More on Unhappy Endings

I started to respond to comments on the last post and realised it was turning into it’s own post. So, um, here it is.

Reading all your responses has crystallised something for me that I’ve been thinking for a long time: That there’s a gap between my expectations as a reader and what I do as a writer. The reader me desperately wanted a good ending1 for Lily Bart in House of Mirth and was furious with Edith Wharton for all the misery. Why, Wharton, why?!

The writer me though is unmoved by such readerly desires. I write the books the way they have to be writ. They have their own logic and I cannot force them to go where they don’t want to go. Trust me, I tried to force Magic’s Child to go in the direction I had planned for it. Wound up having to rewrite that ending a kajillion times until finally it was somewhere near where it was supposed to be. Yes, some readers are unhappy with it. Whatcha gunna do?

It fascinates me that, on the one hand, I can be angry with a writer for breaking my heart while, on the other hand, I’m more than happy to break readers’ hearts with some of my own stories and novels.

As a reader I would like to go back in time and force Edith Wharton to make it better for Lily Bart. Kind of a la Stephen King’s Misery. But, you know, without kidnapping or breaking ankles. But were I her I would tell me where to go. It’s not her fault I was under the misapprehension that she was the USA’s Jane Austen. Wharton wrote the best book she could with the ending that made sense given the world and characters she had created. My desire for the ending to be Pollyanna’d is my problem, not hers.

As a writer, nothing will convince me that we owe our readers anything other than the very best books we can write. And, we’ll be the judges of that, thank you very much.

As a reader, who just read a book she was not in the right space for, I think all you smelly writers can go rot in hell.

Yeah, sometimes it’s confusing to be me.

Thanks, so much for the wonderful comments on happy endings. It was lovely to see such a diversity of views.

  1. That good ending does not include Lily winding up with that spineless loser Selden, by the way. []


  1. Mary Elizabeth S. on #

    “As a reader, who just read a book she was not in the right space for, I think all you smelly writers can go rot in hell.

    Yeah, sometimes it’s confusing to be me.”

    *choke* (note to self: put down the tea when reading this blog) LOL! Yes. My reader self and my writer self both agree with you. Thank you! 🙂

  2. Sandy Shin on #

    That there’s a gap between my expectations as a reader and what I do as a writer.

    This is very, very true. As a reader, I live for happy endings. Sad endings make me want to throw the book across the room, even if they are well done. However, as a writer, I lean a lot more toward ambiguous endings. :>

  3. Mariah on #

    I think that even though books with unhappy endings make you want to hurt the author, those books tend to stay with me for longer. I will think about them more because in some ways they relate to real life more. And as is evidenced by you writing these posts this ending really stuck with you. That is one of the small ingenious ways to make a book stick with someone, in my opinion.

  4. mb on #

    …Would this be the time to mention that Lily could be seen as having triumphed? She pays her debts — she doesn’t give in — she keep her honor. It’s not happy but it’s not necessarily a defeat.

  5. Diana Peterfreund on #

    MB, that’s how I feel about Clarissa from CLARISSA. It’s a similarly devastating book, especially since it’s so long and you get SO involved in the character’s inner lives. But it’s sadly a statement on the options available to women — dying with honor is the best choice? ummm….

  6. A. Grey on #

    Hmmmm very interesting topic… I wonder what planet I was on when all this got started… probably somewhere covered in snow…

    I don’t mind ‘unhappy’ endings at all – as long as they WORK. Nothing annoys me more than a story nosediving when there was a perfectly reasonable way for it to end differently. And I don’t mean that it has to very dramatically ‘be no other way’ for things to go, just convince me that for whatever reason this happened and that’s the way it is. That’s one of the reasons I stopped reading the Valdemar series *I love these books I’m not attacking them* I’m just saying that I got a bit tired of the same tragic sequences. Not that they all ended ‘badly’ but well, they are a bit heavy at times. And I don’t think they had to be.

    That said, I also agree that you write a story ‘the way it needs to be writ’. I’ve had my sister ask me numerous times ‘Why (insert nearly ANY question here)?’ And many times all I’ve been able to say is ‘That’s the way it needed to be written’ to which I get a scowl and a ‘hmmmph’. I would never ask a writer to change something just to make the public happy (standard marketability aside) and that’s one thing I fear most as a writer trying to be successful – that I’ll finally get an agent, an editor and they’ll ‘love’ my book and then tell me to change most of it… of course, first, I need to get that agent… 🙂

  7. mb on #

    Dying with honor is the best choice? Maybe not, but it’s Lily’s choice, and I think that’s important. She could have stooped to the level of the other characters, but she chose not to.

    I think it’s also a statement on the particular society she’s in. Even in that time period, there were other ways to live. Lily just can’t see them. Her very limited society has come to feel like the whole world. It’s like some horribly dysfunctional office when you can’t imagine having any other job.

  8. Julia Rios on #

    If the ending is right, that’s the most important thing. If it’s wrong, whether it’s happy or sad, I’ll feel uncomfortable. That said, being in the right space for a satisfyingly sad ending is imperative.

  9. Jennifer on #

    What Julia said.

    I hate to use this example, but I was at the gym last night and Steel Magnolias was on. Now, I sure as hell don’t agree with Shelby’s choices, but I have to really admire the funeral scene in that movie. That’s a sad ending that works for me. Occasionally something does work like that. But I do suspect that a lot of Great Literature is deliberately intended to be as tragic and sad as possible, probably because it gets them awards. And that isn’t always organic to the story.

  10. Tiferet on #

    It’s funny. I hate it when books end in a way that I feel is completely unjust, but if everything is tied up too neatly and everyone gets exactly what they deserve, I cannot believe in the book. I like books with bittersweet endings; I also like books with joyous endings, but only if I wasn’t sure the ending would be joyous. (One of the things I tend to hate about genre romance is that your happy ending is guaranteed from jump, and if I’m not convinced there’s at least a chance that the main characters won’t work things out, it isn’t that interesting for me, which is why I like romance as a secondary plot and only if both parties are fully developed characters, rather than one of them, usually female, being a “love interest” who is there to support and inspire the other.)

    I like books where I disagree with the protagonist’s choices, if the protagonist’s choices make sense for the protagonist, and I’m not particularly interested in didacticism or whether or not the “message” of the book is comfortable or progressive; what I want is not to be thrown out of the story by an unrealistic amount of either bleakness or lightness. If the setting is very bleak and the characters must truly fight to survive then I like a happy ending, particularly if a character I have liked has died; if the setting is generally pleasant and conditions are not too difficult, then I want there to be some twist in the ending so that the whole thing does not hit me with sugar shock. (Many books that others find comforting are anything but comforting to me, particularly romances and family narratives–but then that’s a matter of personal history.)

Comments are closed.