", then they can go online and order books that have been published in years past. Simple solution to the invasion of these oh-so-"dark" novels.

Michelle Merrill said...

I didn't think Maze Runner was dark, but I've read a lot of books. Dark is definitely based on perception. It's different for everyone. I liked your description of the bad being acceptable in a book. I don't think of dark as being just violence or sex or language but more as the presence of something evil lurking throughout the book. Evil can be portrayed through violence and sex and such but to me it's more of how the reader's feeling. Fear, scared, etc. If I feel that way, I feel dark...and I'm not a fan of dark. Just sayin'. :)

KM Nalle said...

This has been such an interesting topic recently. I like your take on it about what would be considered dark. I agree with you. I think it would depend on the person.

Dark to me always means that badness somehow wins. It's dark if there isn't hope and it's dark if big brother wins. But, that's my definition. Who's to say that it is the same as anyone else?

Stephanie Allen said...

I think it really depends on how a subject is presented. For instance, The Hunger Games could be dark if it was violence just for the sake of violence...or it could be hopeful, because it's about people rising up to tackle oppression. There's a point to all of it. For me that's where I draw the line - whether or not there's a point to the subject matter, rather than there just being sex, violence, drugs, profanity, etc. just for the sake of being "edgy." I don't have kids (and don't plan to for a very long time...) but I feel like it really depends on their maturity level...my 13-year-old brother just read The Hunger Games, and I know a lot of my 7th graders last quarter were, but they were mature enough to handle it - I think you really have to tailor reading material to a child's maturity level.

juniorgeneric said...

An interesting perspective on "dark".

I do have one question though. Would you consider a story (short fanfiction) dark if it involves a typically sensitive topic to people? (Suicide for instance).

Shallee said...

I think that's a topic that is definitely heavy and would maybe do good with a trigger warning. I think most people would call it a dark topic. Depending on how you treat it in the story, however, there could also be elements of hope, and there's no saying that darkness and hope can't exist in the same story.

Malcolm Glass said...

I loved your comment about the triumph of light in "Lord of the Rings." I recently had a short story, "Arael," published in "The Coffin Bell," a journal of dark literature. (That's how the editors identify the magazine.)
My story has a bit of sadness and darkness, but it is mostly about Light. So I think the editors would agree with your idea of a passage through darkness to the light. Here's the story, accompanied by my drawing of the same title:


Malcolm Glass said...

Oops! I meant to include my email: glass.malcolm@gmail.com

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