With my morning’s coffee near the mouse pad I opened up Anna Elliott’s Writer Unboxed article, “The School of Happiness.” Anna’s article is a cogent comment on the trend that happy endings are somehow not literary, not genuine. Agents, editors, and readers seem, in my opinion, divided into two camps: Pooh or Eeyore.
Do readers and gatekeepers really call bullshit on happy endings? The way I read Anna’s article it seems that the consensus is that misery of Stephen King dimensions is de rigueur. Anna cites Sue Monk Kidd’s quandary on how to end her Secret Life of Bees. I never saw the revisions, but I have no doubt that Sue Monk Kidd did what was right for her. The question remains, though: does an unhappy ending, one so dark as any of Dostoevsky’s tales, really tip the scales on whether this little piggy goes to market or stays home?
The high road should lead to the conclusion that a story’s ending must feel organic and logical to the narrative, but the implicit criticism of happy endings are not realistic. For whom, I ask? Rather circular logic, I think, when the bookstore shelf says FICTION; but let us explore this uncanny idea that happy endings run contrary to Life and Reality.
In the traditional romance, lovers have their misunderstandings and overcome impediments to their love. Amor Vincit Omnia. Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth do marry and live happily ever after on a large estate. After Kafka or Camus or whomever we can blame for Reality Literature, Darcy and Elizabeth divorce, she lives of alimony payments, unless…gasp, Death Comes to Pemberley and Darcy is toes up. Omnes una manet nox. Oh, and Bridget Jones is a portly single mother of two.
Doesn’t bother me because I don’t read Austen for ‘love and romance.’ Romantic love is a Victorian invention and, last time I checked, Austen the writer had very clear concepts about class and money. She called it “connexions” in her novel and we call it “networking” today. Sounds realistic to me. You say to-may-toe and I say to-mah-toe, so let’s call the whole thing off and put Pride and Prejudice and Bridget Jones back on the shelf.
Is Happy or Unhappy ending a matter of fidelity to Reality? I hope not. This brings up two very interesting issues. If Eeyore’s chronic bray is synonymous with Reality then the reader partakes in Schadenfreude – that delight in other people’s misfortunes. Worse yet, the reader excludes any possibility of a positive outcome. The Blue Bird of Happiness has been shot, stuffed, and mounted. The act of reading here reinforces the perception that Life does indeed suck, but someone else’s life sucks worse. Beavis and Butt-head are the apotheosis of nihilism. That doesn’t say much about us as readers, does it? There is no chance for improvement, or appreciation of the hero’s journey. If Pooh’s view of the world is optimistic and delusional – unrealistic, basically — then the writer is a sentimentalist, a dreamer-fool with Bottom’s jackass ears. I have a problem with that.
I think the root of the problem here is moral for Society and ethical for the Artist. The objection to a happy ending suggests that the writer is pulling a fast one, conning us, acting immoral and unethical. How deliciously Ironic, because the one alternative left to the author is the ambiguous ending, which the Eeyores of the world, whether they are readers or gatekeepers, say is a cop-out, infuriating, or so O.Henry.
I’ll quote two rejections from the trenches that I myself received recently. Rejection 1 is for a short story in which I wrote about a social worker. She sees the worst of humanity at her job, has a condescending boss, and is in therapy because of a miscarriage, which has driven her to drink; the alcoholism and her rage now threaten her marriage. I received these words from the editor: “The tale gets wrapped up with a bow…when all is said and done.” Never mind that the bow was tied around 3,000 words, or that the protagonist doesn’t know for sure that she is pregnant at the end, or how her husband, who doesn’t know her period is late, might react. So much for my own foray into Ambiguity.
Glowing rejection 2 is for a novel submission: “although the premise of [TITLE here]…is an intriguing one, I’m sorry to say, I did not find the plot convincingly rendered.” Now this was rather interesting for me to read because the synopsis in my query clearly stated the time period for the story’s events. The fictional story for the novel was drawn from historical events during the Cold War. My take-home from the rejection was that a spy novel written today that is set in the early days of the Cold War requires more action, less conversation and skulking, which, by the way, is not historically realistic. The genre’s heavyweights (and real spies), such as W.S. Maugham, Graham Greene, and John le Carré created Ashenden, Howard Fowler, and George Smiley, who all did a lot of humdrum stuff, such as write tedious reports, drink bad tea and have pointed conversations while they chain-smoked. People still died, often brutally. In my defense, my characters were chased, shot at, and tortured, but they were not Jason Bourne. So to the charge of not ‘convincingly rendered,’ I counter with this question: Is Ludlum’s Jason Bourne, who manages to carry on lengthy conversations with multiple gunshots and fractures, plausible?
The very real Marcus Luttrell, who wrote about Operation Redwing, was unconscious after having suffered shrapnel wounds, a broken back and other injuries; but I guess that his lived experience is not realistic enough: it’s just reportage. Luttrell’s book, Lone Survivor, was roundly criticized for its unrealistic portrayal of combat, amongst other things. Huh? Perhaps, Bourne is a cyborg. Science fiction seems more amenable to altered-states endings because readers enter the ether of Disbelief when they accept the sales receipt.
Now, you might think, what does any of this have to do with Happy or Unhappy endings? Everything! The root of the issue is that real experience reveals that Life is unpredictable and chaotic, BUT that does NOT mean that the worst outcome is the only believable one. Probability should not be confused with odds. “No one gets convenient freeze-frame[s] and fade-to-black,” Anna Elliott wrote in her article, nor does “‘The End’…magically appear in swirly fonts in the air.” The editor has an obligation to tell the writer that Elizabeth Bennet would not say ‘tire’ for ‘tyre’ for a bicycle or a car, neither of which had been invented yet. The job of the agent is to sell and find a home for the work that they feel has merit, whether they believe it or not. Sometimes a story is just a story. Leave fiction to the writer; leave it to him or her to decide what feels right, happy or not on the last page. Eeyore and Pooh still sat together on the hill, bucket of honey between them, Sue Monk Kidd’s bees nearby.