Bleak Literature

Origin and Definition

The word bleak can be traced back to the Middle English words bleke pale, blend of variants bleche (Old English blǣc) and blake (Old English blāc). Originally bleak was used to describe pale color or something bare, but around the sixteenth century was also used as a synonym for “cheerless.” In the modern dictionary it encompasses all these definitions: bare, desolate, and often windswept; cold and piercing; raw; without hope or encouragement; depressing; dreary.[1][2]

When it comes to literature, bleak literature is often called realistic literature or dark literature. Even though these terms are used interchangeably, bleak literature is unique in that it will always include the key darker features mentioned in the Elements section. The origins of this genre are directly tied to the start of YA literature. The Outsiders by S.E Hinton is considered within the realms of bleak literature and is a breakthrough novel for contemporary bleak lit. Since this novel, numerous works of bleak literature have populated the sphere of young adult literature, often leading to a discussion of what is considered appropriate for adolescents.

Elements of Bleak Literature

At its core, a good realistic fiction novel is about people, their problems, and their challenges in real settings rather than in fantasy settings or situations. The characters in the novel should be believable and their language and actions should be appropriate for the setting of the story and reflective of the culture and social class in which they live.[3] Realistic lit becomes bleak lit when it includes a darker element.

There are different elements that make up the genre of bleak lit. It covers subjects that are often seen as dark or difficult to talk about. The story revolves around a protagonist that is struggling with one or more of the following:

  • Depression, suicide, and self-harm
  • Rape
  • Physical, emotional abuse
  • Substance abuse

There is a strong emphasis on the emotions of those who are going through the tough situations. The reader is able to feel and see what the narrator is feeling and thinking in addition to observing the events that are occurring.

Most bleak lit, although not all, ends on an element of hope. It tells the reader that even though the situation is dark and dreary, there is a way out. There is a moral and a lesson to be learned.

Reactions to Bleak Literature

There are many reactions to the difficult subjects portrayed in bleak lit. The two main groups are those who are in favor of teenagers reading bleak lit and those who are against it.

Those who support the genre believe that positive things can come from teens reading this type of literature. Many therapists and counselors use this type of literature as a sort of therapy. This therapy is not only for the adolescents but also for the parents to understand the emotions that their children are feeling.

Often this type of literature helps teens feel like they are not alone when they are going through similar problems. Sometimes these books help them confront their demons and allow them to make a change in their lives. It works as a mirror for their lives and allows for introspection. The reaction of many teenagers on their blogs is overwhelmingly in favor of bleak literature. Many of them make the comment that bleak lit helped them get through high school. They state that it feels like they have a voice. One novel in particular that makes a lot of teens feel like they have a voice is The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It has a very large Tumblr community and a blog that is specifically dedicated to writing letters to Charlie, the main character in the novel[4], among other fan reactions. Some teenagers look back on the novel years after reading it and suddenly understand just how the novel helped them and continues to help them understand how to deal with difficult or bleak situations. A particular blogger stated about The Perks of Being a Wallflower, “I remember being 15 and being like ‘Oh wow she must be stupid to not realize this guy is a jerk. I would never be that stupid.’ And then apparently I turned 18 and dated someone who was kind of like that and I wasn’t aware of it till 3 years later.”[5]

Sherman Alexie made the following comment defending bleak lit after Meghan Cox Gurdon called his book out: “Does [anyone] believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?”[6] He argues that teens that are going through “dark” situations need the kind of outlet found in bleak literature.

Those who are against adolescents reading bleak lit believe that it is poisoning the minds of the teens who read it. They believe bleak lit is giving teens ideas at a time when their minds are very susceptible to those kinds of influences. Such arguments come from parents or teachers of adolescents who fear the books may persuade these adolescents to inflict self-harm. However, the arguments also come from a wide spectrum of people who wish to censor such books and take them out of libraries and curriculum altogether. The question is this: does reading bleak literature help adolescents? Those who argue against bleak lit see it not as a tool for adolescents to combat their real-world monsters, as Sherman Alexie puts it, but as offensive and inappropriate, or too mature of material for such young readers. [7]

Examples of Bleak Literature

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Speak is the story of a girl who is recovering after being raped at a party. She calls the police but does not tell anyone that she has been raped, and her friends label her as just wanting to ruin the fun at the party. The book is written in a journal style as Melinda, the main character, struggles to find her voice again to speak up for herself and relate this traumatic incident.[8]

Speak has won several awards including the National Book Award, ALA Best Books for Young Adults, Printz Honor Book.[9] The novel has also been banned repeatedly. Speak is ranked 60th on the ALA’s list of Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books for 2000-2009.[10] In September 2010, Wesley Scroggins, a professor at Missouri State University, wrote an article, “Filthy books demeaning to Republic education”, in which he claims that Speak, along withSlaughterhouse Five and Twenty Boy Summer, should be banned for “exposing children to immorality”.[11] Scroggins claims that Speak should be “classified as soft pornography” and, therefore, removed from high school English curriculum.[12] In its 2010-2011 bibliography, “Books Challenged or Banned”, the Newsletter of Intellectual Freedom lists Speak as having been challenged in Missouri schools because of its “soft-pornography” and “glorification of drinking, cursing, and premarital sex.”[13]

Dreamland by Sarah Dessen

Dreamland is the story of Caitlin who is struggling with the fact that her sister, Cass, ran away. Her parents are focused on Cass and don’t notice the changes in Caitlin’s behavior. She starts dating Rogerson, a dreamy bad boy who has a lot of problems of his own. He’s controlling and very jealous. He starts beating her and Caitlin believes she deserves it. She begins to do drugs as a way of escaping. After months of that situation, Rogerson slips up and beats her in front of her parents. She is sent to a rehab center where she learns her own value again. [14]

Unlike the other novels on this list, Dreamland does not have a lot of critical reviews. It is widely popular with teenagers. It has 4 stars in Goodreads and excellent reader reviews.[15]

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

This book is written in first person by Charlie, the main character, who addresses his writing to someone he observed at a party being a good person. In the writing he talks about his experiences with finding friends, seeing terrible things that happened such as mistreatment, rape, drugs, teen pregnancy, abortion, and recovering from the abuse that he himself experienced.[16]

Perks of Being a Wallflower has received several awards including ALA Best Book for Young Adults[17] and Best Book for Reluctant Readers.[18] The novel has appeared on the 10 most frequently challenged books.[19] Usually, there are requests to remove it from high school libraries because it deals with drug use among teenagers, homosexuality, suicide, and has sexually explicit scenes and “offensive language.”[20][21]


  1. Jump up
  2. Jump up
  3. Jump up
  4. Jump up http://dear–
  5. Jump up
  6. Jump up
  7. Jump up
  8. Jump up
  9. Jump up
  10. Jump up
  11. Jump up
  12. Jump up
  13. Jump up
  14. Jump up
  15. Jump up
  16. Jump up
  17. Jump up
  18. Jump up
  19. Jump up
  20. Jump up
  21. Jump up