unhappy endings

I’m not a dense person, really, but I would like it if someone could explain to me in simple terms why the Literati see the unhappy ending as a badge of high-mindedness and good taste in fiction and film. Take for example the discussion here, at a fairly new blog called The Reading Experience (via Bookslut), and this quote:

Maybe more people are now prepared to accept unhappy endings, but as usual it probably has more to do with commercial formulas and market research and temporary trendiness. Or perhaps a few talented filmmakers decided to tackle somewhat more challenging subjects and just got lucky.

For the record: I don’t always have to have a happy ending (or even an ambiguous one), but I don’t like being force fed unhappy endings because they are supposedly good for me. And I reject out of hand the assumption that an unhappy ending is somehow more challenging to write than a happy one.

A critic (and somebody tell me who it is, please, if you remember) called this preoccupation with doom and gloom The Culture of Ugly. I suppose I could take some comfort in that idea, because if that’s all this no-pain-no-gain approach to storytelling is — a cultural phase — then eventually it will pass. Like acne.

And before you ask, I do have better things to do than be irritated by this. I’ll go do some of them now.

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4 Replies to “unhappy endings”

  1. There’s enough sad endings in my real life so that I’m not clamoring at the bit to find them in my fiction too… Sure, I can see how the realists might appreciate it, but it’s still like being forced to choke down nasty medicine.

  2. Hmmmm… I’m not for or against happy/unhappy endings per se, but I will say this: A so-called unhappy ending often asks more questions than it answers, and so stimulates my thinking more than a overly simplistic “happily ever after” ending tends to do (the sneaking suspicion that “happy ever after” only would be possible if you cut of people’s heads the next second doesn’t count). An intelligent happy ending manages to avoid this pit-fall, and can be at least as satisfying as any other, in my not-so-humble opinion.


  3. Chris — you make an interesting distinction between ‘happy ending’ and ‘happily ever after’ ending. I’ll have to think about that.

  4. To extrapolate a bit on Chris’s comment – I think, too, that there is a difference between what I term the ‘Hollywood’ sad ending, where the tragedy culminates for emotional effect rather than to progress a narrative, and a genuinely tragic conclusion. An example of the former might be the final fifteen minutes of “Saving Private Ryan”; an example of the latter is the final chapter of Paulinna Simon’s “The Bronze Horseman”. (I disagree somewhat with many of the points Sara raised in her review of this – I thought it brilliant. And I use it here as example of a tragic narrative that reached what I would term a ‘naturally’ tragic conclusion.)

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