They’re a funny thing, happy endings.
Children’s books always have them. (Or almost always.)
For a long time in the history of the novel they were pretty much the only ending. (Yes, there were also tragedies. But if you’re talking about the novel, which I mostly am, happy endings greatly outweigh the tragic ones.)
Then something happened. Happy endings started to look… not very serious. They were simplistic, or naive, or unrealistic, or too pat. They pandered to a reader’s desire for a sense of completion, rather than representing the provisional nature of reality, the complexity of human existence, etc etc. They were too easy.
I’m thinking about the last few books that I’ve read that were written for adults, and while they tend to move towards a sense that a change has taken place, a shift has occurred from one emotional state to another, a cathartic moment of sorts, I don’t know that they really give you a sense of happy ending. But they’re not really those sorts of books.
I’m thinking about this because I spoke to a group of writing students the other night and was talking about happy endings, amongst other things. The book I was talking about, The Voyagers, has a happy ending. I think anyone who read it would have been gutted if it didn’t.
My previous adult novel, Fivestar, does not have a happy ending, and I now think that was a mistake.
At the time, I thought I was writing a comic novel. I had various satirical targets in mind, and a few things I wanted to send up about music and popular culture. In order to do that, I had to kill one of my characters. So I killed her. When I submitted the manuscript of that book, both my agents asked, Does she really have to die? And so did my editor and my publisher. Yes she does, I said. And at the time it seemed like the right choice. I was closer then to my university studies and my head was full of ideas about subverting reader expectations and representing reality in all its disappointment. And, you know, I thought it was interesting the way our culture values dead artists more than living ones (hello, Whitney Houston) and also the kinds of grotesque shenanigans reality TV has given us when bands who’ve been filleted of a valuable member turn the business of replacing them into a televised sideshow.
But now I think, was it really that important to have those moments? Did she really have to die? And the answer is no, she didn’t. Because the death doesn’t arise organically from character or action. She died because I had some points to make. And they disrupted the pleasure of the text in a major way.
And that pleasure is important. How you resolve the story does have a big impact on the way the reader views everything that’s come before. I’m beginning to think that withholding that kind of pleasure from readers is unfair. And it also does the work a disservice. The wrong ending can spoil a book, and if what you want is for people to like your book enough to want to give it to other people to read, how you end it really does matter. If you’re a writer who’s fundamentally dealing in wish fulfilment, as I am, getting to the end of the story and not fulfilling the wish is an act of bad faith. Or bad manners.
Sometimes I fantasise about republishing Fivestar with a different ending. It would be quite simple to do, and I know exactly how I’d do it. (I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about this.) It wouldn’t take a lot of rewriting. And it would make the whole thing an entirely more pleasurable experience.