Walk on the Dark Side

I saw on the news where Lou Reed died the other day. If you’re not an alternative rock aficionado or an aging, misanthropic New Yorker, you probably don’t consider that a very great loss. But it is.

Reed was a seminal figure in rock and roll history, as important, in his own way, as Dylan and Springsteen though he never quite caught on with the public like they did. He didn’t write catchy pop diddies, nor did his songs generally carry messages of hope or love or inspiration. Instead, Reed wrote in a matter-of-fact way about the things he saw on the mean streets of New York, things like drug addiction, male prostitution and child abuse. He was an artist who went to a place most artists either fear or simply ignore, that sometimes dark and often painful side of the human experience which many of us simply call life.

Too often, writers – whether lyrical or prose – prefer to play it safe. They do not want to explore those dark, depressing corners of existence because they find them too technically difficult to express in words, or because they worry no one wants to read about such things, or because they simply find them too uncomfortable to think about. And those are all legitimate concerns. They are also rather insipid ones. While I’ve always found characterizations of artists as being “brave” for taking some chances in their art entirely overblown (people who run into burning buildings to save someone or charge an enemy machine gun nest are brave; writers are, at best, merely plucky) not taking such chances can probably be called “timid” if not outright cowardly.

But why should a writer take such chances? Why write about topics he finds uncomfortable and which many of his readers don’t want to hear about? One might equally ask, why ever try anything risky or challenging… like becoming a writer? If you’re going to devote yourself to being good at something, you might as well go all the way and get as much out of it as you can, and that means pushing yourself into areas of the craft that you’re not always comfortable with. To those of us with a more depressive nature, getting such thoughts out in our writing offers – maybe not a therapeutic value – but at least the opportunity to gain a clearer vision of what’s tormenting us. And for readers of such disposition, it’s often a relief to find you are not the only one on earth possessed by these gloomy thoughts. Misery loves company and it’s nice to know there are others just as screwed up as you are when you read their darker works. Of course, not everyone enjoys a good wallow in misery.

I have a friend who refuses to read books or watch movies where the main character dies at the end. “It’s too dark. I don’t want to watch something depressing,” he constantly says to me. But I’ve always found that attitude shallow in the extreme. Life is as much about suffering and death as it is about joy and living. And to deny one side of it, you almost render the other meaningless. You don’t really know the value of something positive unless you understand the value of something equally negative.

While I would not recommend writers devote themselves exclusively to such negative subject matter, I would suggest negativity can play an important role in any type of writing, whether high drama, low comedy or genre fiction. Hemingway once wrote, “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true story teller who would keep that from you.” Though that may be a rather limiting view, it’s also one many writers might want to keep in mind next time they’re looking to add a bit of veritas to their work.

To paraphrase the late Mr. Reed, hey babe, take a walk on the dark side.

Author: Mark Jacobs

Mark Jacobs is an author and martial arts instructor. His written work has appeared in many magazines. Learn more about Mark at his website and Amazon author page.

17 thoughts on “Walk on the Dark Side”

  1. I can relate to those who say they don’t read books if the main character dies at the end. I stopped reading King after Cujo. While I do make exceptions I generally avoid books that are very dark. The same goes for movies and TV. Let me qualify. What I avoid are books, etc. where no one seems to have a moral compass, where every character seems devoid of the basics of what I call ‘humanity’. And I see a lot of that. I have seen enough ‘real’ darkness in my life. What I look for are characters that have a strong moral core, ones that have a purpose beyond the ‘self’. Without that they are empty. If I can’t relate to them on a human level I cannot be entertained by them. Bottom line – dark is fine, as long as there is underlying humanity.

  2. This post resonates with me quite strongly. I was a ‘70s version of Wednesday Addams, loving my parents’ collection of Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, and the like. As I grew up, I gravitated to Nick Cave and all the denizens of the Goth culture. Within that darkness lies a lot of truths people have a hard time facing, to be sure. I work as a teaching assistant for a dean on college-level literature courses, and she often says that good literature/art should make us look at the difficult questions in life—conflict heightens the triumphs and the joys that run alongside the negativity. We’ve read Thomas Hardy, Cormac McCarthy, and many others who present this concept well in their work. My work, historical fiction that focuses on real women who have been marginalized by history, delves into this deeply. The women I’ve written about and am currently researching for future stories had very difficult lives, but they’re also extraordinarily powerful women who lived far outside the bounds of “normalcy” and the conformities of their times. I agree with Yvonne in that a sense of humanity needs to be there. I too lose interest when the darkness gratuitous or maudlin. While it’s cliché, there’s a lot of truth behind the notion of the ability of the artist to explore that darkness to hold a mirror up to society and show the impact of all the strife that’s out there. Sure, I love my Doctor Who and other more light-hearted stories, but they too present challenging questions. For me, that dark side is where I’ve always been as a writer. Guess I grew up from being Wednesday to Morticia. 🙂

  3. Mark, I agree with you. I’m convinced that fiction is the perfect place to explore dark emotions and unpleasant realities. It’s how you, as a reader, pull your head out of your own…navel, and how you come to understand people who are different from you.

    I agree with Yvonne, too. There was a fantasy novel called “The Lies of Locke Lamora” going around my daughters’ group of friends in college. Some of them were raving about it, so I read it. And I just couldn’t get into it. The protagonist is a thief who lives by his own code of honor, but one that is kind of morally reprehensible. He’s funny and resourceful and all, but…. I just need to know that the protagonist, whatever his present circumstances, is trying to do the right thing. And I just didn’t get that with that book.

  4. Actually some of the darkest stuff I wrote (out of a catalog of some pretty hairy stuff) was in a monthly syndicated column called “Flesh Wounds”. And not fiction. Due out as a book pretty soon. I’d say for every 10 people who shy away from violence and bleakness, there is one who embraces and hunts it down. The only reason anybody know Reed died is because he had millions of fans.
    One thing NOT to do is to fake it. People know if you’re just trying to be noir for noir’s sake. Being a violent, negative, brutal person and writer is a God-given deal. 🙂

  5. Excellent post, Mark.IMO, it is the contrast between light and dark, good and evil, X and Y (fill in the blank) where the best stories are found. A protagonist with no faults (even though mostly good) is one I’ll usually find boring. An antagonist with no redeeming qualities can be the same.

    As a music geek who is far away from a misanthropic New Yorker (at best, I can only get half the way there) I was still a fan of Lou. However, I also disagree with you (kind of). I think “Walk on the Wild Side” is a “catchy pop ditty.” It has a hell of a hook, both lyrically and musically.At least on the surface, I’d call it catchy and poppy. Of course if you pay any attention to the lyrics, it has a darker side, too.

  6. Neither Dylan nor Springsteen wrote catchy pop ditties, though (note spelling!), and both wrote about the realities of life every bit as much as Reed—who, I agree, will be sadly missed.

    As for darkness, yes. It’s an aspect of a writer’s palette every bit as important as the lighter tones. For me, the greatest writing is when that spark of beauty is glimpsed amid the awfulness, frail and flickering as it may be. I don’t agree it’s necessarily cowardly when a writer chooses to ignore the harsher realities of life, just lacking a dimension, perhaps, like a musician who only plays major chords.

  7. Contrast? Absolutely necessary. Wallowing in the misery of the ‘dark side’ of life? A writer’s choice. Or a musician’s.

    I loved ‘Take a walk on the wild side’ when it first came out, and it’s still one of those songs that sticks with my generation – a bit like Stairway to Heaven. But Dylan I never liked. To me he was self-indulgent. If you’re going to show me the dark side of life then show me real life, show me that we always have choices. Don’t show me unredeemed black.

    I guess truth in life, reality and the meaning of the universe depends very much on your point of view, but the only place I like all black is in my wardrobe, and even there I have spots of brilliant red, white and yellow.

    Thanks for kickstarting a very interesting discussion!

  8. Although I tend to agree with most of what you say, Mark, and for me the dark side has always been just a blink away, in my life and my writing, I believe it’s horses for courses: some people are Milli Vanilli performers, writers and fans and some are Bob Dylan, with everything in between. As in most things in life it comes down to choice; vive la différence. By the way I love Lou Reed and mourn his passing.

    Excellent article, Mark.

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