In the next week I will be interviewing writer Brandon Shire, author of acclaimed novel The Value of Rain. Mr. Shire may be a highly unusual phenomenon in the world of gay-themed fiction: he writes tragedy, and does it well. And I mean this in the classical sense.
True tragedy has been with us as a literary form since the ancient Greek civilization raised it to an art form in theatre. It was a common literary form and was greatly appreciated right up until well into the twentieth century. Nowadays, one need only peruse the pages of GoodReads to get the feeling that when it comes to popular novels, and perhaps in particular when it comes to "romances", the American public has little patience with tragedy - and perhaps this extends to the audience outside America as well, but to a lesser extent.
It amazes me to see readers state outright without shame that they will not read anything without a "HEA" - a Happily Ever After - ending. Or, some dare to venture, "at least a HFN" - a Happily for Now. When my novel Gentlemen's Game first came out, a fairly well-known internet-based critic of gay romance reviewed it and gave it a mediocre rating because it was not a feel-good book. He admitted this to me openly, proclaiming that he read a book to escape from the world and its troubles - he didn't want anything dark in a book. I was astounded. Although Gentlemen's Game has its tragic theme, it does have a rather happy ending. It occurred to me that what he was really saying is that he didn't want to be bothered to feel too deeply or think too much. Is that wrong? I don't think so - we all go through periods in our lives when even a sad film is too much to take. I get that. But a self-porclaimed reviewer of books should not be wallowing in such self-indulgence: some of the world's best books are tragedies.
Historically some of the best literature of the western world involves a tragic story that proves unforgettable to many generations. "Tragedy" as a literary form is traditionally described as a story in which an admirable hero or heroine suffers a downfall due to his or her own character flaws. It is at its core a morality tale: it is meant to suggest a lesson about life. In the end, when it is successful, it inspires.
A tragedy inspires in the most profound of ways. Frequently it involves not only the central story of the protagonist's misfortune, but also makes some statement about society. It is meant to convey deep messages, move the reader to consider his or her own life, decisions, relationships. In high school, many of us were asked to read Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet as an example of classic tragedy. In the play, the central characters fall victim not only to the inherent cruelty of an old inter-familial feud and the emotional and physical violence it inevitably imposes, but to their own youth, naivete and raging teenaged hormones. The theme demands that the reader considers questions around the themes of loyalty to family, loyalty to one's own ideals, romantic passion, destructive irreversible decisions, the fragility of life, the senselessness of suicide. These are questions that matter in any age, in any life.
It's a shame that today's younger readers are not being taught - at least I see no evidence of this - to understand the value of tragedy in literature. To insist upon only being exposed to HEA's is to do oneself a great disservice. Because, an HEA stretches one's mind only so far. It can teach only so much. Perhaps a reader who insists upon a happy ending is a reader who never learns much of anything new.
Has this failure to be open-minded to an age-old and well-tested literary form occurred because life has somehow become so difficult that people need an escape? I don't buy that for a minute: in the nineteenth century tragedy was common and popular in literature (Dickens, Hardy, Bronte) and surely no one will argue that life in that century was easier that in this one. I can only wonder if the nineteenth century mind was a product of a life less sheltered from hardship, a product of a world where physical comfort was hard-won, early and unforseen death happened frequently and unexpectedly, where the luxuries that make our work life easier did not exist. Perhaps such a mind was more open to profound thinking, ideas about life and death, about the nature of suffering, about the consequences of a character flaw.
I will continue to admire courageous writers like Brandon Shire - and there are a few besides him who dare to walk down the path of the tragic story within their own novels, and without apology - and I will continue to hope that the tragedy as a form of literature will not only survive but see a revival in generations to come.