February 3, 2010

Happy Happy, Joy Joy

Writer Paul Toth has an insightful post about how we create narratives of our lives over on his blog Violent Contradictions, which got me thinking about happy endings.

There are some people who love happy endings. In fact, one of my sisters told me that she only reads books with happy endings, and my mom wonders why I don’t write more. I think the emotional reasoning behind it is that life is hard enough and what they want from their reading is escapism. It’s not about a reflection of reality; it’s about escaping from that reality.

For the record ~ i.e., before I launch into my rant ~ I’m all for happy endings that are well done, that are nuanced and realistic but not syrupy-sweet tied-up-in-a-pretty-little-bow. We do get happy endings in real life. Well, not endings, really ~ more, happy interstices. They are in stories that capture a segment of a character’s life, and that segment just happens to end on an up note. A wonderful example of this type of story is Robert Boswell’s “City Bus” that appeared in the spring 2004 Ploughshares. As I remember it, it’s the wonderful story of a woman on a bus. A man gets on the bus, and by the end of the ride they fall in love.

But, a lot of times, happy endings are false constructions. If you’re writing entertainment that is meant to be an escape from reality, that’s fine. If you’re writing “reality,” it’s not. The ending doesn’t fit the character or the plot. It fits the genre or the wishful thinking of the author or editor or whomever. It’s not true in the sense that it isn’t true to the inner logic of the story and doesn’t contain all the ambiguity of lived experience.

Just as I don’t like this happy ending, I don’t like the I-didn’t-know-how-to-end-the-story-so-I-killed-off-the-protagonist-wow-isn’t-that-cool ending for the same reasons. Also other unhappy endings that are just as unrealistic or outside the logic of the story.

That’s why I like other types of endings ~ sad, ambiguous, epiphanic, ironic, imagistic, poetic, and so on. They look past the neat and tidy. I think it comes down to the fact that I never found myself represented in the books I read as a child and resented it. As a result, now I want to see people’s real lives, not escape from them.

What I’m Reading Today: When I was a kid, I read C.J. Cherryh’s speculative fiction. Well, then it would’ve been called science fiction. I remember in the Chanur novels being impressed with the way she would just plop you into an alien’s head, yet you were never lost. I was also curious as to whether they stood the test of time. Unfortunately, though, I couldn’t find my Chanur and read another of hers. We’re in a human’s head at the beginning, so I couldn’t judge that part of it, but I was impressed with the immediate political entanglements. You can tell that Cherryh respects her readers and trusts them to get it.

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