Mormon LitCrit: Despair Porn vs. a Literature of Hope

It’s been an odd reading/viewing month for me. I rarely set out with a predetermined theme, but I often discover one as I go. While I understand that it’s unusual to discuss despair on Thanksgiving day, that was the accidental theme that presented itself over the past several weeks.

It started with watching a set of Kurosawa films (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Ikiru, Rashomon). Then I read 1984 for the first time (and watched the movie), followed by re-reading a graphic novel called The Watchmen. In and around other things I watched a number of anime centered on post-apocalyptic events (Noein; Now and Then, Here and Now; Blassreiter) as well as a couple of Hollywood movies in the same genre (Legion, Pandorum, Brazil). I also sprinkled in a number of documentaries on the war in Vietnam, the war in Iraq, the biology of stress and emotional response, and historical religious figures (Martin Luther, Buddha).

Every single one of them explored dark topics using a variety of approaches. Kurosawa famously explores characters on the cusp of despair and how they respond (always with a decision to act constructively despite conditions).

Both 1984 and The Watchmen offer notoriously pessimistic views of both the desire and power of individuals to oppose evil in society. The various documentaries all dealt with directly confronting difficult issues in a specific social and political context.

The anime featured either discovered or created transcendent power wielded by sad/angry individuals who have lost hope and are intent on wiping out all of society to force fallen humanity to atone for its sins against life and hope—not to create a brighter future, but to simply put an end to everything and the suffering it represents.

As I tried to contextualize and understand the broad diversity of forms, structures, media, target audiences, and the fact that these pieces were spread across sixty years, I also noted a distinct shift in fundamental approach. The presumption of hope—for peace, for resolution, for redemption—became decreasingly evident as we approached pieces produced most recently.

The stories progressed from exploring the challenges of hopeful people in hopeless societies, to the difficulties of individuals struggling to retain a fragile hope (and succeeding) despite difficult circumstances, to the tragedy of losing hope. All of the pieces produced in the last five years (both anime and Hollywood films) featured a fundamental lack of hope that had turned to harsh judgment and violent retribution.

Just as interestingly, the settings and situations that underpinned that decreasing hope became more stylized and less realistic, moving toward an affected presentation that I’ve heard described as darkness-chic. In other words they moved from observable realism to contrived fable, with those created contexts being used to emphasize the loss and/or absence of hope.

You can argue that any one of these stories function as warning, and in each case there was something like a positive ending, or at least characters recognizing the pointlessness of those who had lost hope. But the total effect is one of wallowing in how bad everything is and how fundamentally powerless individuals are to change it. When that sentiment repeated across so many titles by so many authors in so many forms, the sum of it all starts to feel a lot like despair porn.

It’s one thing to expose the pathos and longing of those who see hope in others while struggling to find it for themselves (Kurosawa), but the vast majority of the other stories either blandly point out that hopelessness is bad without offering any concept of a path to find hope, or they simply leave hope out altogether. In exploring an unwanted loss of hope you still grant the fact of it if not its usefulness; in showing characters exploring means of expressing their hopelessness through retribution you deny both the presence and value of hope. One sees the loss of hope as a tragedy; the other celebrates the loss of hope and revels in the details of that loss.

Any one story is defensible; the weight of stories feels like porn to me. Wallowing. Justification for losing hope rather than an argument for retaining it.

I admit that as a purely subjective view, and it’s more than fair to point out that a subset of stories consumed in a single month does not fairly represent an overall trend. But this is something that I’ve passively noted over the past several decades (and that I metaphorized a decade ago as an antisocial virus nurtured by the biochemical by-products of despair).

As a guy who writes an awful lot of dark-ish fiction whose only ray of hope is when the character confronts the choice directly and honestly finds or chooses hope, I can appreciate the value of dark fiction to engage the near-hopeless in re-examining the question. I’ve tended to ride the trend line to the bottom, then show an uptick at the end as evidence of the reality of escape from that pit. But even I can’t quite pull it off–my stories are dark but rarely bleak; suffering is productive and ultimately leads to hope if not cheerfulness. The future retains evident potential to be better than the present.

I suppose that’s a zeitgeist thing–we are all powerless against powerful business or government or economic or social forces. We’re all too small to have any meaningful impact on the overall trend. Even as Mormons we believe that the apocalypse will happen first after the world has essentially fallen into irrecoverable sin, then the hope will arrive in power and glory to lay waste and punish the wicked. But we also believe that among the fallen there will be pockets of the righteous, and that those few will enact works of extraordinary righteousness and rise in joy to meet the redeemer.

That’s one of the inevitable results of loss of faith in the atonement–if there is no escape from the result of our sin, then the inevitable result must be a loss of hope. But as Mormons we know better. It’s part of what we can honestly bring to our fiction that others may not be able to. Arguably, that makes it our calling and our responsibility–to proclaim hope to a lost generation. Because heaven knows, I’m seeing plenty of hopelessness in fiction these days and a declining measure of hope in society at large.

But ours is a gospel of both peace and hope, and within a broad spectrum of types and forms and genres we can reimagine hope for those who seem to have forgotten how. We can be a reaching hand to those still seeking hope both in this life and in the life to come. Not a whitewash or a gloss-over, but a recognition of the fact of failure and the reality that we can still recover if only we choose to lay hold on the hope that stands before us.

For that hope inherent in the atonement and the gospel of peace I am truly grateful. And I hope we will choose to tell more stories of that hope that we have such powerful insight into.

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12 Responses to Mormon LitCrit: Despair Porn vs. a Literature of Hope

  1. Moriah Jovan says:

    [quote][b]I hope we will choose to tell more stories of that hope that we have such powerful insight into.[/b][/quote]

    This is why I read and write Romance. [i][b]Hope[/b][/i] is its raison d’être.

  2. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I had a similar thought as Moriah as I read, but rather than thinking of romance, I thought of YA. I would rather spend an hour or two reading YA aloud with my kids than read the stuff I tend to gravitate to for my personal reading, which feels like work. In YA, even if the protagonist has no way out, we still know that he’ll find that impossible tunnel and escape.

    And Scott, reading all that seems like a lousy way to spend a month. Go see a chick flick. Moriah is right.

  3. Moriah Jovan says:

    [quote][b]Go see a chick flick.[/b][/quote]

    With a cheesy underdog chaser.

  4. I tend not to like depressing fiction. But occasionally there are exceptions. Back in the 1870s, a fellow by the name of James Thomson wrote and published a lengthy poem titled "City of Dreadful Night" that reads like long-term clinical depression objectified in nightmare form. For some reason, I really like it — maybe just because he did such a dang good job of capturing the darkness in artistic form.

    At the same time, there was an honesty in his work that made it possible to respect. Darkness-chic is something else, and just as bad as any other unearned literary effect (or affect).

    Not sure what that amounts to, in terms of response to what Scott has written. Maybe it’s that notion of honesty/authenticity again. Sometimes the only hope that exists in a work may be the hope I bring to it as a reader. It can be worth it, though, if that’s a genuine outpouring of real, earned emotion. If it’s something simply donned ‘cuz it’s kewl to talk about how meaningless life is, why bother?

  5. Scott Parkin says:

    I also re-read the first three Harry Potter books (and watched all the first six movies), watched some silly harem anime, and read a lot about IT infrastructure security regulations and standards (maybe that’s the cheesy chaser; I own Underdog and have watched it recently–it wasn’t as funny as I remembered).

    As I said, I never set out to do a month’s worth of dark reading, but it certainly ended up that way. Oddly, a bunch of my dark reading (and more than a little bit of fiction writing) came about from reading through about 30 of my own short stories and novellas and doing some smoothing rewrites (and finishing one incomplete story)–my avoidance behavior from working on my NaNoWriMo novel.

    To Jonathan’s point, I write darkish/violentish stuff naturally. It’s not an affectation; rather it’s just the kinds of stories that occur to me to tell. I am drawn to stories of people who seek understanding and to make sense of a world that seems nonsensical. The story stuck in my craw is my own story–struggling to find (and keep) hope despite a fair few frustrations and a huge Salieri complex.

    Perhaps that’s a form of despair porn–fixating on my own unrealized hope and revisiting that one basic story over and over. It’s certainly navel-gazing, but it is at least honest navel-gazing with intent to solve the problem, not just look at it a lot. I want to find paths out of my own ongoing struggle with despair, and exploring successful conflicts gives me a chance to learn something useful, whether in my own or other peoples’ fiction.

    Which romantic comedies don’t do for me. They play into my own greatest fear, which is that I will fail to no good purpose because I don’t have a key piece of information. The noble lovers always withhold basic information from each other and bring about their own near-failure. Instead of giving me euphoria from tension-and-release, those stories just make me mad because there’s no way to win if you don’t know what game you’re playing.

    I intellectually understand that I shouldn’t feel that way, but the stories make me mad anyway.

    At heart that makes me more of a mystery person (puzzle out an answer based on discovering facts and reasons) rather than a romance person (intuit an answer based on emotional understanding and a leap of faith). I mistrust emotions.

    Which is funny. I don’t actually mind a character trying and failing as long as there is some means of resolution. Some problems simply can’t be solved, but one can still come to peace (if not always satisfaction) with the attempt. That’s one of the things that draws me to anime; many of the stories feature main characters who simply can’t beat the opponent, but because Asian stories rarely make the opponent truly evil, it may be okay not to win.

    I’m perfectly content with productive suffering, but pointless suffering or failures to even attempt to relieve that suffering (for oneself or others) just makes me mad. And solving simple problems or receiving solutions through no effort of the characters’ own is just boring. Even if the problem solved is not the problem confronted, at least there’s productive progress.

  6. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Scott, I think you just explained for me what it is about chick flicks that men don’t like. Romantic comedy requires miscommunication and men know they tend to lose when they can’t figure out their women. Ha. (That’s an amused "Ha," not a "you jerk-Ha," just so you know.)

    I don’t know anything about you, Scott, but its freaking me out that you manage to read that much in a month. You gotta be some kind of robot (and I mean that in the nicest of ways). Do you speed read to the tape recorded sounds of waves crashing? Do you have audio books running while in the shower? Do you sleep? (Maybe not when you read such dark stuff en masse.) Even if I had nothing else to do, I couldn’t manage that much in a month. Wow. I don’t know if I’m impressed . . . or horrified. (Another person I can’t keep up with!) I do know I’m jealous.

  7. Th. says:


    I like the idea of us proselytizing hope. That sounds right.

    One thing that’s surprised me about my own work is how much darkness it contains. When, that is, I’m not writing romcoms.

  8. Scott Parkin says:

    Yeah…I’ve ended up with way too much time on my hands (laid off from my day job and having no luck whatsoever finding a new job so far; have some freelance writing projects, but the work for those doesn’t really kick in until next week).

    I actually watch far more than I read. I’ve only actually read five or six books in the last month; the rest was movies, documentaries, or serial TV that I can watch on my computer while also doing something else (reading a blog, playing a game, looking for a job).

    Side note–I’ve noticed that while I can read and watch at the same time with reasonable comprehension on both sides, I cannot write and watch simultaneously–writing requires my full concentration, not matter what it is that I’m writing.

    I actually crave inputs (just call me Johnny Five), and get rapidly bored if I’m not reading or viewing or conversing (or building). I’ve never been one who finds admiring a static scene interesting, and I tend to do my pondering while also doing other things (driving, woodworking, manual work in general).

    I’m fortunate (unfortunate?) to have very little else going on in my life right now, so I’ve been filling my days with reading and video and feeling sorry for myself while doing little of real value.

  9. Moriah Jovan says:

    I must admit: I don’t like romcoms all that much. Don’t like the Big Misunderstanding trope unless it’s, you know, actually BIG and there are real impediments to actually talking to each other. I like the angsty stories where I can wallow in somebody else’s misery for a while while still knowing that they’ll get their HEA (happily ever after) anyway.

    "Cheesy underdog" is a movie like, say, [i]Independence Day[/i], where the protagonists are hopelessly outnumbered against an overwhelming evil force and still manage to win the day. ([i]Big Trouble in Little China[/i] is classic cheesy underdog.)

    I love underdog movies. They don’t even have to be cheesy. Here’s a whole list of them: (I’ve only seen about half of them.) [i]Scent of a Woman[/i] can bring me out of the doldrums no matter what because of Al Pacino’s (shamelessly over-emotive) speech at the end.

    Eh. Hope I didn’t come off as patronizing. I’ve been there, unrealized hopes. Still there most days. Can’t see my own accomplishments and their significance in the shadow of what I WANTED to have done and didn’t. So…you have much empathy.

  10. Scott Parkin says:

    Ah. Yes. I very much like that kind of flick. Doesn’t take itself too seriously.

    I was going to say that the list at The Movie Case was too overtly sappy/underdoggy for my tastes (Rudy, Cinderella Man, A League of Their Own) until I realized I had seen 16 of 25, wanted to see another one of them (Milk), and I actively liked several of them (The Great Escape, Magnificent Seven [though not as much as Seven Samurai on which is was based], To Kill a Mockingbird, Shawshank Redemption, The Fugitive).

    My personal fallbacks include The Princess Bride, Ladyhawke, Iron Man, and Galaxy Quest, along with pretty much anything by Miyazaki (I also tend to fall for emotional discovery anime like Fruits Basket, Chobits, Clannad, Kanon, Air, and Haibane Renmei).

    The technical inversion (but functional complement) of those kinds of stories are black comedies (a favored genre of mine) and anything by Kurosawa, where the story tends to be about the utter (emotional and often physical) destruction of the underdog main characters, but where there’s still something like peace for them. Blade Runner comes close on the American side, as does Pulp Fiction.

    Currently, the Saw franchise probably comes closest to despair porn, with an awful lot of the vigilante genre coming in close behind (Death Wish, Dirty Harry, etc.). There was a time when I liked the vigilante stuff, but it just makes me tired now.

    I didn’t mean to wallow in my own frustrations. It’s a fact of my personality and personal biochemistry that I spend a lot of time brooding on things, with the effect that I consider the downside of things far more often than is purely useful. At its best that helps me understand and empathize with the reality of personal suffering; at its worst, it’s a very lonely way to spend an afternoon.

    But it can also be very, very useful if one can find or keep an honest hope.

  11. I have to admire [i]Noein[/i] for tackling the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics in a compelling way, although it vastly over-complicates the plot and resorts to techno-babble instead of straightforward explanations. But it well captures the adolescent self-loathing of a character who literally goes back in time to beat himself up.

    Unfortunately, that’s all he does. It distills down to one long pitching of a fit.

    In anime and manga, the teen male demographic is such an important economic driver (still a multi-billion dollar industry in Japan) that the medium tends to cater to the existential angst teenagers love to mistake for profundity, and which our pop-psychology culture too often condones, when what is called for is a swift kick to the backside.

    Re-watching series–[i]Akira[/i] is a prime example–that I thought were cool when I was younger, I discover that now, as Scott says, the inherent nihilism just bores me. It’s the "I would have loved it when I was fifteen" category.

    It’s interesting to contrast [i]Clannad[/i] with [i]Noein.[/i] The former relies on magical realism rather than hard SF, but both employ a many-worlds plot device. The point of [i]Clannad,[/i] however, is to illustrate just how self-absorbed Tomoya’s despair actually is, and how ruinous it is to the people he cares about the most.

    No good can come of all this angst if the person himself doesn’t realize how hollow and unproductive it is, and grows the heck up. A series that makes a similar point is [i]Someday’s Dreamers[/i]. (One other reason I love this series is because, like [i]Kiki’s Delivery Service,[/i] it places magic smack dab in the muggle world and treats it as normal.)

    As with [i]Clannad, Someday’s Dreamers[/i] argues against the very teenage conviction that one screw-up and your life is over. If you really want to atone, get over yourself and contribute something of value to the world.

  12. Scott Parkin says:

    Nicely put, Eugene. I haven’t finished Clannad yet; I’m watching it two episodes at a time with my wife and daughter in the evenings, but my (16 year old) daughter absolutely loves it and has demanded I get the fansubs for the second series (hard to come by, but I found them).

    Noein wanted to be much more profound than it ended up being, but the many worlds interpretation is not a new idea and as you point out they made it appear to be far more difficult than it needed to be, then promptly did nothing interesting with it (in my view). Science fiction for beginners (not unlike the original Stargate movie).

    I felt very much the same way about Now and Then, Here and There—there were some amazingly interesting questions there around thoughtless devotion to a cause and moral responsibility for performing evil acts in the name of selfish desires that were simply glossed over to handle a pair of ordinary revenge fantasies.

    I will look up Someday’s Dreamers on your recommendation. I’m finishing up Black Blood Brothers right now, which is a simple and fun little adventure story that’s managing to make vampires vaguely interesting again (watching 10 of 12 as I write).

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