Today I want to talk about endings– or more specifically, an odd phenomenon about novel endings that I’ve noticed. At least, I think it’s odd. Generally speaking– and I’m sure authors of category romance books could probably speak to this issue even more than I can– there seems to be a widely-held view that happy endings are somehow inherently less ‘meaningful’ or ‘literary’ than sad ones. I remember once reading an interview with Sue Monk Kidd about her breakout debut The Secret Life of Bees in which she described struggling with the novel’s ending. Her gut as an author was pulling for a happy ending, but she felt an external pressure to make it end badly– as she put it, “I was influenced, too, by my impression (right or wrong) that “happy endings” in literary novels were often sneered at.”
Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting that sad endings are not meaningful or literary or worthwhile to write and to read. Good grief no. If this past year has taught me anything, it’s that all the ‘happiness is a choice’ stuff is sometimes a big fat lie. Sure, happiness is often a choice we can make– I would even say more often than we think. But there are also times when happiness is simply not a possible option . . . times when all you can do is sit with the sad, accept that it has something important to tell you, if you have the courage to hear. It’s just this odd (to me, anyway) notion that happy endings are by nature less worthy of literary respect that I wanted to question.
One viewpoint I’ve heard sometimes is that happy endings are less ‘realistic’ than sad ones. Which honestly strikes me as doubly odd– because no ending is especially realistic, really. One of the first things you notice about life is that– except for, you know, death– it doesn’t actually contain endings at all, whether happy or sad. No one gets convenient freeze-frame and fade-to-black at an especially profound high point or a low point. The words ‘The End’ don’t magically appear in swirly fonts in the air above our heads. Even the major milestones of being done with one phase– graduation, marriage, birth– really only mean that a new phase has begun. If we’re talking realistic– if books were real life– the couple that falls into each others arms at the end of a romance could be headed for divorce within the year. The tragic hero who ends his story in a cloud of existential sorrow could wake up the next morning, win the lottery . . . meet his soulmate . . . joint the Peace Corps and decide to change the world . . . [Read more…]