Monday, June 13, 2011

Happy Endings and the Nonsense of Realism

Prepare to have a lot of endings spoiled for you.

Sometime in adolescence we learn disdain for the things we like. We still want to watch cartoons, play with action figures and have stories at bedtime, but these are inappropriate desires for ‘grown ups.’ Children grow to feign disgust for the things they actually desire, preparing them for adulthoods of denial. Often those adulthoods are spent desperately seeking childhood freedom, such as the necessary irrationality they can now only get through alcohol or pot. I blame that same anti-rational kickback for why so many people will watch a third awful Transformers movie.

Especially if you aim for an intellectual life, one of the things you learn to disdain is the happy ending. They’re unrealistic and trite. They don’t happen. When they do, it’s still more important to the cynical intellectual to write about when they don’t. Ours is a culture that disdains naïvety but cherishes cynicism, despite those being the same thing. They are bald-faced, oversimplisitic ideologies that prejudge people and the world, glomming onto any supporting evidence while blithely ignoring or making excuses for the exceptions. To be cynical is merely to be naïve in the negative direction. Like the sweetly naive, the cynics claim they know the real world and demand their realism.

Never mind that all fiction is inherently unrealistic – no matter how bleak, it’s just words on a page. Denis Johnson is one hundred percent as make-believe as J.K. Rowling. Not one word of it wasn’t made up at a keyboard. Many in my crowd are suckers for unhappy stories, leading them to universally rebuff me for thinking JT LeRoy was a fraud. That one had a happy ending, I guess.

True tragedy and moments of profound melancholy possess inarguable power. No distaste with darkness robs Of Mice and Men of its closure. recently posted an editorial positing that 1984 is a classic because it’s depressing. I’ll freely admit that the best novel I read last year – final got around to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World – ended about as bitterly as he could make it.

Despite my fondness for Of Mice and Men and Brave New World, the worst of the unhappy endings is killing your main character. It’s typically a cop-out. Death, even in sacrifice or redemption, bails the character out from having to face future consequences. You’re at least fifty years too late to play the “but those consequences were so bad” card. It’s not deep; it’s the sick-note for Gym Class of fiction tropes.

One of the greatest offenders is the post-Burton killing of villains in superhero movies. Villains in particular should have to stick around in franchises and see what they’ve wrought or develop as characters. How nice would it be to have Doc Ock mentor Peter in Spider-Man 3? Or have Harvey Dent come to his senses after his rampage in Dark Knight? I grasp the desire to kill Osama Bin Laden, but it’s a far better story to have that man meet every widow he’s made.

Danny Boyle is making a career partially on subverting the crumby ending. In India, in a secluded canyon, and in the zombie apocalypse, he puts his characters through utter Hell so he can deliver that one moment of climactic relief. He plays the conventions of bleak fiction against its own crowd. He keeps getting nominated for awards, so thank goodness the wrong people haven’t caught onto what he’s doing yet.

Depressive folk always tell me, “That’s the way the world is.” FX’s Louie having no soundtrack, dull lighting in an airport as he laughs at someone else’s distress – this is, according to The New Yorker, “giving reality its due.” This is real life.

Bullshit. That is something that can happen in reality. A man in a Ronald McDonald costume humming show tunes can also happen. It’s less likely to, though art affords the possibility for it. To mindlessly or pedantically mimic some myopic reality any reader can experience more clearly by putting the book down and living – that’s more intellectually bankrupt than a thousand Happily Ever Afters.

This storytelling environment has left the “happy ending” malnourished. We’ll continue to see trite happy endings, where the heroes either win outright or by Deus ex Machina. RomCom Guy gets RomCom Girl. Harry Potter sends his magic kids off to magic school. In many cases these still satisfy. I’ll almost always side with a treacle positive ending over a treacle negative one, because my soul isn’t a black vortex that demands to be fed disappointment. If we’re going to be superficial, I want to smile through it.

But we should do more with happy endings, though. What else could be done with them? Examining what people want.

In my most recent #fridayflash, “She Danced,” the guy gets the girl. But all we hear is how awful she is at the party. The narrator is smitten; most of my audience wasn’t. Some readers questioned if him getting a date was even a happy ending. For the narrator? Yes, it was. Rather than making an objective value judgment, or lurching for something as universal as a death or finding an angelic object of affection, I wrote something where the character wanted a thing most of us didn’t. Your and his values form an moral  kaleidoscope.

I’m hardly the first to do this. Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle literally ends on the line, “we are so happy.” Their circumstances are tragic, psychotic, and yet, enthusiastically desired. The survivors are deranged and consenting to live in something as tragic as any Greek homicide.

Dared on by better literature, I’ll sometimes go weirder. “Up High” was also a happy-ending story. That one ended ambiguously, and despite some grand guesses, nobody picked my actual intention. That’s what I get for being so damned cheeky and metafictional. For those still curious, I’ll spoil what I meant to happen in the next three paragraphs.

It was originally written for an all-dialogue story contest. It remains a story without a single line of description. In it, our ledge-sitter just wants silence to think. The very existence of the interloper annoys him. All the interloper can do in the story is talk – making more noise. Our interloper gets a bright idea, one other than jumping and killing himself. What was his plan?

He quieted. No more dialogue, the story ended, and the ledge-sitter got his wish: utter silence in his world, which only existed on the page.

Jab me for being postmodern, but that’s a happy ending. Nobody dies, the ledge-sitter gets silence, and the interloper gets to help somebody for once after a year of performing layoffs. The “I’ll show you” ending is a gag, since we’ve never been able to see anything they’ve done. All you’re shown is the blank page below the last line, because that’s all there is.

So, great. John’s examples of neo-happy endings are dating a bitch, going crazy and ceasing to exist. He could have at least pumped the first for Princess Bride.

Rather than undermining my position, though, I see this as underlying the real truth: neither the happy nor the sad ending is intrinsically the best. The best ending is the one appropriate to its story. That’s the big tell, and what makes Of Mice and Men and Brave New World succeed: their deaths are wretched but appropriate closure to great stories. A lame story can’t seed and grow a good ending. No matter what you tack onto the end, it won’t be particularly meaningful.

Likewise, going against what’s built up can be harmful. The end of Batman Begins suffers for Batman letting R’as Al Ghul die, tarnishing the hard-worn altruism and aversion to the death of others displayed throughout the movie. “I don’t have to save you” sounds like hokum, or a screenwriter making up for Liam Neeson’s contract expiring.

Sorry. How cynical of me.


  1. John, you're making me want to go back over my own stories and see which ones had happy endings.

    I think the presumption on the part of some writers is that happy endings are easy. Therefore (the thought runs), because I am a talented writer, I will not take the easy path.

    Actually, it seems to me that simplistically unhappy endings are just as easy to write as simplistically happy ones. "... and the zombie sprang back to life and killed them all. Surprise! The end."

    Maybe the problem is that on the spectrum of "clearly happy - sorta happy - ambiguous - sorta unhappy clearly unhappy", 80% of that curve, and hence 80% of all endings, can't be called happy. Is it then just a numbers game?

    I'm not familiar enough with romance to claim that happy endings are more prevalent there than in fantasy, sci-fi, lit fic, etc. Recent controversy about YA suggests that happy endings are scarce and getting scarcer in that genre. Does this reflect some general societal desire to see their heroes pummeled?

    As it happens, the novel I'm working on has a happy ending. The hero wins, gets the girl, makes up with the irritating quasi-friend and generally sets things right. He got his ass kicked along the way, but growth & change, etc., etc. The villains are defeated and safely incarcerated. Does this make for a better book or a worse one? I'm not sure. It's just how this story seemed to run best.

    Life isn't always down and depressing. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you're able to come to terms with the suck and make a decent life for yourself. I can't help but think that's got to be reflected in the writing.

  2. Great points in here, John. In That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis touched on the same thing you did in your first paragraphs: that kids will often put childish things aside before they're quite ready, and suffer for it later in life. Me, I refuse to grow up. I'll watch the PBS Kids stuff with Mason & enjoy it along with him. :-P

    My first blog-novel, FAR Future, ends by killing off the main character but I still consider it a happy ending. The MC died of old age, and died happy after all.

    I prefer happy endings, overall. There is a place, though, for the other kind — you cited two classics, 1984 and Brave New World — cautionary tales that use the unhappy ending to deliver their message. Much like my recent #FridayFlash, "The Power Given," did. But real life has way too many unhappy endings, so I prefer a good escape from real life when I'm reading. And writing, for that matter, although the characters often end up telling me the story and the happiness (or lack) at the end is out of my immediate hands.

    I wonder how many people who insist that they prefer the unhappy ending are of what I (probably unfairly) label the "litfic crowd."

  3. Some excellent points, John. I enjoy happy endings. There is only so much despair and grief one can wallow in before getting a bit tired of it all.

    I would say, though, that most endings are not happy or sad, they just are. A perfect example would be many of the stories by Shirley Jackson. They are somewhere in the middle, something for the reader to ponder.

    Sadly, happy endings are not the norm in the horror genre. Unless you you count the lone survivor. Or you happen to be on the side of the monster.

  4. Well, first up, I quite like Laurita's comment.

    I won't deny there are points here that should, at the very least, be kept in mind whenever anyone is considering an ending to whatever story they're working on, but I also kind of feel... frustrated by the use of your own work as examples. Ignoring the already great proliferation in literary analysis of writers citing their own stories as the "right way" to do things, I find myself put off by the dissection of "Up High" specifically. Maybe it was because I had some [very small] involvement with it, but seeing something I value broken down to serve this argument is upsetting, and if it doesn't rob the work of some of it's charm then it at least unnecessarily dissects it. Especially since, respectfully, that story on its own likely serves your philosophy on endings far better than any rant ever could.

  5. Tony, the presumption that happy endings are easier is very common. It hasn't been true in my experience, but I come from a lot of reading with grim endings, so I have the adapted experience at how to slap together tragedy with a little resonance. Being depressing is depressingly easy with experience. A quality ending of either standard is a lot harder, of course.

    Mr. FAR, certainly there is a charge for realism, grit and other nonsense in the literary crowd. Melancholy is a safe bet when aiming for depth; humor's a harder sell. I'll have to look up that Lewis book; I've found most of his non-fiction fairly enlightening.

    Laurita, hard argue against the endings that just are - except that happy/sad endings are connoted by their affect on the audience, rather than by their pregnancy with meaning. There are thoughtful and lingering endings of both standards. Those endings that are more affecting in a curious way than pleasing or depressing manners are certainly appreciated. I certainly did underrepresent them in my monochrome essay above.

    Randall, I'm confused by what you mean about seeing something you value being dissected. You can't be suggesting that you don't value other literature. Perhaps you don't appreciate 1984, Brave New World, Of Mice and Men and We Have Always Lived in the Castle - but would you really only want to see analysis of works you don't value? I can understand another fundamental objection to analyzing my own work - if I'd done it any more I'd have felt self-serving, and may still have triggered that. But that's not how you feel here, is it?

  6. I'll admit, most of my stories are dark and many of them end in death. I've rarely put thought to what ending would be more intellectually pleasing to the readers or what's more true to life. I just go where the story leads. My writing has always been a way for me to exercise my negative emotions, so my stories tend to be about death and hate and loss.

    A few times I've written the ending and not felt confident about it so I wrote it the other way. Sometimes the dark wins and sometimes the light. Right now, I have two versions of a story sitting in my computer files that has both a hopeful ending for the mc and a depressing one. I still can't decide which ending I like best. Part of me feels like the hopeful ending is hokey, but at the same time it feels good to give her strength and a form of triumph at the end. The dark ending feels more "true" but I don't know that it makes it a stronger story.

    Maybe I'll post both versions one week and let the #fridayflash community decide. It would be a good follow-up to this post to see which version resonats more with readers.

    Thanks for addressing this issue (and for the spoiler). #happilysadface

  7. I read about a study once that indicated people tend to remember bad endings to life experiences more vividly than good ones and that, when asked, most people would choose a long bad experience that ended well than a long good experience that ended poorly. The study seems to indicate that bad endings in real life really stick with people. That might help explain the prejudice some readers/writers have for bad endings in fiction, or the false sense that they are more realistic.

    I like this part best:

    "...A man in a Ronald McDonald costume humming show tunes can also happen. It’s less likely to, though art affords the possibility for it. To mindlessly or pedantically mimic some myopic reality any reader can experience more clearly by putting the book down and living – that’s more intellectually bankrupt than a thousand Happily Ever Afters.
    This storytelling environment has left the “happy ending” malnourished."

    Right on. I would use a similar argument in favor of so-called "experimentation" in fiction. There's been an obsession for the past couple of decades for so-called "realism' in fiction and an impatience for what is dismissed as "experimentation". I love Raymond Carver as much as anyone but there's a whole world of things that can be done through fiction.

  8. I didn't guess that ending. Good to know! I was so so so off. LOL

    Not sure how many of my stories have happy or sad endings. I suspect they lean toward the hopeful.

    A lot of the stuff I've been reading lately have bittersweet endings, failure on level, success at a different level, so not totally happy, but not totally sad. Even in the last romance I read (Kiss of Snow by Nalini Singh) it wasn't totally happy, because even though the couple end up together, there is a war looming in their future.

  9. Ah the happy ever after ending, never guessed, but I like it!

    This was indeed a very interesting read.

  10. This is a thought-provoking post, John and I like the points you make about cynicism being a form of naiveté. I'm also glad you pointed out the ending to "Up High" even if I feel a bit silly for missing something that obvious. :)

    Regarding the happy/sad ending thoughts: I wonder if the ending is not as important in some cases. For short stories I think the ending is extremely important. After all, that is essentially what we're telling. We drop a reader into the middle of an ordeal and wrap it up trying to convey the journey with subtleties.

    For works of length, though, I'm not sure it's that important. Or, at least, that it is driven by the story. My reasoning for this is that stories are about the journey, not the destination. Works that bomb on the ending probably didn't tell the journey or didn't stay true to the journey.

    For example, it may not make a difference whether, if at the end, the MC marries the girl or devours her for dinner if the story is about a man coming to terms with the fact that he's a monster. On the other hand, if the story is about a girl who falls in love with a monster, the ending may play a different role.

    I think that why, as you point out, sad endings and happy endings can both flop or succeed. Nicholas Sparks' novel A Walk to Remember was incredibly sad, but it worked because the story was not about a girl with a terminal illness. It was about a boy who fell in love with that girl and what he went through. The sadness was critical to the journey.

    Thanks for posting this and forcing me to think.

  11. Mark, the bias for negative events certainly exists. In classics, the Comedies tended to revolve around a conflict while the Tragedies had them for selling points. Even today drama is more likely to win an open writing contest than comedy; in many cases what is sad is more readily accessible, if not universal. Funny thought, that sad endings might even be easier.

    Sonia, so long as they have appropriate endings, I couldn't gripe. We must give the appropriate or the complex ending its due over whether or not we smiled. My arguments are towards treacle and to unnecessary darkness.

    Helen, you see that as a Happily Ever After?

    Chuck, I'm the one who feels silly for nobody reading it that way. When I finally explained it to a friend in person, he cracked up and said I was the only person who would come to that conclusion.

    I don't agree so much with the "destination Versus journey" argument, and might have to write about that some time. My key example is Stephen King's seven-book Dark Tower series. I love the journey through at least the fifth book, but the ending is such a disappointment on so many levels. I can't say it's a bad series for it, but it dampened my experience. I've definitely read other single-novel stories where a bad ending soured the entire thing. The crucial point is that while the journey takes up more pages than the destination, the journey is for that destination. If you don't get something satisfying then the trip can be de-purposed or even invalidated. Does that make sense?

  12. I think you know I'm not suggesting I don't value other literature, and since we've spoken about some of those works before, I'm a little shocked that you'd say that. For clarity sake, I'll say now that's not what I was saying at all.

    Moving on to what I was saying, I feel like you've effectively taken at least one [Up High] if not two stories of yours and led us by the hand to show us what you were doing with them, which is a shame because they are of great value and quality and the majority of your readers don't really need you to do that. If someone else wants to, I suppose that's fine, that's what literary analysis and critique is, but your own stories are really too good, and you have a little too much access to their ins-and-outs, for you to be pulling the curtain away and telling us exactly what they were about just to support your thesis here.

    There's none of that ambiguousness you left hanging on "Up High" anymore, we all KNOW exactly what you meant for it now, and I find that a shame, especially when there are other works you could have used, other people's, or even ones of yours that hinged a little less on your best artistry, that would not have undercut your own work. Really, it's worse than be self-serving, because instead of holding up those works you've given away parts of them that made them great in order to make this plea for more happy endings. Especially since, if I were to guess, other artists reading those stories will lead to a lot more happy endings in their works than anyone reading this contentious essay will.

    It's a matter of the perspective you have on your own work that the rest of us don't. I don't have a problem with anyone probing into Huxley, or talking to people about what his more ambiguous or questionable moments mean for his intent. I wouldn't even mind the opportunity to ask him why on a few of those. But him saying to me "look here, this thing you like, this is what I did, and this is why I did it, and why I did it is so much more important than the thing I wrote that you loved so much." That's when we cross into upsetting.

  13. I honestly didn't know what you meant, Randall. It wasn't until three paragraphs into this second response that I got it. Maybe I'm just slow tonight.

    Those stories don't cease to be, or cease to be readable just because I've discussed their endings. I don't see how anyone who would be inspired to write a happy ending now couldn't, unless, I guess, if they read this and got so mad at me they discounted the prior inspiration. You appeal to some of my deep reservations about author statements, though especially on "She Danced" I'm revealing any trade secrets. I simply showed what happened. "Up High" is now spoiled - I caved to several people asking for the true ending, and it's up to me to regret it for ticking off folks like yourself. Probably won't make you feel any better to know I'm still arguing internally over having popped Up High's cork.

    I do find your discrepancy between analyzing other people's work and one's own is interesting. I can't know Huxley's intentions, only guess at them (okay, maybe sometimes know them where the social commentary was transparent). My perspective on my own work is arguably unparalleled, but you'd rather I apply evidence where my perspective is more limited. I can sympathize with the reservation over spoiling argument for others, but not how my access would hinder supporting my thesis, as you put it. Is it that you believe people now can't disagree with my points in those cases, because I wrote the evidence?

  14. I don't know if you're slow tonight, or if that's just your clever way of telling me you don't think my argument is well worded, or makes much sense. I do hate it when put in a situation to either call myself or a friend a fool.

    Anyway, onward. Yes, you do protect yourself exceptionally well from criticism by using your own work. As you put it, your perspective on your own work is unparalleled - how can any of us engage this when we don't have the same access, how can we question your conclusions in good faith, when we're always on uneven footing to you? It requires an amount of trust that even the best of us would probably not grant their closest friend, especially while trying to probe whether or not a stance they were taking was faulty or flawed. I realize my knowledge of science is greatly limited, but last I checked, a truly strong thesis can withstand rigorous testing, and I don't see how making parts of it unchallengeable can be anything but a hindrance to it.

    But I don't care so much about that, and it wasn't really what I was talking about. I agree with the bulk of this essay because I hate bad endings, be they uppers or downers, so I wasn't so much worried about that aspect. What's more upsetting is that because of that perspective you're giving stuff away we were better off not knowing. Stuff that worked better when we didn't know.

    Your stories don't cease to be, and they won't cease to inspire. I agree there. I don't think I implied they would. I just was trying to illustrate how uncorking [as you put it] "Up High" seemed particularly awful to me, because it was a far better tool in promoting happy endings than what it was uncorked for.

    Which is what I'm upset about. I don't feel better knowing you're torturing yourself over it, but I do think it was a grand misstep to tell us. I helped spot check it and I didn't know the answers to these things - didn't want to know, honestly, thought that was part of its strength, and charm. I'm worried that's gone now, but more than that, I am just sad to see that compromised. Particularly for piece that isn't as good as "Up High" was.

  15. Other arguments aside, I do know I get cheesed off when I'm really into a story and the ending is bad. Same with movies. Watched Repo-men, the new movie with Jude Law; loved the whole thing until I got to the ending, then yelled out loud, "Well THAT sucks." Said the same thing about Buried. Happy endings make me dance out of the theatre, or put the book down and smile for the rest of the day.
    Still, there is much to be said about tragedy, about death; I find most of life's lasting lessons come from tragedy, not sunny happy days.
    I guess it's like anything: a steady diet of sunshine dries out the lawn; a steady diet of rain floods the basement. The sad endings only make the happier endings sweeter.
    I don't think either ending is a cop-out, or a way to finish the piece "easy."

  16. I think I see what you're saying, John, but I would still argue that the problem wasn't whether the ending was sad or happy. I would imagine in that case the ending didn't agree with the journey that you had just read. I haven't read any of the Dark Tower books so I can't say for sure in that case, though.

  17. Randall, please don't mistake my disagreements for attempts at cleverness. I am not trying to rook you or bash your opinions.

    -On the point you weren't making, I hadn't even thought about the unfair advantage I might be giving myself. I thought I was taking people into my creative process to illuminate some of the things I'd like to see done (and try to do, myself).

    -On the point you were making, I'm still sorry I tarnished the story for you. I do find it puzzling that you see a story with such an ambiguous ending (and if you read the comments, one most commenters actually thought ended badly for the characters) was a tool for the promotion of happy endings. I'd sooner see it was promoting ambiguous ones, if it was effective.

    Cathy, have not seen the new Repo Men, only the original, which has an utterly random ending that is highly amusing for being so outlandish. Maybe I should recommend a viewing?

    -Your point about most of life's lasting lessons coming from tragedy is similar to one made by Proust. It's one I don't share - most of our knowledge about the world is actually gained calmly. Tragedies in the lab are far less educational than rested research. While negative experiences may remind us of what matters in better times, excessive negativity is a terrible way of embracing what ought to be positive. Tragedy does stick with us, and I make a point of not decrying great tragedy in the essay. Brave New World ends horribly and is better for it. But in too many cases, the downers aren't worthwhile, and posers pretending for tragedy are more cloying than posers throwing a party.

    Chuck, I see what you meant - I thought we were venturing down the general argument of Destination Vs. Journey. In the specific realm of a story have a happy or sad ending, I do think it can still matter. Danny Boyle's films are good examples of stories simply begging for relief. If they were so brutal to their characters for so long, then killed them or otherwise gave them miserable ends, they would become purely masturbatory in their negativity (though one hopes he's a smart enough filmmaker to re-craft the plots to earn the new bleaker endings). A story can survive an undesirable ending, but there are definitely cases where a certain payoff is more warranted.

  18. I see so many valid points in here that I'm dizzy. All I'd like to say is that the ending is just as important as any part of the story. As you mentioned somewhere, a good story with a bad ending is just as frustrating as a bad story with an ending that makes it a bit more bearable.

    I don't care (generally) whether the story ends happily or not. What I expect from the writer is to deliver a *good story* with a decent flow and a coherent ending. Kill off your MC if you will, but please don't do so just to "create impact". That's also my goal as a writer.

    Btb, I hadn't thought of "Up High" as a happy ending, and I surely hadn't understood the ending as you intended. Do you find it frustrating or encouraging?

  19. I prefer happy endings because, for me, fiction isn't just about emulating reality. As you point out, I can experience reality at any point by putting the book down and leaving my room.

    My favorite stories are the stories that help me learn about life. That's the resonance I feel with a good book.

    I want to be happy. I read books where the characters reach happiness because they show instead of tell how I can get there. I experience it vicariously, and I change (maybe only a tiny bit) to reflect what I learn.

    The sad books I like also provide an example, but in the negative. I see what the characters did and I try not to emulate it, or learn from how the characters deal with it.

    This for me is absolutely true: "The best ending is the one appropriate to its story." A good story should build toward an ending the entire time. Books that end happy or sad "just because" are not well written. The end is the point of the story, and if the author doesn't know what the point is, the reader won't either.

  20. I generally agree with what you're saying here, and I think your points are fair and well-made. I also love the Ronald McDonald analogy which could not be more perfect. I think endings should be honest, whether happy or sad, they should flow naturally from the story as opposed to being seen as a seperate thing. If it's honest, it will work and stand on its own.

    I always enjoy your blog, but I do have to say sometimes you can be a bit too over-simplistic when it comes to people who are sad or cynical and/or deal with depression. It is a stigma that people who are deppresive could just choose to change the way the feel and see the world, if only they were strong enough or if they really wanted to, and it is a stigma that I would hate to see someone as bright and compassionate as you propagate. Most of my work is probably considered depressing by most, but my favorite quote is from John Steinbeck's Nobel speech. (The whole speech is pretty much my mission statement.)

    "Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit - for gallantry in defeat - for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally-flags of hope and of emulation.

    I hold that a writer who does not passionately believe in the perfectibility of man, has no dedication nor any membership in literature."

    There can be a lot of hope in despair, and in sad endings. But maybe there are some people who 'wallow' and some writers who think anything that is not 'serious' or heavy is not worthy, but the truth is most good writers I know will be the first to tell you humor is the hardest thing to write well, and manipulating reader's emotions is the easiest trick in the book. Which goes back to what I was saying, just write the ending that is honest and write it as well as you can and leave the manipulating to those who want to take the easy way out. That's my goal anyway.

  21. Mari, do you really not care about the outcome of the stories you read? You don’t wish success or ill on any characters? Or do you just mean, like Laurita, that you prefer an appropriate ending over an ideological preference for happy and sad conclusions?

    Angela, we can certainly learn things from bleak fiction. It’s rarer that they actually share unique insight (for example, the utter redundancy of unhappy childhoods and disease in mature fiction has left them with less originality than genre vampire fiction), but they can. A great example of a holistically withering novel is Aleksandhr Solzhenistyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which seized a harsh existence to show how one might not be broken by it. Though I don’t think I learned anything from my exemplary grim ends of Brave New World or Of Mice and Men, there is worthwhile material typically reserved in darkness. That’s why I didn’t condemn all unhappy endings.

    Lou, you make a damning point. Clinical depression is arduous to grapple against. I will joke about it, because I will joke about everything, but I wouldn’t underestimate the struggles. I don’t disdain them, though I can see how some of my language would alert. I disdain those who wallow in depressive behaviors or assume mental postures out of some rational discourse, holding it as some intellectually superior stance, which is where too many academics I’ve met have gone. I will similarly not respect fiction that wallows in this negativity, essentially encouraging people to enter these states as a portrait of the actual world. Fiction that actively engaged with how to handle clinical depression would be much more interesting to me than the mere bleakness that cloaks so much of literary fiction.

  22. Oh, I do cheer for a character's fortune or ill fortune, according to how much I sympathize with it or not. What I meant about not caring about the ending is exactly what you mentioned: each story has one or more "proper" ending, and what I most care about is that it's coherent and well written.

    Although I may "disagree" with the ending the writer gave the story once in a while (as I believe I've discussed with you once, about a story of yours?) I care more about well written and creative solutions than if they're happy, gory or depressing.

  23. As someone about to re-enter the academic world, I have to say I agree with your assessment of many academics. I find much of the work coming out of MFA programs to be not so much depressing, but souless - as if giving a character a malady or a physical issue will breathe life into a story, when the truth is what they should be pursuing.

    But as you know, none of this is new and and whatever they say, Raymond Chandler is one of the greatest writers in the literary canon and Winnie the Pooh is still one hell of a character. ;-)

  24. Hey John

    Thanks for this one.


Counter est. March 2, 2008