Bad Endings Revisited

This article in The New Yorker explains why so many “great” novels have terrible endings, or rather, why is it that readers seem to demand them.  From The Daily Dish:

Joan Acocella wonders why so many great books have such bad endings:

E. M. Forster, in “Art of the Novel,” said that nearly every novel’s ending is a letdown. “This is because the plot requires to be wound up. Why is this necessary? Why is there not a convention which allows a novelist to stop as soon as he feels muddled or bored? Alas, he has to round things off, and usually the characters go dead while he is at work.” That’s still not much of an explanation, though. Why do novelists feel that they have to round things off? Is it some basic conservatism? Or classicism?

Her theory? The universe requires a quiet end:

Art, whether fiction or not, is a challenge to entropy, a bumping up of something that must be flattened down again. When you think about it, it’s surprising that art is allowed to exist. It’s always a deviation: overly selective, overly concrete, and unfaithful, not to our actual experience but to our generalizing afterthoughts, the thoughts that get us through life. In “War and Peace,” when the excitable young heroine grows up and has kids and gets fat, young readers may be disappointed, but I think that adults may be comforted. Most of us want extraordinary things, after a while, to quit being extraordinary—to end. The stone fell in the water. The ripples ran. Now they should stop. The surface should be smooth again.


My own opinion is that the writer should resist the popular demand, contradict it, deliberately confound expectations. Why else should artists even exist? (Okay, if you’re in it for the money, then sure give ’em what they want, but is it, can it be called, art?)

Novelists should not be “rounding things off” or “smoothing things over”. That’s for television and Hollywood movies and bestsellers. Why even wake up in the morning if all you’re going to do is lie in bed and snooze all day?

The novelist should take their readers somewhere and then leave them there. They’re not a designated driver. They’re not a tour guide. They’re not showing you their home videos of that trip to Disneyland.

I don’t think I want too much from a writer. I just want more than the minimum daily requirement. I want something other than the typical conventional. I want them to have something to say. Is it too much to ask?

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