Overwhelmingly, the winner of the YA Agony Award is Susan Beth Pfeffer's depressingly realistic apocalypse novel Life As We Knew It. I am not sure that actually reading it was a moredepressing experience than reading my other personal top contenders, Out of the Dust (you burned your mother to death) and Taylor Five (your brother is dead and your family failed to save the orangutans), but it's certainly in my top three as well.

I think it won for the combination of scope of catastrophe (entire world), personal element (your own mother asks you to commit suicide), and, for people who actually read it, realism and plausibility (it feels like it really could happen-- and it would be depressing.)

Regarding the runner-up, highlight to read spoilers for what it was and also more depressing details. Though actually, I am pretty sure there's more than one YA novel with that plot. Guy Burt's The Hole. Several teenagers tell their parents they're taking a trip somewhere else, but actually hold a slumber party in a WWII bunker. One of them locks the others in. This seems to be told retrospectively, after they've all escaped, but it turns out that they all horribly starved to death in the cold and dark, except for the narrator, who was the sole survivor after two weeks of torture and horror locked in with corpses as her friends died one by one, and is now understandably insane in an asylum. Since the boy she blames for locking them in turns out to not exist, either she did it herself or she is still so terrified of him that she disguised his identity-- so he's still out there. The real murderer and motive can never be known. Oh, and one of the boys raped her while they were all locked in. Cheery!

But all that made me think: what is the difference between depressing and angsty? They are not measures of quality! Good and bad books can be angsty or depressing, or both. Though in my opinion, depression beats angst: a book which is both angsty and depressing produces an overall feeling of depression.

To me, depressing books are ones which you put down feeling miserable, and do not return to unless truly stellar writing draws you back-- and even then you have to brace yourself. And you keep hoping the hero will suffer less, because you don't want to read about all that suffering.

Angsty books are ones in which you finish feeling wrung out but exhilarated, or pleasurably sad, or just plain pleased. You return whenever you feel like it. And while you may want the hero to suffer less, you probably also want them to suffer more so you can see them react to it. "Beautiful suffering" is often a feature of angsty books. Perhaps the best illustration of the search for angst was the person who posted to a Supernatural fanfic-finding community, "I'm looking for stories where Dean gets beat up. Or tortured. I mean more than he does canonically. I just love Dean."

There are other factors which tend to give the impression of "angsty" or "depressing," but are not surefire signifiers.

Depressing books are more likely to involve current or historical social problems or tragedies. The historic weight of truth adds to the reader's depression. A writer intending angst must swim against the tide to not make a book about historic tragedies or contemporary injustice depressing-- and it may feel cheap and trashy if they succeed.

Factors which may be used either way: realism, believable characters, stock or archetypal characters, happy or unhappy endings, focusing on or not focusing on the hero's emotional reactions, the hero being active or passive, the hero as a victim of circumstances or the hero as the maker of their own agony, misery, or woe.

I don't think I've ever read a book where I felt that a dead pet produced more angst than depression, either in the characters or me.

How do you draw the line between depressing and angsty?

Please use examples from any media-- but clearly label them for spoilers in the subject heading!

Put any relevant spoilers behind spoiler code, as not everyone has watched or read everything. Sample code to cut and paste-- which I can't get to show up, damn. You can find it and copy it from this post: http://rilina.livejournal.com/429684.html

Sample code:

Spoilers here.

Spoilers here.

From: [identity profile] nestra.livejournal.com

You know, they actually made a movie of your spoiler-fonted book. With Kiera Knightley. I am not making this up.

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com

I heard!

The narrator girl is the villain, I think. Also, apparently there are boobies.
ext_7025: (why not?)

From: [identity profile] buymeaclue.livejournal.com

...so how many other people just added the runner-up to their to-read lists?

Just me?

(How come the runner-up got the spoiler code? I expected it to be some book that isn't out yet, but it's not, and so I am baffled.)

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com

Because unlike any other contenders, what's behind the code is supposed to be a shocking twist.
ext_6428: (Default)

From: [identity profile] coffeeandink.livejournal.com

I wouldn't buy it, but I am ... inclined to skim it in a bookstore or library.
ext_7025: (Default)

From: [identity profile] buymeaclue.livejournal.com

I looked at the beginning on Amazon and it actually looks kind of hilarious. I mean, I get from Rachel's description that it's totally not. But I thought, "I could spend a little time with this!"

So. We'll see.
ext_2023: (Default)

From: [identity profile] etrangere.livejournal.com

I love reading darkfics, especially deathfics, but with books, well it depends. You describe the difference very well. I think it depends whether the sad and horrific elements are cathartic or not, which can be as much an aspect of characterization and writing as it is an aspect of plot.
kate_nepveu: sleeping cat carved in brown wood (Default)

From: [personal profile] kate_nepveu


<span style="color: #333333;background-color: #333333">Spoilers here.</span>

The & lt ; and & gt ; (w/o spaces) display as angled brackets to us but aren't read that way by computers.
kate_nepveu: sleeping cat carved in brown wood (Default)

From: [personal profile] kate_nepveu

I was insufficiently helpful.

Take the spaces out from after the & and before the ; and paste the result in:

& lt ;span style="color: #333333;background-color: #333333"& gt ;Spoilers here.& lt ;/span& gt ;
roadrunnertwice: Yrs truly surrounded by trees. (Mischief brewin'!)

From: [personal profile] roadrunnertwice

Like this! &lt;span style="color: #333333;background-color: #333333"&gt;Spoilers here.&lt;/span&gt;

(To escape entity conversion, you have to use the &amp; entity, and to describe how you're escaping it, you have to use &amp;amp;, AND SO ON INTO INFINITY!)

From: [identity profile] klwilliams.livejournal.com

So when are you going to write your own angsty YA novel? (And if you already have, can I read it?)

From: [identity profile] rachelmanija.livejournal.com

Hi, Karen. Guess what? I'm writing it right now! It has angst and war and giant robots and insanity and the Mahabharata.

From: [identity profile] janni.livejournal.com

To me, angsty books are books that wallow in their depressingness. While in depressing books, the depressingness comes out of the story and events--you can wallow or not, as you will, but the depressingness remains.

I actually find angst more frustrating, because it feels more gratuitous. But depressing is more likely to give me that, "Gee, guess I'll just go jump off a bridge now" feeling when I'm through.

But that feeling can often be balanced by just how well the author manages to handle letting hope through at the end, and whether that hope is honest, and whether the reader believes in it.

From: [identity profile] coraa.livejournal.com

Lengthy, and idiosyncratic, but:

I think I basically agree: it's the difference between 'actually upset' and 'wrung out but exhilarated.' There's a certain... I don't know how to say this without sounding critical (which I manifestly am not; I enjoy angst, but don't like depressing) -- but there's a certain over-the-top element in angst, an exuberance.

I'm having trouble coming up with examples, because most of my angst-diet comes from fan fiction. I think it's kind of... okay: depressing books focus on the horrible things that happen, and the characters' emotional reactions underline the horribleness. So in Bridge to Terabithia, Leslie's death is an exemplar and emphasizer of Jesse's isolation; it's the pain of misunderstanding and isolation that is frontlined. Or in The Yearling, the necessity of Flag's death seems, to me, to be used as an example of the pain of growing up and the loss of innocence. The pain is serious business; it's not a pleasure. I'm perfectly well aware that if either of those things happened to me, I'd be genuinely miserable, not ecstatic with grief.

In an angsty fanfic story, though, both physical pain and emotional anguish are means to explore (and wallow in, and even enjoy) emotional heights and depths. It's a safe way to feel that you love someone so much you want to die, or to have a sort of private empathetic pity-party for someone for whom nothing ever goes right. The point isn't a message or a theme -- there's no point except 'it feels good to feel these things, but at a safe remove.' I don't actually want to die, nor has everything gone wrong for me, but I can wade around in the feeling a bit, and then leave... and then come back if I want to, or not. (I'm sure I've read things that aren't fanfic that push this button, but I'm having trouble thinking of them off the top of my head. Probably the closest in terms of YA-fiction-of-my-youth are the Vampire Diaries-type novels, where it's not so much 'my boyfriend died' as 'my boyfriend is a tormented vampire soul who is torn between keeping me forever, but as a damned soul, and leaving me to be whole but alone.' Again, that sounds very dismissive -- but I really don't mean it dismissively.)

I've heard the term 'emo porn' tossed around, the vicarious pleasure got from reading about or witnessing extremes of emotion that most of us don't feel day-to-day (and usually, that it's a good thing that we don't feel). I think that's part of it. It's fun to feel strongly, within safe boundaries. But a truly depressing book isn't safe; it's scary. It says 'this really could happen to you, and you know perfectly well that, if it did, you wouldn't enjoy it at all.'

From: [identity profile] thecityofdis.livejournal.com

I agree with this whole-heartedly. The best example off the top of my head is when watching, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Joss Whedon has a tendency to rip out your still-beating heart, and a fetish for ruining so-perfect-they're-exhilarating relationships in manners so twisted they wouldn't occur to most healthy individuals in a lifetime.

That said, in spite of all the heartwrenching break-ups and deaths, there's this vibe of hope, that in spite of the pain the story is really about the coping with the pain, and the support, and the growing up and moving on and - oh yeah, slaying horribly evil things in the meantime.

(The one time they really go for the gold, Newberry-style, is when Buffy's mother is diagnosed with a brain tumor in the fifth season, and how it plays on from this point out. It was depressing enough the first time; now dealing with my own mother being recently diagnosed with cancer, I can probably never watch that entire part of the series again.)

From: [identity profile] cicer.livejournal.com

I totally agree. Angst does tend to wallow in it's own depressing-ness, and for me I think there's kind of an emotional payoff from it. I don't really know how to put it any better than that. I think a lot of people get pleasure from reading angst because, as you said, it allows them to experience emotions and situations they wouldn't otherwise experience. It does tend to have an over-the-top element, but I also notice that angst stories usually seem to have a happier ending than depressing stories. Like, 'the main character suffers and suffers and suffers, and then everything turns out okay' versus 'the main character suffers and suffers and suffers and then dies miserably'. Big difference there.

Angst is gratuitous on some level, I think, and it is emotional porn in a way. You are right that angst usually provides a safer setting for dealing with painful things and often seems to distance the reader from the more agonizing aspects, or at least softens the blow somewhat. The reader can choose to empathize with the suffering character as much or as little as they like, and can usually 'pull back' a little bit if they feel they are getting too emotionally involved. I find that depressing stories don't really do this. You get the full brunt of painful experiences and emotions, without the emotional gratification or empathetic pleasure. I usually classify a story as depressing if it is relentlessly bleak, ends on a very grim note, and feels personal rather than empathetic.

From: [identity profile] sartorias.livejournal.com

Angst, to me, suggests internal conflict. I like angsty stories in which the internal conflict is resolved in a way that convinces me. I loathe angsty books in which the angsty person is doing the wrist-to-forehead "Here I am on this pinnacle, oh woes, the burden of perfection is too much to bear!". Mary and Marty Stu angst is usually this kind.

Depressing is when there is no out--like those poor cows in that horrible vid the other day, on the news. Pain and suffering was their lot, leading to a wrenching death. Period. No ticket out.

From: [identity profile] swan-tower.livejournal.com

I tend to use "angst" to mean "wallowing in irritating emo crap," but I like your distinction so much that I think I shall institute a terminology shift. Henceforth I shall use "depression" as you defined it (since I agree there), "angst" as you defined it (since I need a word for that), and go with the entertaining replacement "wangst" for the irritating crap.

From: [identity profile] chibicharibdys.livejournal.com

I always used "angst" pronounced as in American a for the emo, and "angst" pronounced as in German for Rachel's definition.

Wangst is an excellent word, though.

From: [identity profile] swan-tower.livejournal.com

I actually thought about that, too -- but it wouldn't help online, where nobody can hear the vowel. :-)

From: [identity profile] andyleggett.livejournal.com

White Oleander (Janet Fitch), The Virgin Suicides (Jeffrey Eugenides), Shade's Children (Garth Nix).

From: [identity profile] kateelliott.livejournal.com

Perhaps the most depressing film I've ever seen is Raise the Red Lantern. It didn't strike me as angsty; it was just one of those films where nothing the heroine can do can save her from her awful fate.

From: [identity profile] gnarlycranium.livejournal.com

Raise the Red Lantern, Farewell My Concubine, and I think there was another called To Live... my parents rented these, and as a kid I got the impression that Chinese films are made of UNSPEAKABLE MISERY.

From: [identity profile] kateelliott.livejournal.com

I really liked To Live; it is full of bad things happening to people, often through no fault of their own, but at least there was a grain of hope, as it were, at the end.

From: [identity profile] telophase.livejournal.com

I have yet to see a non-martial-arts Chinese film* that did not have a depressing ending. Even the comedies. It makes me very reluctant to rent any more.

* I know most of the kick flicks come out of Hong Kong, but I'm assuming that maybe some of the ones I've seen were Chinese.

From: [identity profile] penmage.livejournal.com

HOLYCOW. If I had realized that the runner up was said book, I totally would have voted for it, because it was WAY more angsty and miserable than Life As We Knew It. That book stuck in my head and horrified me for weeks and weeks and weeks, and I am so glad that you posted this, because I couldn't remember the author and it was driving me crazy.

From: [identity profile] bevhale.livejournal.com

Holy Crap! I read the old ones, but I got them as an adult so they didn't hit me quite so badly. But the winners are just soooo fricking depressing I think I'd want to slit my own wrists.

I'm writing YA and, while I do horrible things to the protagonists in them, I like to have the YA actually solve the problem at the end. Not without cost, but I don't want everyone to have to take up drinking after reading my book.

From: [identity profile] susanpfeffer.livejournal.com

Thank You For This Great Honor

It's about time Life As We Knew It won something. It's been nominated for any number of awards I never even knew existed until I found out I'd lost them.

To show my appreciation, I'd like to invite all of you to dinner Saturday night. 9 Lives Shredded with Real Turkey in Gravy, with a little Kit & Kaboodle Original Medley on the side.

Bring your own catnip.

From: [identity profile] jinian.livejournal.com

Re: Thank You For This Great Honor


(I consistently voted against it, actually, because I enjoyed it too much to feel agonized, but I can certainly see why it won out in the end.)

From: [identity profile] cija.livejournal.com

my categories are a little different

I usually feel cheerful after reading really good depressing books; angst is good for wallowing and taking me out of myself but depressing gives me manic glee if it's good enough. Really great depressing books are more likely to be funny than really great angst books. And really bad depressing books never seem outright morally offensive to me, like really bad angst books. I think this is because I assume that angst is written to straightforwardly give pleasure, and I am offended by what some writers think will please me.

& I think it is easier for depressing to rise to the level of art than for angst, though maybe only slightly. Some examples of how I categorize:

Art angst: Dorothy Dunnett

Lousy angst: that Susan Matthews torture book, The Sparrow

Art depressing: Kafka, Waugh

Lousy depressing: The Sheltering Sky, Where the Red Fern Grows.

Art angst depressing (the absolute best of the best): Hans Christian Andersen.

From: [identity profile] sartorias.livejournal.com

Re: my categories are a little different

You're mixing two cute-guy-gets-tortured books, (both inspired by Dunnett)--Susan Matthews wrote about a cute torturer who loves torture so he gets angsty about loving his job, and Mary Doria Russel wrote The Sparrow which is a planet that seems to be constructed around getting the cute hero tortured.

From: [identity profile] cija.livejournal.com

Re: my categories are a little different

Oh no, I know, that was unclear, it was supposed to be a list of two things. I know The Sparrow was about the priest who was spoilered by spoilers with enormous spoilers.

From: [identity profile] gnarlycranium.livejournal.com

One that I think I would've included in this big mess would be Les Miserables. It may not involve armageddon, but is structured entirely around depression-- good god, the title is Les Miserables-- and gets 10x bonus points for being so goddamn droningly, endlessly LONG YOU WANT TO CLAW OUT YOUR EYES TO MAKE IT STOP PLEASE STOP OH GOD STOP.

From: [identity profile] floriatosca.livejournal.com

A lot of Mercedes Lackey books are angsty. Not necessarily very good angst, but they do have that iddy catharsis factor. I'd say the Vanyel series is the epitome of this. Poor guy won the ffa Woobie-Off for a reason.

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