Happy Endings Suck

The other day, I read this piece in The Guardian about literary fiction writers feeling somewhat pressed to avoid unambiguously happy endings to their stories. There’s a lot of hand-wringing included in the piece at the bleak endings which are often pervasive, and references to the happied-up ending to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations as proof that happy endings can be good.

I find the Dickens reference particularly telling because I’ve always felt the changed ending of his classic of unrequited love is totally out of character with the rest of the book. All things being equal, in reality, Pip would have zero chance of getting what he wanted from Estella. In fact, anyone who would throw himself back into that emotional thresher years later has to be one of the dumbest men walking. Even implying the possibility of a happily ever after ending there simply doesn’t mesh with anything else in the entire damn story. I could buy that Pip may convince himself what he wants is within reach, but anyone out here who’ve experienced a real live Estella knows without doubt that he’s lying to himself and, when he goes through that gate, his hand in her’s, he’s taking his first steps toward future rack and ruin.

That is the main reason why I have a general contempt for happy endings in fiction; they’re usually contrived to the point you can practically see the writer straining to ignore the psychology of the characters established throughout the work to make an ending where everyone goes home happy fit on the page. Certainly, depending on what you’re seeking as a reader or what level of escapism you’re willing to accept, I can see how someone might find an ending like that hopeful or fitting to the tale. I, myself, found that ending far too unrealistic to the characters as I knew them to maintain my suspension of disbelief.

I’m not the only person with a predisposition to disliking happy endings. Not by a long shot or there wouldn’t be articles like the one linked to above decrying their dearth. I think, for me, I expect more than a happily ever after in my fiction choices because, in near 40 years, I’ve found endings in real life to very rarely be happy and, quite often, miserable and scarring. I, and many others apparently, are attracted to tragic endings in stories because it’s an aspect of life familiar to most. We have trouble relating to happy endings because so few of us experience them on any kind of regular basis.

Then there’s the issue of whether the happy ending actually makes us feel happy. Personally, I tend to have a visceral negative emotional response to a happy ending, particularly one that doesn’t ring true to life. Dark or tragic endings can reinforce that your woes aren’t as bad as you think. Happy endings, however, can often feel like you’ve been slapped in the face with your failures. I do it with films, too. I see a sad movie and I walk away feeling my problems aren’t so bad. Happy movies, though, just serve to amplify my troubles. That doesn’t mean I think all endings need to be soul-crushingly horrific. I’m more apt to buy into an ending that’s dark but hopeful than an overtly rosy fairytale. Emotional lottery winners are far more rare than the monetary kind. Besides, I’ve always found tragedy and loss far more fertile ground to explore creatively. Happiness can be boring, and more than a little annoying, to those lacking or not directly involved in it.

Romances are the worst offenders at this, too. Despite what Ryan Reynolds might say, the friend-zoned dude doesn’t ever win the girl. All he gets is to cry himself to sleep, alone and drunk, after her wedding to someone else. I’ve always liked the ending of St. Elmo’s Fire because of that. Andrew McCarthy pined for Ally Sheedy for years and years before he finally got to have her but she only hooked up with him because she was distraught over the guy she really wanted. McCarthy was totally getting ditched shortly thereafter. On the surface, if you don’t look too deeply, it appears true love and perseverance won out but the clear implication of the movie’s ending was that his heart was going to end up broken far worse than if he’d just walked away.

If that ending had been of the fairytale variety, it would’ve, one, rubbed salt in the wounds or, two, provided false hope to untold numbers of folks who have found themselves in that exact situation. I think that ending is just about perfect, a subtle reminder that, sometimes, getting what we want most in the world can be the worst thing that can happen.

Happy endings can work, if they grow organically from the characters and don’t press. I’m of the opinion that truly good fiction passes on some wisdom in the process and shouldn’t fall too far into the realm of wish fulfillment. Overly contrived happy endings are nothing if not pure wish fulfillment, both for ourselves and the characters we’ve grown to care for.

All this being said, it still comes down to your particular tastes as a reader. To me, the unhappy ending and how characters deal with that is what attracts me. Do they respond with nobility and integrity or do they drop into rage and frustration-created depression? There’s value in those endings, of the kind we can use when we inevitably face the plethora of unhappy endings in our own lives. The Disney-esque, everything works out and they all lived happily ever after endings bring nothing to the table in that regard. There are no lessons to be learned when everything ties up into a neat little bow of unrealistic happiness.

It’s a popcorn ending, one that doesn’t call for too much considerstion, that invites us not to think too hard about it. I, and many others, enjoy seeking lessons I can adapt to my own life from what I choose to read or watch. Happy endings, especially contrived ones, steal those moments of contemplation and learning from us. Stay true to the story and the characters you’ve created and your endings will ring true even if they end up seemingly bleak. Slap a giant smiley face on them, and your happy ending will end up having the exact opposite effect on a wide swath of your readership.

Happiness isn’t as simple at getting everything you think you want. Fictional endings that perpetuate that meme do us all; writers, readers and the characters they’ve created and/or loved; a great disservice.

Dan Meadows is a writer living on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay. Follow him on Twitter @watershedchron

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Without Corporate Reform, The Future is Bleak

I don’t care much for corporations. Well, the giant ones, anyway. Anybody with $1,000 can become a corporation, I did at one point, but that’s not the type of companies I’m talking about. It’s the mega-corporations and the wannabe megas that attract my ire.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, the GOP made a big deal out of refuting the notion that “corporations aren’t people” by arguing that they are, indeed, filled with people. That may be true, but it’s misleading. There are many good people working for these mega corps, I might even say most of those employed there are good people. However, the companies themselves aren’t led by those people, the day to day hard workers who get the job done. They’re led by the upstairs suits who exist in an overly-rarefied air. Over the past few decades, floor level employees of these companies have seen job losses, wage stagnation and benefit cuts while their upstairs kin have reaped compensation packages sometimes hundreds or thousands of times greater than the average working bloke. There’s not just a metaphorical level or two separating these groups now, it’s more like a 2,000 mile winding staircase to the stratosphere.

Publishing has long been an industry that essentially lives with a split personality. Do you wonder why it is almost every major publisher got caught with their pants down when the digital disruption took hold? It’s this separation of powers, as it were. Many of the people on the ground knew the score. They were working the day to day, they saw what was coming, saw what needed be done. The people upstairs, however, were detatched, clueless and disinterested in this fancy new internet thing. After all, they were publishers! Their business model had been perfected over a century, and profit margins were still rolling.

But as revenue losses mounted, far too frequently, the answer was to cut back on ground level people in great numbers, often the very people who spent the previous few years trying to get the “braintrust’s” attention. This has only made things worse as it reaffirmed the positions of the people who dropped the ball in the first place while running out those who actually knew the score. Now, the disconnect between the upper floors and the ground level is wider than ever.

Earlier today, I was reading about convenience stores and there was an anecdote about GOP candidate Mitt Romney’s campaign stop at a Wawa while out on the road. The article told of how in awe Mitt was with the touch screen food ordering system there. I couldn’t help but laugh. I mean, really? Those things have been common for 15 or 20 years, at least. Romney was trying to convince us he had the chops to be President yet the man was overly impressed with ordering a damn sandwich in a convenience store? That is precisely the disconnect we see within corporations. Guys like Romney are upstairs making decisions on business models but he’s so clueless and out of touch that a totally commonplace thing I don’t believe I’ve given three seconds of thought to in ten years blew his mind.

I cringe every time I hear one of these upstairs types in publishing talk about culture and supporting literature. I do it almost reflexively because it’s pure bullshit. The people on the ground floor undoubtedly believe in those things, but the people upstairs believe in profits above all else. Talking in sweeping generalizations about culture puts a shiny veneer on it but, like a faux-woodgrain surface on a pressboard coffee table, it peels away very easily. When you work with a corporation, you may be talking to the lower level people who do care about such things, but you’re really dealing with the upstairs suits. You may be able to massage the inevitable labyrinth of corporate procedures now and again to get things done, but at the end of the day, the quest for margins wins every time. Maybe that’s as it should be, they exist to make money after all, but I like to think there’s a middleground between a naive cultural focus and a cynical profit-driven exploitation. Too much of our corporate world these days is all about the exploitation.

The GOP have it all wrong. The problem with our country today isn’t a government badly in need of reform. It’s our corporate structure that needs reform. Their virtually unchecked greed has damaged the very economy they depend on for their profits. They have corrupted the government by throwing large sums of those profits as look-the-other-way bribes to legislators, buying unpopular and destructive laws that serve only their business interests, and stifling any kind of even-reasonable regulations to rein in the worst of their excess. All the while, they cut pay, break unions, offshore jobs to third world countries, evade any and all taxation and give little or nothing back to the economy that supports them.

No, government isn’t the main problem, it’s simply become the PR wing for big business exploitation. Until we rein in the overbearing corporate culture that’s suffocating us all, we’ll never get back to the true representative democracy we’ve earned. I’m no socialist or communist sympathizer. I believe in free markets, I believe in entrepreneurialism. What we have today barely resembles a free market. Our laws, and our tax codes, bought and paid for by the corporations, undermine any notion of free markets to the benefit of those who would stifle competition, sue to prevent progress, rail against technology that disrupts their income streams and wrap their brand of capitalistic totalitarianism in the flag of faux-patriotism. Our elected representatives are little more than well-paid nobles subservient to their corporate kings.

The world won’t change until the first corporation has its charter dissolved and its assets sold off. It has to happen eventually. Either we do it now, rein these self-serving bastards in, reinforcing the belief that the competition and the free market they try so hard to stifle is more important than they are, or the people will do it eventually. But who knows how that will turn out, or what kind of regime will come after? They aren’t bastions of free markets or capitalism. They, through their greed and exploitation, are poisoning the notion of what those things mean. I don’t want to live in a commune. I want a vibrant, enterprising creative atmosphere with ample competition, and rules that work for all, not just those who can afford them. If we allow things to reach the point of revolution (and make no mistake, continue on our present course and they will) the end results could be very bad for everyone.

We need to send a message to these corporations that the world does not belong to you. Dissolving a few of the biggest offenders, opening the door to real competition, genuine innovation, and removing the artificial impediments they’ve bought to shore up their business models in the face of change would be a good start.

I’m not holding my breath.

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