Happy Endings, Redemption, and the Novelist’s Responsibility

I ran into this article early in October, but was reminded of it today by another Guardian opinion. The latest was a complaint about books that leave the reader hanging. The blogger hates books that don’t wrap everything up in a nice neat package and leave her feeling satisfied. An unhappy ending is better than no ending, because readers can’t tolerate ambiguity. Apparently. We have to know what happens next, which naturally means that you can’t write about life as it actually is.

She’ll never be one of my readers. The New Serfdom (which, yes, I’m still working on) offers nothing but ambiguity. It doesn’t really end because life is an ongoing process. Some writers feel it’s their responsibility to help readers escape from the endless “more” of life. Mine is to show its value. (In case anyone wants an ambiguous statement of intent.)

Howard Jacobson on Bad Boys Books

“I was a “reverence for life” man – “see life steadily and see it whole” – in my days as a lecturer in English lit. We are, I argued, if not exactly “saved” by reading, at least partially “repaired” by it: made the better morally and existentially. To those who found that idea fanciful I would put the question: when were you last mugged on the Underground by someone carrying Middlemarch in his pocket? We read to extend our sympathies, to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves, to educate our imaginations, to find liberation from the prison of the self, to be made whole where we are broken, to be reconciled to the absurdity of existence, in short to be redeemed from flesh, the ego and despair. And even as I rehearse these platitudes I have difficulty letting them go. They are at the heart of the idea of a liberal education, and now is not the time, is it, to be reneging on that?”

“If we declare ourselves, as readers, to be on the side of life, the question has to be asked what sort of life we are on the side of. Life governed by the rules of respectability and fear? Life rounded at the edges with all the horror turned away from? Life seen whole and steadily with all the breakages and shaking taken out? I don’t mean to set up false dichotomies. I would never say of those great writers whose work clearly falls outside the category of non-redemptive, even anathematising black-heartedness I am championing that they make us “feel good”.”

“No good writer ever merely cheered us up.”

“Other assumptions, besides a longing for coherence and reconciliation, lie behind the expectation that novelists must give their readers a bone of redemption to chew on. Chief among these being that a novel should be fair and well-balanced, a mirror of the likeable and acceptable, committing none of the attitudinal sins we refuse to tolerate on campus or in the progressive workplace, or in the marriage bed.”

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