Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Saturday, August 15, 2009

This post may irritate some readers

Yes, it may.  And I hadn't even intended to blog about anything today!  Why will it irritate some people?  Well, let me explain.  I just stumbled across a blog with a post  entitled Why I love unhappy endings  The author was talking about how she was drawn to such "downer" endings.  Which would be fine, if it was just confined to her.  Every writer is different, and I can see why some writers might want to write about situations that are unresolvable and leave it at that.  What interested me was the comments.  No one  who commented, said they didn't like unhappy endings, either in historical fiction or other genres.  And a few of them seemed to prefer such endings because they are more "true to life", whatever that may mean, than what they describe as more "conventional" endings. 


I have mentioned elsewhere that this preference for "downer" endings is frequently a characteristic of literary fiction, though not always so.  And many writers of literary fiction, feel they have to write "downer" or ambiguous endings because they want to write fiction that is fiction, but is somehow "true to life".  That, too is fine, as far as the individual writer goes.  And some readers say they like "a good cry".  As I said, this is often a matter of individual taste or preference.  This certainly seems to be the case with Sandra Gulland, the author of Mistress of the Sun, and the blogger who wrote the above blog. 


However, I get the feeling, based, not only on the comments generated  by this particular blog entry, but by comments and writing I've seen in other places, that a lot of readers who call themselves "serious", have had it drilled into them(no doubt by high school and college English instructors), that truly "good" literature  must somehow be "true to life".  And since there is a lot of unhappiness in life, which is often not resolved, the truly good writer will "prefer" to write this kind of literature, and the truly "intellectually rounded" person will learn  to "privilege" what purport to be "realistic" endings and "realistic" stories over the the kind where a situation gets resolved, maybe not "happily ever after", but in a way that is satisfactory and perhaps leaves a ray of hope for the protagonists(many mysteries end this way).  But this is a  literary development that is quite recent -- it has occurred within the last 150 years or so.  And it has affected the way many readers, and some writers, approach their work.  In other words, "literary discourse" is heavily weighted toward these "serious" or "ambiguous" type "realistic" stories.  If you don't believe this, try to find long , penetrating reviews of mystery, science fiction. or romance in the New York Times Book Review, for example.  Or take the trashing of the Harry Potter series by at least one reviewer after the final book was written.  Stephanie Meyers' Twilight and the rest of that series has come in for similar literary trashing, but I haven't read the books, so I can't say whether or not this "trashing" has any merit.  To the millions of fans of Harry Potter and the Twilight books, it doesn't. 


I've also suggested that I won't write anything with a "downer" ending, partly for personal reasons.  I want to feel that there's the possibility of hope in the world, and at least some goodness there.  So, I think, do many readers.  Whatever one thinks of romances, don't any of these people who like "downers" ever wonder why they are so popular?  Yes, they are "unrealistic", but it is practically a requirement that the romantic hero and heroine live "happily ever after".  Life is messy and often ambiguous.  Writing about reality(which can be happy and fulfilling as well as sad and ambiguous anyway), may well satisfy some people, and I certainly won't discourage anybody from writing about "ambiguous" or "unhappy" reality, if that's what they want to do.  Nor would I ever discourage people from reading such literature, if that's what they want to do.  But many of us, both readers and writers, want a little escape from the often nasty, messy, and ambiguous reality that we have to deal with every day.  Life is hard enough as it is for most of us:  relationships, jobs, families, mortgages or rent to pay, food to put on the table, perhaps kids or relatives with serious illnesses, that temporary escape into a less ambiguous "writer's reality" may be what a lot of us actually need, in order to get on with our own quite realistically messy and ambiguous lives.


I don't know.  I like a good cry too, sometimes; unlike my writing partner, I don't want to read "downer" novels, ever, or watch "downer" films(she does both in the summertime, for "balance" as she puts it).  And I realize this is "just me".  But all I can say is, a widespread "preference" for certain kinds of "downer" literature, whether in historical novels, or in some other genre, may be a sort of learned response or an acquired taste, not a natural inclination.

Anne G


Anna van Gelderen said...

Well, Jane Austen's novels all have happy endings, so you are in excellent company.

Joansz said...

When writing my first novel, I discovered that my characters dictated what I was to do with them and what all the outcomes would be. As a result, not only did I have to trash about 30K words because "Ricard" (my MC) refused to cooperate with my vision, but I follow the internal logic for each character that follows. As it happens in real life too, people who seemed to be good guys became antagonists (though not necessarily bad) and adversaries became allies because of what their internal motivations were. I guess I'm a character person, and so the story has to come together based on the character. I can't manufacture a happy ending just because I wish it, nor can I make the ending tragic because I might think that it would be more literary.

That logic follows for me as a reader. The endings have to fit with the story and the characters that have been developed.

Besides, there are many different reasons one may read fiction--not the least of which is to escape into someone else's world and to have conversations with some of the characters. For me, it's a show stopper if I can't get invested in any of the characters no matter how well the book is written.

Anne Gilbert said...


Yes, it's quite true that Jane Austen's novels all have happy endings, but as one of the commenters on that blog post said, she doesn't feel as "satisfied" with these as she does with a "good cry". sSome indivfiduals may well feel this way, but it's also a common "literary" attitude in some quarters, and it simply irritates me.
Anne G

Anne Gilbert said...


Nothing wrong with "following the logic" of your character if that is the way the character develops. I have one major character in my Great Medieval Science Fiction Masterpiece who stared out based on what I knew as a dyed in the wool, unrepentant, mustache twirling villain. The more I learned about this character(who was a real, though rather obscure, person), the more it seemed to me that turning him into an antihero worked much better. And I think it does. He's much more complex. And I like that. He does have a dyed-in the wool, mustache twirling villain of a brother though(also real, though whether a brother or some other relative I don't quite know; I arbitrarily made him a brother). In any case, it worked for me, and made the story I'm telling, a lot more "layered".
Anne G