Your novel blows because... it's cartoonishly bleak
I read a lot of books. Some a great, many are decent and some are either terrible or nondescript, like they have no soul. Point is, I see the same patterns repeating all the time and it's not always pretty. I want to help you get it right. In this series, I will tell you what I hate reading and why I hate reading it. Because if you get it right, my life become instantly better.
Today, I'm going to talk about novelists who embrace their dark side way too fucking much.
Let me preface this by saying I love reading a bleak-ass novel when it's done right. Witnessing a character overcoming the odds by getting in touch with his inner motherfucker gives me a heightened sense of triumph. It also is a nice respite from the overcooked monomyth Hollywood is so fucking persuaded we love. Some authors are getting carried the hell away with bleakness, though.
So, how do you recognize when a novel is too bleak?
First thing I'd want to tell you is : look at your sales number. If people don't connect with your characters, maybe it's because they're a parody of what they should be. On a more serious note, you've probably read one: the protagonist can't hold a job, he likes alcohol a little much and can't behave around women. He may or may not have a nagging wife to kill, but he sure owes money to someone who can can cut his dick off and get away with it.
Maybe you've read this one. Loner walks into a bar. He meets prostitute. They have sex, but don't exactly fall in love. Loner wants to pull her out from her abusive lifestyle because she reminds him of his dead wife/girlfriend. Prostitute initially believes she entitled to a better future through him, but goes back to her pimp when things go hard because that's what she knows. And that leaves Loner either dead or wishing he was.
If you wrote that, you see your protagonist like this:
But he's really like this:
How bleak is too bleak?
Isn't that all of us, though? Feeling just a little better about ourselves than we should? Why can't that reflect in the character we write and the ones we project ourselves into? Valid question. My measuring stick for finding the appropriate level of bleakness goes as follows: is anybody trying to get better up in this bitch? I call that : the flame in the dark. Is there a flame showing people where to go or are they just all stumbling like self-destructive idiots?
If you're in a predicament and aren't really trying to work your way out, you and I aren't going to connect, whether you're real or fiction. Is the protagonist trying to improve his situation? Does he have a reason to (this is like, even more important) and are support characters trying to confront him and call him out on him bullshit, or are they only a mean to an end? If the answer to all these questions is 'no', you're crossing the line between bleak and into self-important-pseudo-cartoonish-waliowing-in-self-pity-goth territory.
Kind of like this:
But, how can my novel be just bleak enough? Do you have examples?
Of course, I do! First one is Joe Clifford's latest novel Give Up the Dead. It's a perfectly bleak book, spiced up with misery like a Mario Batali four-course meal would *. His protagonist Jay Porter is a train wreck. He's estranged from his family, living in a tiny apartment and clearing dead people's estates for a living because it's his only thing that he's good at that's not dangerous for his life. Thing is, Jay is a great guy and life keeps sending him opportunities to make peace with his horrible upbringing.
In Give Up the Dead, he's going through hell the mission he's given is a noble one: reunite a kid with his parents, which is a chance he'll never have for himself. He's also given the opportunity to start anew with a woman he just met. It doesn't matter whether he picks it up or not. There's a flame in the dark. A direction to go in. An indication that Jay's actions are amounting to something. That novel is a fucking symphony of nuanced bleakness. It's like a cold, foggy day where the sun breaks through and warms you up here and there.
"But it's not realistic, Ben. It's never a given that our actions amount to anything."
Well, if it's your vibe, don't read. Just get a job as a phone-answering monkey in a call center and you'll see plenty of people pass through who's actions don't amount to anything.
Another example I have for you is Jon Bassoff. His debut novel Corrosion **. The plot might've inspired example #2 of a cartoonishly bleak novel I've given up top. It kind of works ere because it's meant to be a surreal and cartoonish trip, so the main character is the bleak cannibalistic universe itself. My point is, though : there's a disconnect with the characters in Corrosion that isn't in his later novels because... well, Bassoff got better.
His follow-up novel Factory Town (my personal favorite) is even more of a surreal trip than Corrosion, except this time, both the protagonist and the reader are united in a quest for meaning. Bassoff pushes it further in The Incurables, setting up a tragic historical figure Walter Freeman against the progress of modern medicine. Freeman is persuaded he's helping people by lobotomizing them, setting him up for his fall into disgrace. In this case, the character goes into the wrong direction, but what makes him enticing is that his intentions are good and that progress inevitably dismantles his entire career
Oh, and it says something about science too.
So, there you have it. A bleak novel is always enjoyable, but darker doesn't always mean better. Characters don't get necessarily better if they get more fucked up and hopeless. They need something that makes them interesting outside of their inherent fuckness, otherwise they'd be a one-note song. What do they want, other than destroying themselves? What makes them worth reading about? If you can't answer that, go back to the drawing board.
* Now is the time where you go "ooooooh" like I went just a little too far.
** I know he wrote another novel before that, but it was under a pseudonym. Corrosion was his coming-out party.