Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Depressing books could be just what the doctor ordered

Instead of 'mood-boosting books', imagine doctors handing out prescriptions for gloomy masterpieces by Samuel Beckett and Thomas Hardy. Martin Chilton looks at the appeal of 20 great depressing novels.

Philip Larkin, Samuel Beckett and Thomas Hardy all wrote about the bleak side of life
Philip Larkin, Samuel Beckett and Thomas Hardy all wrote about the bleak side of life Photo: Rex Features/Getty Images

Puddleglum is an unusually cheerful marsh-wiggle in Narnia, "altogether too full of bobance and bounce and high spirits". He is told sternly by other wiggles that he has to learn "that life isn't all fricasseed frogs and eel pie".
Would CS Lewis have passed a “cheerful test” for the new 'Books On Prescription Scheme'? The project, which will be rolled out across doctor's surgeries and libraries from May, means that patients suffering from panic attacks, depression, relationship problems and anxiety will be offered “mood-boosting books” on prescription, to be redeemed at the library.
Bill Bryson, Nancy Mitford and Laurie Lee have been mentioned, along with self-help titles such as David D Burns's The Feeling Good Handbook. The Handbook is doubtless beneficial for some, its 'Prescription for Procrastinators' and weekly 'Self-Assessment Tests' useful in building self-esteem.
But what if doctors tried a more radical approach? What if they offered truly dark and depressing novels to show the miserable alternatives out there - a sort of literary electric shock treatment. You think your life is bad? Try 400 volts of pure Thomas Hardy and count your blessings that you're not Jude The Obscure. You reckon your journey to work is wearisome? Try walking the grim post-apocalyptic landscape of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
Of course, it may get tricky when the depressed patient is one of the writers themselves. Authors are a pretty woebegone lot. Writing is among the top 10 professions in which people are most likely to suffer depression. All that isolation, all that time thinking about how life is absurd and terrible. There is a story about Beckett strolling through a park, when a friend remarked that the sunny day made one glad to be alive. "I wouldn’t go that far," Beckett replied.
Perhaps I have a high tolerance for bleak books. Enjoying Nathanael West's wicked black comedy Miss Lonelyhearts at the age of 14 may not have been a good idea. But to treat literature as a low-grade tranquilliser is limiting. And even if you are recommending books to cheer people up, why not offer brilliant novels? There is no Three Men In a Boat, Scoop, The Confederacy Of Dunces, Catch-22 or PG Wodehouse on the list.
Great art is distilled from suffering (see 20 great depressing reads, below). "Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth," said Philip Larkin, surely one of the world's most unlikely candidates to write a self-help book. The poet pondered whether writing about unhappiness was the source of his popularity. "After all, most people are unhappy, don't you think?" he said.
Books are not there to sweeten life's bitter pill. In his advice on writing, Kurt Vonnegut said: "Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of."
I wouldn't for a moment suggest that doctors recommend nasty novels or misery for its own sake. And some of us don't crave effervescent finales from literature. If I want a happy ending, I put on my tape of the 1999 Champions League final.
It seems only fair to conclude with a genuinely disheartening thought. While prescribing Cider With Rosie or a self-help book is better than dolling out anti-depressants, there's not much point in a GP writing out a prescription for immediate membership at one of the 200 local libraries that were shut down in 2012.

20 great depressing reads . . .

Thomas Hardy: Jude The Obscure
Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary
John Steinbeck: Of Mice And Men
Sylvia Plath: The Bell jar
Cormac McCarthy: The Road
JM Coetzee: Disgrace
Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome
Richard Yates: Revolutionary Road
Nathanael West: Miss Lonelyhearts
Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell To Arms
Arthur Koestler: Darkness At Noon
Graham Greene: The End Of The Affair
Carson McCullers: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
Joseph Conrad: The Heart Of Darkness
William Golding: Lord Of The Flies
Ian McEwan: Atonement
Upton Sinclair: The Jungle
Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front
Fyodor Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment
Franz Kafka: The Trial 

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