Monday, November 02, 2009

Can I get a happy ending!?

I'm on a reading kick, devouring novels like a ravenous literature beast. I go through phases like this sometimes, where I'm "All memoir, all the time!" or I crash through bookstores and libraries searching out every book on "Meaning & symbolism in professional sports." This month, it's fiction.

In my novel kick, I've been reading today's heavy hitters--modern authors who've churned out five, six, even ten major works over the course of their careers so far. I'm looking to see how they structure things, how they develop characters, move the plot along. Essentially, I'm getting a tutorial in 21st Century American literature.

Know what I'm discovering? That it's GRIM. Not the writing. That's poignant and beautiful and filled with the usual assortment of artful metaphors you'd expect from writers who have been at this awhile. But it's a rare moment indeed when something truly delightful happens to any of the characters in these books. By and large, these stories are populated with unenviable people leading unenviable lives, to whom something particularly unfortunate is about to happen. They're not given tools to deal creatively with either their lives or the unfortunate event. There's very little humor, or passion, or deep belief in something that might help them transcend. They're just left to struggle like fish in a barrel, waiting for the end.

What is that about? Why are these the books being lauded for their literary merit?

Here's my thought: it is MORE difficult to write a compelling story filled with believable characters that ends on an up note. As readers, we're suspicious of happiness. We search for signs of pat endings or authors taking the easy way out. Which means that the well done happy ending is one of the most elusive goals in writing today.

In one of my favorite songs, the band Sugarland points out that, From the beginning, we're all looking for a happy ending. I think they're onto something.

For those of you diving into NaNoWriMo, consider taking this up as your challenge! And for the rest of us readers, writers & thinkers about life...let's celebrate--and reach for--happy endings. I think they deserve some attention.


LEstes65 said...

As much as I want a happy ending, I'm suspicious of them, too. You're right - if the story isn't developed well enough, it will sound trite or sappy. I'm with you, though. I'd like to see a happy ending that is real and shows growth & strength. I get tired of self-congratulatory overcoming-the-odds stories. I'm rambling. I have lots of thoughts on this subject but I won't bore you with them here.

LeAnna said...

Your post reminded me of a review my friend Linda wrote on the new America's Best Short Story collection. She had some of the same questions as you do.

Also, this is why I think some of the best fiction out there is actually written for kids. The authors are not too cool to write about things like hope or have happy endings. Try reading some Kate DiCamillo. She's an amazing writer, especially The Tale of Desperaux.

John David Robinson said...

Hmm. Good point. What's funny is that I'm probably going to take it a bit in the opposite direction. I'm doing NaNoWriMo, and I already have a happy ending planned: but the way I'm getting to it, it doesn't seem unlikely enough to feel realistic. It's a fantasy novel, but I want to make it as real as I can.

Gretchen said...

That literature sounds an awful lot like German lit (which was both my major and my Master's degrees). Got REALLY depressing as I studied for my MA exams, so make sure you get some light comedy in there!

BTW: I visited a friend in NY this weekend who happened to have taught one of the SYTYCD contestants (Ellenore) while she was in high school. Makes me ALMOST want to watch the show!

heidikins said...

I am not sold on "happy endings", but I am sold on "hopeful endings." I don't want to leave my characters as empty-shell people post-crisis. I want to see them come to terms with said crisis, deal with it, and move on. I don't need a shiny knight at the end, but I do want to see them happy with their life as is.

Great post.

Anonymous said...

Have you read The Help? The ending is interesting because it's not exactly happy and the character you want to see crushed (for a lack of a better word) isn't, but it is hopeful in a sense for one of the main characters. A perfect happy ending wouldn't have been right but a completely depressing one would have been too much for readers. The author struck a nice, realistic balance.

Snacks from the cruise buffet said...

Yes, realism vs. hope; the daily struggle of our lives. We know what we see around us [mostly crap] and we hope that there is something better.

Do the gospels have a happy ending?