From the News: Questions With No Single or Right Answer

I can’t help noticing, over and over, how much of American debate is about subjects what can never be fully resolved. Questions with no one answer. Questions with no “right” answer. But that’s what most readers want and are angry when they’re denied. They want the mystery cleared up, with no clues left dangling. They want the happy ever after. They want a clear line between the hero and the villain.

I just read an opinion piece in Counterpunch: “Get Over it: Mass Shootings are the New Normal in America. It was a discussion about guns and violence in the U.S., and the political apathy that surrounds the problem. What specifically caught my attention was this: “Progressives and liberals who form the base of the Democratic Party, most of whom supported Bernie Sanders during the primaries, are engaged in a robust debate over whether to switch over to Hillary Clinton this fall, support a third-party candidate like Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein, or stay home on election day. It’s the same old question: Do you vote for the lesser of two evils? Isn’t that voting for evil?”

This isn’t a new issue, by any means, and it raises the same questions every time, without any recognition that some questions don’t have a single right answer. In this case, any of the three choices has multiple ramifications, and each person’s decision is based on the ones they consider most important. The crucial point is that we have no way of knowing what the ultimate effect of our personal choice will be. Because that’s what real life is all about. There is no way to go back and make a different choice and then compare the two outcomes.

The value of open-endedness for fiction

That doesn’t stop anyone from demanding a definitive answer, from accusing those who’ve made different choices of stupidity or ignorance, or malign intentions. The open-endedness of real life is an endless source of blame, rage, and fanaticism. I believe fiction should reflect that. Not every time, of course. There’s nothing wrong with happy endings unless we refuse to acknowledge that there are other kinds of endings, including endings that never come to a resolution. It’s commercially risky to write a novel that doesn’t tie everything up with a neat bow, but such novels are richer in meaning, and leave readers with questions that can resonate in memory long after the bright ribbon has faded and grown tattered. Life is complex, and refuses to be simplified down to black or white, yes or no, right or wrong. Good writing rejoices in that complexity.


5 thoughts on “From the News: Questions With No Single or Right Answer

  1. Fine to leave some things open at the end of a novel; but we read to find answers, knowing there are few real answers in life.

    Authors who won’t take a stand – and justify it with the story they’ve written – are authors I don’t read a second time.

    I have enough of that in my life. Really, plenty – far MORE than enough.

    1. Agree that we can’t leave everything open-ended. And in some genres, open-endedness will kill the writer. Romance readers mostly want a happily wrapped-up ending, not a happy-for-now. But I’d question whether everyone reads to find answers. Some of the time, maybe, but not with every book.

      1. Right now I just want the happy ending in a relationship to be almost impossible to achieve – and believable.

        That pretty much eliminates most relationship books.

        With other books, such as The Name of the Rose, ‘happy ending’ is not even appropriate – and I still enjoyed the book.

        1. I rarely read books that involve relationships, at least not as the central theme, so it’s hard for me to relate to the desire for the happy ending. Moreso, the readers who hardly read anything else.

  2. I’m with you. I can only take so much happily-ever-after fiction. I like stories that haunt me, stay with me long after I finish because they don’t offer simple answers.

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