I want my 21st Century Gothic. Do you?

raven.jpgI recently read a review of the latest Realms of Fantasy at Tangent, and this was the review for my story:

“Little Miss Apocalypse” by Christopher Barzak is a bit of a downer, but I can’t say the author didn’t warn us. It’s about enduring love, but a rather sick form of it, in my opinion.

Aidan, attracted to Eve from the start, manages to avoid her for two years. “Whenever she caught my eye, I’d look down into my cup… I thought if I got too close, I might cease to exist. I wasn’t stupid. The flame-attracted moth always gets singed.” So Aidan, in the name of his version of realism or common sense, expects to get hurt. A self-fulfilling prophecy?

Once they get together, and we see that Eve is even more pessimistic and emotionally fragile than Aidan, she tells him “The world doesn’t always provide a happy ending.” So we’re prepared for heartache and disaster right from the start.

Add to the mixture that Aidan is the only child of miserable, battling parents so has very little concept of a normal relationship. Eve’s mother committed suicide and her estranged father is dying of cancer. Eve, who may or may not be bipolar, carries the curse that drove her mother over the edge; she not only sees and talks to ghosts, but she is aware of spirits trying to leave their bodies. She sees the approach of death. All of this makes for a depressing situation.

I was hoping the characters were going to grow and evolve, that they might rise above the circumstances and some good would come of it. The inclusion of the insightful and sympathetic psychology professor added fuel to that hope. But in the end, I was disappointed. I suspect Edgar Allan Poe would have liked this story better than I did.

I’m not posting the review to talk about my story (though the reviewer does misquote it to a certain extent). I think the review is fair mostly because the reviewer basically summarizes aspects of the story and when she comments on things negatively or favorably, she qualifies those comments as opinion. What the review got me thinking about (and this is why I’m posting it) is the happy ending. It’s something that I see come up in reviews, or just how readers in general talk about fiction they’ve read. Now it’s mostly a general consensus that in novels, readers would like a happy ending. A least a fair ending where some of the characters have a happy ending if not all. I can somewhat understand this readerly desire/expectation in a narrative that runs the length of a novel. But traditionally the short story has been a form where unhappy endings are something reader’s should expect just as much as an unhappy one–when endings conspire to deal in happiness or unhappiness period, that is, because I think there are many, many stories that aren’t dealing with those polar opposites in any central way, though I’m sure I’d hear arguments that even when a story doesn’t centralize it’s concerns on the axis of happiness that it’s still on some basic level about happiness. My argument for those would be that it isn’t happiness so much as justice that we’re really talking about, and that happiness is something we feel an ending has when characters we sympathize or empathize with receive an ending we consider “fair” and that any potentially antagonistic characters in a story receive their own ending that we consider is fair. Usually we call this them getting their “just” desserts.

But all that aside, why is the happy ending such an important, widespread desire or expectation for readers, for readers of even the short story, which has a history of short, sharp shock endings, dismal gothic endings, sad revelations and betrayals? Has the need for fairness or justice or happiness, whichever you’d like to call it, become more prevalent in reading expectations over the years?

Myself, I love a good unhappy ending, as long it feels right, feels real, as if that’s exactly what those characters would do, or what would happen to them based on what I know and understand about how their world or ours actually works. I’m glad the reviewer of my story included that she expects Edgar Allan Poe would have liked it better than she did, because it was a contemporary gothic story of strange love, madness and ghosts set in a city known for its urban decay, and so I know by this she read it correctly, but dislikes that mode of storytelling categorically. That’s a fair enough review, as far as reviews go in these here parts, I think.

So tell me about the happy ending (or just ending) versus the dark endings that short stories also traditionally exhibit. Do others out there perceive a rise in the demand for happy endings? Has our love for the gothic, or the short sharp shock, or stories of betrayal or life-shattering revelations waned? Any insights to these questions and to those unasked but related questions will be very much appreciated.

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11 responses

  1. Pretty much everything I’ve published has been somewhere from bittersweet to melancholy and nobody’s really complained. I think the stories that irritate me are the ones that start out depressing and just spiral downward — there’s a difference between “feels right” and “inevitable”. I see enough stories of the latter sort that I figure some people must enjoy watching a character’s situation just steadily deteriorate until they die (or until something worse happens), but I’m not one of them — if that’s all that happens, it’s all implicit in the initial situation and I don’t need to watch it play out.

  2. That’s interesting to me because I don’t come to a story with that sort of protocol, where I judge whether or not I’ll read it based on whether or not the characters or the situation sounds depressing. Oddly enough, I’d argue that I see enough stories where things work out for characters in situations that, in reality, I rarely ever see things work out for actual people in the same situations, that I begin to grow annoyed with stories that give false hope. I go back and forth on this, of course, because hope is something else I want too, depending on my mood, so I imagine I tend to read a lot of stories that are from both polar realms and everywhere in between on the scale of depressing to hopeful. I have to say, though, I don’t see a lot of the stories you see enough of with the downward spiral, so you really have to start sending me these when you see them, because I think, as long as they’re well written and have other interesting things to offer as stories beyond their outcomes for the characters being bleak, I would be interested in reading more of these, just to see what another person recognizes as depressing or having a potential downward spiral through-line implicit in the beginning. One of the things I realized at the Sycamore Hill workshop recently is how differently everyone really does read stories, from what cues they look for to read for understanding to what sort of expectations they have for endings, and everything in betwee.

    I also wonder how much is subjectively considered bleak for one reader and not so bleak at all, but just realistic, for another. I always think of Ursula LeGuin’s story “Solitude” about a girl who chooses to stay on a poverty-stricken planet that was once a great civilization that’s collapsed rather than go with her mother and brother back to their home planet to study and “better” herself because the poverty-stricken planet her mother, an anthropologist, raised her and her brother on for a part of her childhood was what she considered her home. Is it a bleak ending because she’s chosen to live in poverty? Or is it a happy or hopeful ending, because she’s recognized and chosen to embrace a place she finds in her heart is home, despite its circumstances being pretty hopeless as a place for many opportunities of any sort for her in the future, and despite her being separated from her mother and brother because she’s made the choice to stay there?

    There are a lot of readers of that story that find it sad and depressing, but I found it complicated and thrilling, because it calls into question exactly the assumptions we have about what happiness is in relation to how we’ve been trained to recognize it.

  3. I first encountered this idea reading Ayn Rand’s The Romantic Manifesto, as I was looking to discover the governing dynamics of art and the principles of how people relate to art. Though I was specifically interested in applying this understanding to illustration, it seems to hold true for the art of storytelling in any form.

    Boiled down the idea is this:
    People value art that either
    a) agrees with how they view the world to be, or
    b) agrees with how they wish the world was

    A case may also be made for the genre of horror, that there are those that value art that
    c) safely allows them to enter a world they would otherwise fear

    So we have those who are looking for truth in art, at least, the truth they percieve in the world that is; and those that are looking for escape in art, either to the beauty of a world as they wish it, or to the thrill of exploring a world that they would never want to be true.

    These, then, are the two basic approaches to art, realistic or escapist, and though people usually tend to have a dominance in one approach or the other, it can change for a person over time, or reverse itself in a particular circumstance, or more often depending on the person’s nature.

    From what you have shared Chris, it sounds as though you are generally seeking realism. You view the world as fair, but find many hopes to be false. Art that creates a world that agrees with how you find things, feels right, or just.

    Sometimes, though, depending on your mood, you want a bit of an escape into a world that offers more hope than you find in reality, and you read accordingly, until you are satisfied enough to return to the stories that speak of the real world as you see it.

    Is that a fair assessment?

    Also, as an artist, you will also create art to your taste; realistic or escapist, either recreating the world with the truth as you see it, or creating an alternate in order to find some respite there.

    Your reviewer admitted that she was looking for escape, hoping to be able to escape through your characters when they were able to escape the situation they found themselves in, but that opportunity never came. I believe that the hope she was looking for, you might have considered false hope. She wanted you to pull her out of the real world, but you wanted to speak truly, or fairly, concerning it.

    There are plenty of real depressing situations in the world, ones that do not get better, or have the sense of redemption she was seeking. I bet that she wonders how you could, as the author, choose to create such a situation, but also choose to leave out the escape she values, what she would consider “the good part” or perhaps “the point.”

    I think she missed the idea that you may have made your choices because you are valuing different things.

    It is also possible that the reviewer was a realist, but one who really sees more hope in the world, and because of that found your story not to be honest enough, but presenting things as more depressing as they really are, but I have found that for whatever reason, the escapists outnumber the realists, and vastly so, and one can expect that to increase the more depressing and dangerous real life becomes.

    Take, for example, the covers of The Saturday Evening Post. There is an argument that the work of J.C. Leyendecker became increasingly popular because his idealized, almost cartoonish, style provided an escape from the realities of World War II, but after the war, in the satisfaction of victory, the American public was drawn more to the style of Norman Rockwell, whose work was more realistic and portrayed the world that they felt it they had just fought for and won, the world that they had earned and deserved.

    So, this idea of approaches can make for a variety of situations. The same piece or art might satisfy a realist and an escapist, the realist, because it agrees with how they see things, but the escapist, because it does not agree but suggests something better. Even though they may completely disagree on the world as it is, they can both find satisfaction in the same piece.

    On the other hand, two realists might argue with one another whether a certain piece is “good” or “bad” based on how well or poorly it agrees with how they percieve the world. They both may approach from the side of the realist, but because they hold different truths, they perceive a sense of justice or injustice from the same work.

    There is also the circumstance of two people who agree completely about the way the world is, but because one seeks for art that portrays the world accurately, and the other seeks art that lets them escape the world as it is, they do not have the same artistic taste.

    Thier choice of art speaks to thier world view and whether or not they enjoy the world, and thier world view and whether or not they enjoy the world, speaks to thier choice in art.

    I have also wondered if this also falls in line with whether a person prefers sweet or salty snacks; the escapists preferring sweet, and the realists preferring salty or savory. If this has any correlation, then I would have to guess that Chris, you prefer salty or savory, but now and again want something sweet, but not much of it.

    I should also probably mention that there is another approach to art, but one that is not usually taken by the typical audience. It is the approach of the fellow craftsman, or of someone who understands how art is constructed, even though they themselves do not create it. In this way a piece of art may be valued based on well it is crafted, regardless of the world it portrays. In that sense, I can greatly admire the craftsmanship of a painting or movie, even though I may find the world it presents distasteful.

    Chris, I think that you also approach short stories with this in mind, with as much interest to how it is crafted as what it is saying. This is where the “well written” and “interesting things to offer” come into play. It’s something more than just taste, because you can admire an author that uses the tools of storytelling well, or innovatively, or one who employs a tool you have not yet seen, regardless of whether you find the story they have created to be fair or just.

    It is this third approach that I believe should be the sole basis for critique, that the critic should approach a work from the position of craftsmanship, rather than the position of personal taste, and because it forms the difference between true critique and the critic as consumer.

    As for myself, I used to be very much of the escaptist’s mind, until my view of the world changed. Now, I don’t usually find art that agrees with how I view the world, but when I do, I find it much more powerful and attractive than the art in which I wished to hide. Even though I can still enjoy those escapist worlds, and there are some that still hold for me a great deal of nostalgia, I do not miss them, and would no longer choose them over the world that I honestly see.

  4. Wow, Noah, that’s an incredible and generous response. Thank you for taking the time to write it. I agree with much of how you’ve broken this down, and you’re definitely correct in assessing that I can read something and find it compelling because of the interesting things it may offer outside of a happy or sad ending–playfulness of language, beautiful imagery, incredibly drawn characters, unique setting, etc. There’s also something else that thinking about all this has made me realize. I write the ending the character’s create by the choices they make. I don’t feel like I manipulate characters so much as allow them to make choices based on their own personalities and desires and limitations and lots of other factors, just like real people do. So sometimes my stories end very happily, or with hope, and sometimes, as in the case of this story, they end on a more downbeat note, and a lot of this depends on the characters and how they’d most likely choose to deal with whatever conflict or issue it is they’re facing. I don’t feel compelled as a writer to impose how *I* would want the characters to choose to act in their own lives. I only feel compelled to be true to their stories and as long as I do that, whether the ending is downbeat or upbeat doesn’t matter to me all that much.

    Also, I realize I don’t read or write with happy or sad endings in mind. I read and write for a variety of reasons, but the happy or sad or disturbing ending isn’t one of these really.

    Thanks for the comment again. I’ll be chewing on it for a while!

  5. Wow, Noah, that’s amazing. I don’t know that I agree whole-heartedly. I write endings which I am told are downbeat (but which I often feel are hopeful! hopeful! you hear me?!) but I really like sweets.

    I used to think that serious literature had to have unhappy endings, back when I was in college, because so much of what we read as serious literature did. Now I really want to write happy endings, earned ones, but happy ones. But short stories usually end in an emblematic moment, and I can’t help seeing the story continuing and it often feels false to make the ending too happy because life is complicated. So perhaps what I really want are complicated endings.

  6. Maureen, I think you’ve put into words really how I feel about endings too. I want them complicated, no matter what. They may lean one way, toward the dark or toward the light, but either way they lean, I really want them to feel right, which is complicated, which is probably what Noah would call realistic (though in some narratives, I can imagine realism would call for more dark than light, and vice versa). Complicated is really what I want, though.

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  8. watashi ga suki nano wa HAPPY ENDING.
    demo watashi no kokoro ni nokoru nowa “setsunai hanashi”.
    anata no WIRE BOY ya MOTH, Rick-san no HOLE IN THE CITY,sorekara mukashi yonnda Kafka no DIE VERWANDLUNG,Camus no L’ETRANGER.
    Dazai mo hotondo minna setsunai hanashi dane.
    kanashimi wa itsumademo hito no kokoro ni nokoru.
    kitto “One for Sorrow” mo sou nandesho?

  9. I love Rick’s HOLE IN THE CITY, too, Okaasan. And also THE STRANGER, by Camus, and I love almost anything Kafka has written. Painful stories are as important to me as ones that are happy or comforting, and sometimes I think perhaps the most important stories for me are ones that are painful or sad that also include happiness and hope somehow, that capture the whole mess of life. As for ONE FOR SORROW, you’ll have to judge for yourself when it comes out. Personally I think it’s sad and painful but also funny and happy and hopeful. It’s ending is complicated, I think. I really do like thinking of endings (and books in general) with more specific words like “complicated” (thanks Maureen!). I think there’s room in books to have all shades of emotion in them, and for the endings to carry more than happiness or sadness alone as a predominant tone.

  10. Maureen and Chris,

    Yes, I agree. I like complicated also, and it does feel more realistic to me, because I’ve found the times when real life resolves itself simply and neatly to be few and far between.

    I also very much like the idea of the earned, or honest, happy ending.

  11. I’m a big fan of the earned, or honest, happy ending, too, Noah. Those endings seem much harder to write, but really worth it. I think a lot of what you laid out about endings is really well thought-out. When you said this…

    “Chris, I think that you also approach short stories with this in mind, with as much interest to how it is crafted as what it is saying. This is where the “well written” and “interesting things to offer” come into play. It’s something more than just taste, because you can admire an author that uses the tools of storytelling well, or innovatively, or one who employs a tool you have not yet seen, regardless of whether you find the story they have created to be fair or just.

    It is this third approach that I believe should be the sole basis for critique, that the critic should approach a work from the position of craftsmanship, rather than the position of personal taste, and because it forms the difference between true critique and the critic as consumer.”

    …you really pinned me down with that description. It is, indeed, mostly how I think a true critique should be written. The critic as consumer critiques I really do find useless because they don’t tell you anything about the story, novel, etc. They only tell you about how the reader felt, not what they saw when they read it, no description of the techniques employed, etc. Unfortunately I think we have more and more critics-as-consumers than critics interested in delving into how a story works and what it’s doing.

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