Once upon a time my wife and were doing our second-favorite thing, sitting up late at night reading. Suddenly she yelled something like ARRGH or UGH and threw the book across the room, where the poor thing bounced off the wall and landed on the floor. The cat wisely jumped up and took off for parts unknown, while I was thinking, “She’s between me and the kitchen where all the sharp objects are.”
“Uh, honey, is something wrong?”
“At the end, an atomic bomb went off and they all died.”
“Uh, why did the bomb go off?”
”No reason. Just because.”
She wasn’t kidding. The End. And they all died unhappily ever after.
And I know how she felt because when I was in Junior High I read a novel about hot rodders where, at the end, the hero drives off a bridge, his head collides with his girlfriend’s with a “bone-shattering crunch.” The End. I felt cheated. I went back and read the end again. Yep. Dead as can be. Let that be a lesson to you kids — no racing around in souped-up jalopies.
Let’s talk about what most of us do, and that’s genre fiction. Let’s talk about “. . . and they all died.” Maybe indulge in a little compare and contrast between tales that do not end with everybody dying, that say, yes, Virginia, happiness is possible.
- Popular memes about genre fiction and how to fight them
Meme Number One — grim stories about the futility of modern life are more true-to-life and realistic because the world is going to Hell in a hand basket.
Meme Number Two — stories about miserable characters trapped in meaningless lives who stay miserable and do nothing about it are somehow more important than a series of paranormal romances.
At their dark, bleeding hearts these memes would have you believe that a happy ending is easier to write, and therefore less worthy. “He stood over the heroine’s body, holding the knife, laughed maniacally and went back to the castle.” That Stephanie Plum is less valuable to readers than the woman at the heart of Gone Girl.
Don’t you believe it.
- The world is going to Hell In a hand basket
If it is, people have been saying that for generations. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955) starring Kevin McCarthy, the hero talks to a psychiatrist about the people in Santa Mira who believe their friends or family members have been replaced by doubles. The shrink replies, “It’s mass hysteria. Worry about what’s going on in the world, probably.” That was 1955 and we’re still here. Remember the kids driving their hot rod off a bridge? First it was juvenile delinquents, then hot rodders, followed by surfers, then hippies and later, slackers, each iteration of youth marking the end of civilization as we know it. If anything, the Jayne Ann Krentz ending, with relatively happy protagonists, is more realistic because we’re still here; Charon is still waiting to take that hand basket across the River Styx.
- Dark and brooding is more important
Oh, really? Okay, sales numbers do not always relate to quality — Valley of the Dolls was a huge seller — but you want meaningful numbers? Romance novels account for 29% of all titles sold.1
That’s right, almost one in three books, including e-books, has a lady with cleavage, or a guy on the cover who makes me feel inadequate. Add in thrillers and mysteries and it’s over half of everything sold. That number has held steady for years, and to me that says something. It says that a good story can end happily, and that such stories fill an important need. Note that here I am including a typical Stephen King ending where victory is obtained, but at a cost. This attitude isn’t new, either. Barbara Tuchman’s brilliant The Guns of August was praised, sort of, by scholars as “popular history.”2 It was an instant best seller and continues to sell to this day.
I believe in Story. I believe in laughter. For my money there’s not enough of either one in the world.
First, Story, with a capital S.
The world around us is often chaotic, we humans have a hard time figuring out why things happen and often the answer is simply, “because.” The cliche of the woman holding the body of her husband and shrieking at the heavens, “Why? Why?” is constructed like a flawed pearl around a pebble of wisdom, because often the answer is — just because.
Art, Story, provides a respite from the unrelenting randomness of real life. “Just because” doesn’t work in a novel. How random is life? The chain of causality that led me to writing this essay goes like this: I was in high school, headed for UCLA with my best friend Mark. When he was killed I lost interest in UCLA, went to Cal State Long Beach instead, where I met my wife (the book-thrower) and through her the lady who invited me to contribute to WITS. But is that a story? Of course not. It’s “just because.”
Our job is to layer on structure, to remove the extraneous. (And as a side note, wouldn’t that be a good topic for one of these essays? Do we as storytellers create the structure, or is it always there, waiting for us to reveal it? In a possibly apocryphal story Michelangelo once said the statue was always in the piece of marble; he just had to chip away the part that wasn’t David.) We either make or reveal the structure, and provide a tale to entertain.
Humor, happiness, is hard! You want tragedy? Just open your AP news feed.
Jerry Lewis said in the documentary “No Apologies,” “I see people all over the world desperate for laughter.”3 He was right, and I would add to that they are desperate for simple joy.
He described a plaque given to him by John F. Kennedy that reads:
There are three things which are real:
God, human folly and laughter.
The first two are beyond our comprehension
So we must do what we can with the third.
Here’s the point. It’s important how you feel about your work, and if you’re writing a series about a shape-shifting alien prince, or a detective who indulges in self-deprecating humor, you may feel a nagging sense that literary writers are somehow “better.” Fight it.
In the final analysis, what I’ve always wanted to do is what Don McLean says in, “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie” — “maybe they’d be happy for a while.” What I’ve learned, no, what has been driven home to me recently, is just how important that is.
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