Having just finished Paulo Giordano’s Solitude of Prime Numbers, I’m plagued once again by a recurring question as to what constitutes a satisfying ending to a story. I’ve noticed something in my admittedly sparse and selective forays into “serious” literary fiction that seems to demand, in my opinion, an ending that seems to be just shy of what I as a reader actually want to feel full, satisfied, and happy after I read the last printed words on the page.
To translate into food terms, these endings are often one-bite-left-on-the-plate endings or endings with one bite taken out of them. And as a person who is very picky about what I consume on a literary level, when I find that sumptuous, elegant dessert that is pitch-perfect in emotional tone, nuance, and wordcraft, I want every last bite, thank you very much. I don’t want to feel like the novel continues on into the ether, slightly unresolved, or resolved at a lesser plane than I imagined when I took the first bite and paid good money for a hardcover edition.
I suppose this is where the schools of literary composition clash with what ordinary people want. Perhaps the justification is that an ending must leave something left to be desired after the story ends, so as to add resonance to the ending, like a dissonant final chord that echoes through the concert hall, begging to be resolved. I don’t know what MFA programs teach since I’ve never been formally schooled in the “proper” way to write literary fiction, but a these types of endings seem to be the norm in short stories.
I get that. Short stories are snapshots of a larger whole; they cannot and should not try to encompass the entirety of a character arc.
Is it a so-called commitment to “realism” that makes writers come up with endings that seem unfinished, reversals, or generally depressing because we know that this is how it happens most of the time in real life? I for one do not read fiction to become more familiar with the realities of the human condition. I read to appreciate and gain insight into the tragic nature of the human condition, but also to believe in something magical that elevates ordinary (or even extraordinary) people above the confines of their humanity.
In the case of love stories, some might argue, “As long as each individual’s arc is completed or their biggest want is satisfied, then the ending is satisfying. Whether the two people actually come together at the end is irrelevant.”
Um, no. I want my money back in that case. Can you tell that I’m a hopeless romantic? Yes, yes, I know the power of unrequited love. It’s evident in hits like Michael Ondaajte’s The English Patient. But what about films like The Break-Up with Jennifer Aniston, in which the main characters we’re rooting for don’t get back together, but go their separate ways for all the same reasons why everyone else throws away a relationship? That movie was a total disappointment for me.
I’ve noticed this trend strongly in indie art films, particularly BBC films and Scandinavian-produced films. Most of them are unrelentingly depressing. But does this make them more worthy of the label “art”?
This brings me to the topic of whether “serious literary fiction” can be idealistic, rather than realistic. Can it be utopian rather than chronically dystopic? Or does the uplifting nature of imagining a better place rob it of its “serious” and “literary” designation?
More pointedly, does the presence of a happy ending make a work of fiction less literary and more commercial? I think it does, but not on the grounds of so-called “technical merit.” Great commercial successes are often very high quality works. But what makes them commercial is the fact that more people want to read them. More of the masses, so to speak.
Because when it comes down to ticket sales and book sales, people want to get away from the depressing and often unsatisfying reality of life. They want to be entertained. They want their happy endings,Read More...