In answer to the question, “It is generally believed that genres with happy endings have less literary or cultural merit than those without. What do you think about this?”
(Part of a conversation that may be published, this was left on the cutting room floor.)
I have two or three thoughts about this.
The first is that this idea has deep roots: comedy is less noble than tragedy, all the way back to Aristotle; comedy is for the hoi-polloi; happy endings are trivial or childish, etc. This “general belief” has inertia on its side, and perpetuates itself in many ways across our educational system. I’ve seen it happen firsthand. When my daughter was in fourth grade, I got to visit her “gifted” reading class and sit in on their discussion of a book called Bud, Not Buddy. The teacher asked each student to predict the novel’s ending, and after they did, she said something like, “I notice that all of you predicted a happy ending. But as you grow up, you’re going to read fewer and fewer books with happy endings.” The notion of being a gifted, superior sort of reader was already being linked to being a reader of books without happy endings, and this was by a truly brilliant, dedicated teacher—someone who firmly believed that she was opening minds, not closing them.
This leads me to my second thought, which is that this belief isn’t altogether silly or ridiculous. I can think of plenty of ways that a longing for the happy ending—whether narrowly defined, in a romantic sense, or more broadly, just in terms of success for the protagonist—can lead us into the temptation of kitsch, or simply into caring so much about our protagonists and their immediate circle that we no longer care about the broader world around them. (Last year’s controversy over “That Book”–the RITA nominee with the Nazi / Jewish love story, illustrates the first of these; the endings of any number of historical romance novels might illustrate the second.)
So, yes, there’s reason to be wary—but we need to be wary of lots of things, right?
This leads me to my third thought about the cultural status of happy-ending genres, which comes from Ursula K. LeGuin. There’s a passage from her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” that’s a touchstone for me, and has been since I first read it at twelve or thirteen. “We have a bad habit,” the narrator says, “encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist: a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. If it hurts, repeat it. But to praise despair is to condemn delight, to embrace violence is to lose hold of everything else. We have almost lost hold; we can no longer describe a happy man, nor make any celebration of joy.”
What’s interesting to me about this passage—and about this story as a whole—is that LeGuin tells us something profoundly true here, and she underscores it throughout the story: the people of Omelas are not naïve; their happiness is not stupid; there’s a nobility and poignancy and profundity to their world, as there can be to a work in a happy ending genre. And yet, that’s not the end of the story. There are the folks who walk away from that beautiful city, right? But they do so in the hope of something better, not in self-flattery over their own sophistication, or at least it’s pretty think so.
If I were going to read something without a happy ending, knowing that going in, I’d want to do so because I knew that what I was going to get was actually walking away from Omelas, and not just hanging around to make fun of it, if that makes sense. (I suspect I’m misreading the story somewhat, perhaps more sympathetically to the city-dwellers than I’m supposed to, but then, I also doubt I’d be the one to walk away.)