Thoughts on Novels About Depression (TM)
I’m starting to wonder if it’s possible to write a good book about depression.
Or, at least, a good, non-literary novel. Novels need narratives. They need stories of personal growth, of obstacles overcome, a character who is faced with problems at the beginning and has learned how to tackle them by the end.
And let’s be honest. Depression is boring. Not the concept of it, perhaps, but the day-to-day reality of it. The inability to get out of bed, the intense effort required to walk down the street, the sadness and numbness and apathy that just is. Everything that someone does while struggling with depression is a monumental achievement, a trek across Mount Doom or a fight against a dragon, but unless it’s handled by an incredibly talented writer, it looks like stillness in a novel. It doesn’t offer much of a narrative arc.
Forcing depression into a typical growth narrative means that a book is almost certain to run into trouble while trying to be “inspiring” or “uplifting.” It’s hard to write an uplifting story about someone who manages to drag themselves out of bed and get a bit of work done before crashing again, even though that is the realistic success story. So we end up with tropes like “they find love, and that helps them get out of their depression.” Or “they finally gain the inner strength to stop being so depressed.” Or, perhaps worst of all, “they throw away their pills in a symbolic gesture and determine that they’re going to get better by themselves.”
Sometimes these narratives are overt. Sometimes they’re more subtle, quiet implications lurking in the background of the novel. But the moment an author decides that their novel will be about recovery from depression, they have to contort a disease into a narrative structure, and problems creep in.
Of course, even most contemporary novels have an element of fantasy to them. Novels are never quite as messy and unstructured and unpredictable as actual life. But this fantastical approach to “dealing with depression” is harmful to readers, giving false impressions of how the disease should work and how people should recover from it. Depression is eased by getting help, by medication and going to therapy. By trying incredibly hard to do the smallest things. Finally doing the dishes. Successfully walking across campus to class. Not dying. Keeping going. Speaking. Continuing to exist.
Not the things that award winning novels are made of. Not the way that people want to see things.
That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t write about characters with depression. But depression is not the whole story. It’s one part of a character, and it can’t be the main focus of their narrative arc without the book either being very literary or forcing a ill-fitting structure on something that is neither so dramatic nor so simple. So let’s have depressed characters living stories of their own. Solving mysteries and overthrowing governments and fighting monsters and falling in love. Let it play a part in a character’s life. But let’s not have more novels that are about depression. They’re pretty much a doomed venture from the start.