Good to Feel Bad
PZ Myers has good taste in fiction, and his recent post reminds me of a novel I've been meaning to read for a while: China Mievelle's Perdido Street Station, an acclaimed urban fantasy/horror novel in which terrible things happen to one of the protagonists. Commenting on this aspect of the story, Meyers writes:
"Horrible things happen to people in the real world all the time, and I find myself more disenchanted with books in which the main characters stroll through amazing conflicts to emerge unscathed at the end, and where truly bad things never happen...The point of [a good] story is to be disquieting. It's what I look for in my light reading: not too much sweet, lots of bitter and darkness, a good helping of sorrow to end it all."
I couldn't have said it better. Once I sense an author letting off characters too easily, I usually close the book for good. Protagonists need to suffer miserably -- and, yes, die sometimes -- in order for any triumph of good to feel real or meaningful. And sometimes good has no business triumphing at all. Readers may find these remarks curious in light of my enthusiasm for a book like Perelandra, but that's a true exception (for reasons I've recently tried explaining). Stories like James Clavell's Shogun, George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire, and Stephen R. Donaldson's Gap Series are so rich for their reality, and making us feel the pain and anguish of characters we come to know and care for. It's "good to feel bad", because that's when we're usually looking at the world, and ourselves, honestly.