The Happy Ending Effect

Why do I write?

Considering the odds of publishing, we have all asked ourselves that question at one time or another. If we haven’t, we should. When I set out to write a novel some ten or more years ago, I had a grand vision in mind, in which I would hit the New York Times Bestsellers list, quit my day job, write four or five hours a day, do a little gardening, and have some wine. Or some variation of that. Every day. My husband has never said it, but I suspect he wants to ask, “How’s that working out for you, babe?” Well, let’s see… I still have my day job—the one that demands at least forty hours a week. I block out a full day on Saturday or Sunday, and sometimes both, just for writing. My evenings are filled working through a stack of books that mysteriously only grows, and I can’t even find my garden through the tangled weeds. About the only thing that is working out is the wine. I could continue, but you get the picture.

If your primary reason for writing is that you want to be published, let me give you a bit of tough advice. Quit! Quit right now. You will never find satisfaction in publishing alone, and your chances for that life of leisure are better playing the lottery. I’ll get to one of the reasons for that in a minute. But first I want to mention Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve greatness in any endeavor, which he outlines in his book The Outliers: The Story of Success.

If you work full-time, your employer estimates that you put in roughly 2,000 hours per year. That factors in vacations, time at the water cooler, lunch, and so on. So plying your craft—any craft—according to Gladwell, requires a steady five years of work to master. I calculated how much writing practice I get in annually and it’s somewhere in the 400-hour range. So maybe… if I put my hopes on Gladwell’s theory, and I did my math correctly (I’m a writer, so who knows) I am roughly a third to halfway there! I should mention that my first published novel was actually my fifth completed work. I have four practice novels somewhere in my attic. I would sooner burn them than read them. I don’t have to look to know that they are utter crap.

But even publishing four novels does not make a master. In fact, even if I achieve Gladwell’s 10,000 hours, there is no guarantee that I will be a master, or that I will continue to find publishing success in the future.

One of the biggest frustrations literary authors face in publishing is the pressure to write happy endings. We consider ourselves artists, but publishing is a business—a money-making, dollars-and-cents business. It is driven by trends in consumer spending, just like any other. If vampires are selling, vampire stories are what publishers are buying.

The demand for stories with happy endings is not new; Mark Twain’s famous final “Chapter the Last” in Huckleberry Finn is century-old proof of that. In a recent rereading of the work, I was stunned and slightly amused at how trite it was. I can imagine Twain thinking, You want a happy ending? I’ll give you a happy ending! And he produced what any sophisticated reader would understand as a grotesque appendage designed to please the market.

To give perspective on just how long this pressure for authors to provide happy endings has been around, imagine rewriting Shakespeare’s tragedies to be a little less… well, depressing. That is precisely what Nahum Tate did with King Lear, as well as others. Who would dare! you might say. In Tate’s adaptation, Cordelia, Lear’s beloved favorite daughter who refuses to indulge his narcissism and conceit because of her love for him, essentially setting the wheels of the story in motion, is not only spared her life in the end, but even goes on to marry the Duke. Tate’s revision, titled The History of King Lear, was first published in 1681, and rapidly became the preferred adaptation by theatres throughout the world. In fact, it remained the primary version of this story performed until 1830. Nahum Tate successfully hijacked Shakespeare’s irony and profundity for no less than 150 years. Contemporary scholars now view Tate’s revision as one of mediocrity eclipsing genius.

Though this pressure has been around for centuries, I would assert that the demand for a happy ending has never been more acute than it is today in this post-Hollywood era. The average American has scarcely, and possibly never, experienced fine literature, choosing instead to marinate in a stew of anorexic stories, based on identical scenarios, propped up by visual effects. Looking at the stories available to the masses reveals comic book heroes fighting mythical villains on the big screen—in fact, the same comic heroes introduced to our grandparents. Dysfunctional families crack pointless jokes on the small screen, and the rare adult reading frenzy to sweep through society quite often features books intended for children. Without question, there is still a small group of literary readers out there. But the majority of readers are more likely to flock to wine parties where they discuss the latest celebrity-promoted bestseller. Raised on Hollywood and raising children of their own, many of these readers critique novels as if they’ve actually read them and not simply grilled a co-worker for a fourth- or fifth-hand synopsis thirty minutes earlier. Someone inevitably says with a highbrow glint in her eye, “I loved the ending.” The ending that virtually all of these hold in common… is happy.

The popular version of the happy ending is destructive to our culture in several ways. Certainly it creates unrealistic expectations, and it does so very subtly. The romantic comedy, which in the publishing world is called “chick lit,” could be, in my view, a significant contributor to marital discontent in America today. It is only a slight step up from genre romance, in which the couple is happily united at the end. Even if we do not read commercial fiction, most of us are guilty of imbibing harmless films like Bridget Jones’s Diary. After all, who didn’t want Bridget to dump Daniel Cleaver and hook up with Mark Darcy? Selfish, two-timing asshole? Or shy intellectual who knows how to prepare a meal for friends and thinks enough of Bridget to keep his mouth shut? At the close of this movie, perhaps somewhere in the back of our minds, we know this couple is at the beginning of a long and bumpy journey that will include fights about money, dirty laundry, and whether or not to spank their children. But we leave their romance, and every romance like it, at the height of bliss. It will never again feel this way. Not to them or us. This kind of ending leaves viewers with a strange mix of emotions: excitement, memories of our own romances, but also a sense of loss. We wish to experience that bliss once again. And because it’s not there, or at the very least it is not the same—she’s gained weight, he doesn’t get along with your mother, she spends too much money, he isn’t professionally ambitious—whatever the reasons, we feel discontent. It is the equivalent of a sugar high that will eventually result in a crash.

As Margaret Atwood illustrated in her short story “Happy Endings,” all stories ultimately end on an unhappy note. After providing a series of possible endings to a story about John and Mary, in which each must find its link to the same inevitable conclusion, she states:

You’ll have to face it, the endings are the same however you slice it. Don’t be deluded by any other endings, they’re all fake, either deliberately fake, with malicious intent to deceive, or just motivated by excessive optimism if not by downright sentimentality.

The only authentic ending is the one provided here:

John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.

It is true for any character we authors might create. But happy endings perpetuate because they allow us to carry on as if that were not true.

Another example of popular storytelling that primes us for real-life letdown is the medical drama. When was the last time House lost a patient to his or her mysterious illness? When was the first time, for that matter? We know these are fictional scenarios designed to entertain, yet we learn the lingo so thoroughly that when our loved ones suffer unexplained symptoms, we are at the doctor’s elbow demanding tests with five-syllable names. We want to know white cell counts, vitals, and long-term prognoses so we can denounce grim expectations and encourage our kin to overcome the naysayers. “It can be done,” we say. It is as if these fictional doctors are insurance policies against the things that we most fear. Watching them on television, or reading about them in the pages of the latest trade paperback, we can set aside our anxieties about the unknown and believe that wholesale recoveries are not only possible, but commonplace. What greater discontent can a person experience than the loss of a loved one to random illness in this day of everyday miracles by television doctors?

Is it any wonder that prescriptions for anti-depressants are at an all-time high when books, TV shows, and films—popular modes of relaxation—repeatedly remind us that our daily lives, which are filled with job stress, bad luck, illness, lost keys, and divorce, fall short of what we are constantly told they should be?

A recent example of a literary work that gained widespread popularity is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I imagine that had McCarthy provided this novel with the ending we expected, and arguably, the one it deserved, which I’ll discuss in a moment, it would not have been as widely read. And certainly the ending of its cinematic version would have been altered.

The novel is set in post-apocalyptic America, where a man and his son scrape out a dismal existence of scrounging for food and running from cannibals as they try to reach the Gulf Coast. They are seeking “good people” like themselves, people they can trust and band together with. But at no point in this story does the man show any sign that he would ever trust anyone, or recognize “good people.” He carries a pistol with two bullets: one for the boy, and one for himself, should it come to that. When he realizes that he may not be able to fully protect the boy, he turns the pistol over to his son, instructing him on its purpose and ensuring the child is prepared to use it. We never know the boy’s age, but based on his description we can estimate that he is somewhere between eight and ten years old.

The story is about as bleak as they come. It represents everyone’s worst nightmare. What will the world be like after wholesale, instantaneous destruction? Doomsday stories have been popular for a long time. One has only to look at popular cinema to find a plethora of devastation from floods to nuclear war to our interpretation of the sudden end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. What The Road and these other stories hold in common, of course, is a happy ending. One might argue that in a world as bleak as McCarthy has created, anything north of death is happy. So when the man dies, leaving the boy in a world in which he has taught him to trust no one, and in which we have scarcely seen women and children, it seems slightly less than believable that the boy is found by a family—one in which exists a mother and a father and children.

In an earlier scene, McCarthy’s literary prowess is much more apparent in his use of two beloved archetypes. Father and son are traveling along the road when they encounter a man who has been struck by lightning. The boy begs his father to help the man. But his father refuses, continuing on as if the injured man were not there at all. When the boy persists, his father harshly reprimands him, stating that there is nothing they can do. In this world in which the protective father figure is in direct opposition to our deeply cherished concept of the Good Samaritan—two archetypes American psyches consider right and just—is it possible that this boy could ever find happiness? Even in the arms of a surrogate mother, the boy could hardly overcome the influence of his father, who has equipped him only for distrust and self-protection.

A more believable ending to The Road would have been that the boy is put to the test his father has prepared him for. He uses the pistol. Either to kill someone else, or to kill himself. We can be nearly certain that this ending, while consistent with the literary merits of the work, would have limited its appeal, and its publisher would not have seen the financial success it did with this novel.

A second destructive aspect of the popular happy ending is that it diminishes the reader’s interaction with the story, downgrading the experience from engaging to simply entertaining.

I will concede that many Americans shy away from stories that inspire contemplation or that offer a level of complexity that requires reader interaction. In the sea of popular fiction, people can drift from one simple story to the next without the threat of challenge. Those stories will be long forgotten in time because one of the elements that makes great literature memorable is its ability to make us think.

Consider Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” a rare example of literary fiction that was widely popular in both the written and film versions. It leaves its readers with the devastating understanding that Enis is alone. Permanently alone. It is not simply Jack’s death that makes it so, but the world in which Enis lives. What Proulx has done so masterfully is show us the impact of prejudice at the most personal level. Enis is a cowboy. He will never pack his bags and head out for Los Angeles or New York, where he can enjoy a gay relationship without fear. In fact, he’s not able to accept himself as gay because he is so thoroughly a product of his environment. It would’ve been easy for Proulx to tell this story in black and white, right versus wrong. But by creating the conflict within Enis himself, the reader is less able to hate Enis’s environment without hating him as well.

Fortunately for Proulx, gay cowboys trump happy endings where American readers are concerned. Even when most readers avoid gay literature, employing the iconic American cowboy strikes a nerve that is both scandalous and irresistible. She would have sold books whether she included a happy ending or not. But let’s take a moment to look at how a happy ending would have diminished this work. To give “Brokeback Mountain” a “realistic” happy ending—and I use that term lightly—Proulx would have had to either resolve Enis’s inner conflict, or leave it out entirely. A resolution seems unlikely; his inner conflict is the very essence of the story. Enis would need years to come to terms with who he is, and probably a lot of experimentation, which would devalue his relationship with Jack. Therefore, Proulx would have had to leave his inner conflict out, and this changes the story to a romantic drama. The prejudice they would face, devoid of Enis’s inner conflict, would be cast as simple wrongness on the part of society, and that would risk a didactic tone. What could Enis do to find happiness? Another cowboy? A move to a more progressive place? Frankly, it doesn’t matter. She could write almost any ending she wanted, but if Enis is happy, the reader has nothing left to ponder.

Think about it this way: Why should you or I give the oppression of a man living an alternative lifestyle a second thought when the story that brought it to our attention also resolved it? What is left for the reader to contemplate in any story when the villain is dead, the couple is married, and the nerd is posing for the cover of GQ? This common dumbing down of story shifts its impact from engaging to simply entertaining for mainstream readers.

I would also suggest that the loss of contemplation in our stories has even influenced the way America interprets its religious texts. I have personally witnessed the oversimplification of religious ideas through story interpretation to the point of rendering religious figures on the same scale as comic book heroes. At their most exaggerated, religions offer adherents a happy ending for being good, as well as the irresistible satisfaction that those who choose the “low road” will be punished. May I suggest that a literary, rather than literal, reading of the crucifixion of Christ might lead the adherent to the idea that Jesus saved us from our sins by modeling how not to employ anger and violence, even as self-defense? Perhaps it is the act of not sinning in the first place, as opposed to a miraculous rescuing of sinners, that gives the circumstances of his death greatest meaning? I am simply suggesting that we might find a deeper and more useful application were we to divorce ourselves from our happy-ending expectations.

When stories present us with complex scenarios that are not easily resolved, they more often resemble true life. One of my all-time favorite novels is John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. There are many reasons I love it, but the most important is that it stuns the reader with a brutal decision. I can’t imagine any readers finishing this novel without asking themselves what they would have done in George’s place. What is the depth of our compassion for another, less capable person? It isn’t simply a question of whether we would kill Lenny to protect him from a worse ending, but whether we would have taken responsibility for the man in the first place. We may find George’s anger toward Lenny abusive at times, but doesn’t he make us see others in his position a little more charitably for it?

What if Steinbeck’s publisher had demanded he provide a happy ending to the story? I suspect he would have told them where to get off. But let’s imagine for a moment what the story would have become. One scenario might be that George is released from his obligation when Lenny is conveniently run over by a hay wagon. We can still admire George for his dedication, but that ending omits the most powerful aspect of the story—that George will do anything to protect Lenny. And it fails to put George to the test, likewise failing to put the reader’s own views on the subject to the test.

Another option that would more likely play out in today’s world of fiction is that Lenny is miraculously cured of his mental handicap and the two are then able to go on to brighter futures. Of course, Lenny would be found not guilty by reason of insanity, or some such technicality given his unfit mental state at the time he killed Curly’s wife. I can see it. Can’t you? I bet House could find the cause of Lenny’s mental handicap within a fifty-minute episode and still have time to snark at someone about an unrelated annoyance. But seriously, what does the reader take away from this scenario? That miracles are possible and no one should or will ever have to make such horrific decisions?

There are other ways we might give George and Lenny a happy ending, but none could produce the impact on the reader and society that the original does. The reason this story is so often taught by high school teachers is that it reveals to us something about ourselves. Whether the answer is yes I would, or no I wouldn’t, we are compelled to ask the question simply because we have been given the problem.

By far, the most destructive result of popular happy endings is the wholesale anesthetizing of the reader against real world dangers. For millions of years people have used stories to convey important concepts about ourselves, our environments, and our cultures. Consider Franz Kafka’s naïf Josef K. in The Trial and how he is a metaphor for what happens to a society asleep at the helm. Had K. not been put to death, but allowed an awakening so profound as to set his life back on course, no one would have hailed this work as important. It would not have been the prophetic foretelling it was. In fact, it would have been quite forgettable.

That brings me back to why I write. The unpublished draft of my first novel, Blackbelly, ended on an appropriately hopeful note, but not without loose ends and unresolved conflicts. In fact, the main character was hitchhiking west, leaving behind forty-some years of family oppression, as well as a grocer with a bashed-in head buried in his meadow. I didn’t sell it with that ending. My then-future publisher wanted a revised ending that was… you guessed it… happy. They simply couldn’t see the protagonist as a hero if he didn’t ‘fess up and then get together with the nurse. I argued that it wasn’t a romance novel. I argued that he was too good for her. I argued that it was about finding the courage to follow your dreams, or at least break away from unhealthy roots.

My agent used the proverb, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” Don’t ever forget that your agent only makes money when he or she sells your work.

So, as a young novelist who had never worked so hard and failed so thoroughly at anything as I had at writing fiction, I was compelled to consider the requested change. I eventually complied and did something similar to Twain by adding another “chapter the last” because I could not bring myself to change the true ending that already was. I regret it to this day. I often tell people where the real ending is, offering excuses for the grotesque appendage. Here’s the funny part: Blackbelly received starred reviews from Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, and others. It has won minor awards. And, most important, reader reviews consistently run in the four-to-five star range. But that doesn’t make it any easier for me to read that last chapter without knowing I sold out.

Riding a tide of relative success from my first and then second novels, both with happy endings (because I’d figured out the secret code to publishing), I decided it was time for me to write an ending that was true to life—something that told the story as it would actually happen. Something that would make people think about things. My third novel, Windless Summer, was that work and Random House was my new publisher.

It launched quietly to very few reviews. Your first book will get the most attention until you’ve got a bestseller under your belt. The books between your first and your bestseller are very often passed over by reviewers in search of the next great debut. What industry reviews Windless Summer received were polite; not good, but not bad, either. It was the reader reviews that surprised me. Hot and cold. They split into two distinct camps: five stars or one star. One reader said she would give it zero stars if the program would allow her to do that. Ouch! A large group of people were confused and sometimes royally pissed off by the ending, in which the protagonist decides to kill his daughter and then himself. Events don’t go as planned, leaving him bleeding badly and at the mercy of his uncomprehending child. There was a much smaller group of readers who both understood and liked the ending.

As I talked with readers, trying to discern why they did or didn’t like the ending, it became clear that I was talking to either literary readers who had read the book in greater depth, connecting the finer points and not taking the story at face value, versus casual readers who, expecting to be entertained, read the work almost literally. The suggestion of supernatural activity in my fictional community, which was economically devastated and desperate for a miracle, in the minds of casual readers was interpreted as a factual occurrence intended by the author. The more important personal story of a man struggling to raise his severely handicapped child became the secondary story for these readers because many of its elements were quietly established against a backdrop of comedy.

I am not a master, and there are aspects of Windless Summer that I could have done differently to avoid some negative response. But I don’t think I would change the ending. It is devastating for a reason. I have been learning that as an author I have to accept the consequences of my writing. Some people won’t like me. Some will tear my work apart in vicious ways—the anonymity of online reviews gives opportunity for people to say things they never would in person. And perhaps that’s another lesson I can share: once it’s out there, it belongs to its readers. The story is what people believe it is. All an author can do is ask questions and take notes for the next one.

My recently published fourth novel, Damaged Goods, ends much like the original version of Blackbelly. My characters have learned something about themselves and they don’t like what they see. There is a hopeful tenor that as intelligent people they will make changes for a better future. We leave them at the beginning of the next phase of their journey, allowing the literary reader a broad platform for contemplation. The casual reader will undoubtedly complain that I left loose ends and unresolved issues. Yes, I did, and intentionally so. The only true outcome is that Hershel and Silvie die.

Popular happy endings rob us of an important tool for contemplation. Instead of giving us the foundation for coping with difficult, real-life problems, they falsely solve them in our imagined worlds. They deepen our sense of discontent with real life and build false expectations. And there is an irony in my personal experience with publishing that should not be lost on us. I started out with high hopes, possibly even expectations, about my own success. In many ways, just like Annie Proulx’s Enis, I am a product of my own environment. I have found myself as disappointed with the absence of a happy ending in my writing career as readers of my third novel were when the main character was still faced with raising a profoundly handicapped child. Nothing has changed, for him or me. I am still faced with the same difficulties of writing and publishing. I’ve overcome issues, and uncovered new ones. I’ve improved in areas that have provided horrifying clarity on how deficient I am in others. As a literary artist, how could I have imagined any other scenario?

As much as I would love to have the lifestyle I first expected, as long as I continue to practice the craft, working toward mastering it, it’s the act of writing itself that matters. Readers will interpret the work as they will, publishers will accept or reject it, but I will continue to improve, continue to write the truth, even if it doesn’t have a happy ending.

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Running Sneakers | Air Jordan

Categorized as Craft

By Miciah Bay Gault

Miciah Bay Gault is the editor of Hunger Mountain at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She's also a writer, and her fiction and essays have appeared in Tin House, The Sun Magazine, The Southern Review, and other fine journals. She lives in Montpelier, Vermont with her husband and children.

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