Instead of 'mood-boosting books', imagine doctors handing out prescriptions for gloomy masterpieces by Samuel Beckett and Thomas Hardy. Martin Chilton looks at the appeal of 20 great depressing novels.
Perhaps I have a high tolerance for bleak books. Enjoying Nathanael West's wicked black comedy Miss Lonelyhearts at the age of 14 may not have been a good idea. But to treat literature as a low-grade tranquilliser is limiting. And even if you are recommending books to cheer people up, why not offer brilliant novels? There is no Three Men In a Boat, Scoop, The Confederacy Of Dunces, Catch-22 or PG Wodehouse on the list.
Great art is distilled from suffering (see 20 great depressing reads, below). "Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth," said Philip Larkin, surely one of the world's most unlikely candidates to write a self-help book. The poet pondered whether writing about unhappiness was the source of his popularity. "After all, most people are unhappy, don't you think?" he said.
Books are not there to sweeten life's bitter pill. In his advice on writing, Kurt Vonnegut said: "Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of."
I wouldn't for a moment suggest that doctors recommend nasty novels or misery for its own sake. And some of us don't crave effervescent finales from literature. If I want a happy ending, I put on my tape of the 1999 Champions League final.
It seems only fair to conclude with a genuinely disheartening thought. While prescribing Cider With Rosie or a self-help book is better than dolling out anti-depressants, there's not much point in a GP writing out a prescription for immediate membership at one of the 200 local libraries that were shut down in 2012.
20 great depressing reads . . .
• Thomas Hardy: Jude The Obscure
• Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary
• John Steinbeck: Of Mice And Men
• Sylvia Plath: The Bell jar
• Cormac McCarthy: The Road
• JM Coetzee: Disgrace
• Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome
• Richard Yates: Revolutionary Road
• Nathanael West: Miss Lonelyhearts
• Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell To Arms
• Arthur Koestler: Darkness At Noon
• Graham Greene: The End Of The Affair
• Carson McCullers: The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter
• Joseph Conrad: The Heart Of Darkness
• William Golding: Lord Of The Flies
• Ian McEwan: Atonement
• Upton Sinclair: The Jungle
• Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front
• Fyodor Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment
• Franz Kafka: The Trial