Just before Valentine’s Day, a few of our readers sent me a link to a news story about a new anthology of love stories, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, edited by Jeffrey Eugenides. Eugenides’ opinion about love stories and happy endings is, I think, emblematic about how most literary types approach the topic:
In the introduction to this remarkable collection, Jeffrey Eugenides warns readers that good love stories aren’t fluffy, happy-go-lucky affairs. Instead, they “depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart.”
“Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name,” writes Eugenides, the best-selling author of “Middlesex” and “The Virgin Suicides.”
I looked up the introduction on Amazon.com (lor’ bless the Search Inside feature), and here are the quotes in context:
When it comes to love, there are a million theories to explain it. But when it comes to love stories, things are simpler. A love story can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims—these are lucky eventualities but they aren’t love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name.
This started me thinking about happy endings, and their bad reputation. It’s not so much that badly-written happy endings are shit on; it’s that happy endings in and of themselves are viewed as a literary faux pas—the equivalent of belching loudly at a cocktail party.
Near as I can tell, here are the most popular arguments for why happy endings, particularly in love stories, are inherently bad:
1. They’re unrealistic
2. They’re cheesy
3. They’re simplistic
4. They present an easy out for the author
5. They are inauthentic to the story
6. They’re formulaic
While these are all valid descriptions of all that’s wrong with a raging case of Terminus Sappynus (symptoms you may experience when confronted with this blight include mild nausea and an urge to read dystopian fiction just to cleanse your palate), these aren’t indictments of happy endings per se. These are symptoms of bad writing, and I can name a number of books with unhappy or bittersweet endings that have exactly these same problems.
Here’s a theory I have: people who view all happy endings with a jaundiced eye aren’t just reacting to the form in and of itself, they’re also reacting to their assumptions about the readers who enjoy and seek out stories with happy endings. After all, if these stories are mindless escapist pap, what does it say about the reader’s intellect if she genuinely loves them or, God forbid, defends them? Lingering in the back of the mind of people who consistently denigrate the romantic happy ending is the specter of the vacuous housewife in the puffypaint sweatshirt snarfing down bon-bons while clutching a be-Fabioed book. All sorts of class and gender issues are tangled up in our conception of love stories with happy endings.
Keep in mind I’m not defending happy endings across the board, either. I’ve read more than my fair share of schmaltzy, gag-inducing HEAs in my life, in which the previously-barren heroine is suddenly popping out babies because of the hero’s Super Sperm, or the deeply traumatized hero is magically fixed by the heroine’s sweetness and light (and Magic Hoo-Hoo), or everyone who’s not villainous gets to resolve their problems and it’s cake and ponies and superlative orgasms for everyone all the time (though not with the ponies, please), yay.
What I want when I read a book is a good ending. I want an ending that’s right for the book. I want a resolution that feels both logical and emotionally satisfying. If a romance novel hero has a fairly severe case of PTSD, I don’t expect him to be fixed by the end of 400 pages, though I want him to find an avenue for future healing and happiness—which is why the ending for Seize the Fire by Laura Kinsale, while unconventional for a romance novel, is deeply touching and worked so well for me. If the protagonists have Issues but are, by and large, sane people, then an ending depicting them leading fulfilled, happy lives works well for me, too. This is why the “Where Are They Now?” summary in Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie is very satisfying for me. And if a book deals with madness, the Atlantic slave trade in the late eighteenth century and the atrocities people are willing to commit in the name of pride and commerce, like Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth, then I pretty much expect an ending to be gut-wrenching and tragic. I’m even OK with books in which the author seems to be punishing the protagonist just so we can go along for the ride, like Jude the Obscure or Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
This also doesn’t mean that I’m advocating for unhappy endings in romance novels. I’ll be honest here: I’m irrationally attached to my happy endings. When I finish a romance novel, I want the protagonists to be together, and I want an assurance that they’ll be reasonably happy together. It’s part of the pleasure and assurance of reading genre fiction. When I pick up a mystery novel, I want the mystery to be solved by the end. When I read a high fantasy novel, I want the world to be saved and the protagonists to complete their coming-of-age process. These very basic frameworks provide plenty of room to play with my expectations, to delight me with the unexpected, and to thoroughly fuck my emotions over. The trick is to bring everything together so that the denouement feels authentic instead of forced.
That’s not too much to ask, is it?
EDITED TO ADD: So the central question that I’m pondering, and what I’m still trying to figure out is: Why is the happy ending viewed as something inferior in and of itself compared to a tragic ending, or a bittersweet ending? Why is a happy ending popularly viewed as a cop-out? It sometimes is, no question about that, but sometimes it isn’t, and it irritates me that people indiscriminately lump them all together. I haven’t quite figured this out yet, and I’d like your perspectives.