Why do we like to read sad books? Or watch sad movies? Or listen to songs that break our heart? (“Cat’s in the Cradle”, I’m looking at you.)
According to an Ohio State University study we like tragedies because they bring us happiness in the short-term. Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, lead author of the study, believes that tragedies help people reflect more deeply on their own relationships. Knobloch-Westerwick and her team were looking specifically at people who watched a sad movie (Atonement), but I believe her ideas can be viewed more broadly within the scope of literature and even entertainment at large. She explains:
“‘People seem to use tragedies as a way to reflect on the important relationships in their own life, to count their blessings….negative emotions, like sadness, make you think more critically about your situation. So seeing a tragic movie about star-crossed lovers may make you sad, but that will cause you to think more about your own close relationships and appreciate them more.'”
It appears, then, as Knobloch-Westerwick suggests, negative moods make us more thoughtful. We are more prone to introspection and awareness. While I didn’t have this exact study to reference while reading A Little Life a couple of weeks ago, similar ideas were running through my mind as I pushed through over 700 pages of sexual abuse, physical abuse, hard drug use, abandonment, death, and more. Why keep going? What is in it for the reader?
Reading this book was a visceral, almost physical experience. I had dreams about it; my stomach would hurt during more disturbing scenes; I was melancholic. But it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Hanya Yanagihara’s characters are so alive, so vivid, that one can’t help but become immersed in the world she has created for them, however upsetting it may be.
At the outset, A Little Life may look like a typical post-graduate coming-of-age story about four friends who live in New York. And Yanagihara intentionally sets up the novel this way, perhaps to upset our notions of ensemble fiction or the bildungsroman. But the stories of Willem, Malcolm, JB, and Jude, and indeed their unified story–their story of friendship–is uniquely told and uncovered.
It’s haunting and dramatic and brilliant. As Jon Michaud writes in his review for the New Yorker, “Yanagihara’s rendering of…abuse never feels excessive or sensationalist. It is not included for shock value or titillation, as is sometimes the case in works of horror or crime fiction…counterintuitively, the most moving parts of “A Little Life” are not its most brutal but its tenderest ones, moments when [he] receives kindness and support from his friends.”
I know many people don’t understand the appeal of reading tragedies or dark novels when we live in an already dark and disturbing world. But sad novels, or even sad non-fiction, can offer us reprieve from our own suffering and awareness. And I can’t help but think this may add to our stores of sympathy and empathy, which may in turn lead to even more meaningful relationships with others. The case for tragedies gets ever stronger.
What do you think? Do you like sad movies, books, or songs? As an emotional person, I think a good cry in reaction to any of these forms of entertainment can feel cathartic and therapeutic. But I’m sappy like that : )