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.