Tuesday, March 05, 2013

the butler in the conservatory with the candlestick

In a podcast about fiction writing, one of the folks at Storywonk made the comment that genre fiction almost always resolves at the end.  The murderer is found, the bad guys are defeated, the hero marries the heroine--things are wrapped up.  Not necessarily a happy ending (there are plenty of mystery/suspense novels with endings that are sad or grim), but an ending. 

On the other hand, literary fiction tends to avoid resolution.  People who are proponents of literary fiction--and surprise! they are usually pretty down on genre fiction--insist that this is the way life is, so therefore literary fiction is more realistic and more complex.  There are no neat, tidy resolutions in real life, so why should there be in fiction?

[An aside, which is also an example.  I've been saving this story up for three years waiting for the time I could fit it in a post.]  When I took that creative writing class a few years ago, we read a story called "Wilderness," by Rick DeMarinis.  It's a great story, riveting and disturbing, with a distinctive narrative voice.  It's about a man named Dave Colbert, who goes on a camping trip with his wife and another couple.  He comes unglued and what starts as routine horseplay/bullying in a lake turns into violence.  Colbert is so enraged that he goes back to the campsite and picks up a hatchet.  The story ends as he is walking back to the lake with the hatchet in his hand.

This is classic literary fiction.  Several students in the class sagely nodded their heads and agreed that it was a great ending, because you don't know what happens and that's what real life is like.  Which was just nuts, if you ask me.  In real life, something would have happened.  Colbert would have walked down to the lake and hacked in the other guy's skull, or maybe he would have thrown down the hatchet, jumped in his car and driven back home.  Or he might have had a heart attack and died ten yards before the lake.  Or he might have been confronted by a bear and the hatchet in his hand saved his life.  Real life doesn't end as someone is walking down a path.  In real life, one of those things (or some other thing) would have happened, and none of the other ones.

This is why the "lack of resolution = real life" equation has never made much sense to me.  The ending to that story is perfect if DeMarinis' wanted to show that the anger that the story stirs up in the reader is part of the point (and it did make me very angry), so that your own enraged response becomes the determining factor in the story.  If that's what DeMarinis is doing, it doesn't matter what the main character does and the story ends in exactly the right place. 

But that's not the same thing as the story = "real life."  In fact, the whole point seemed to me to be that the story wasn't real life.  It is a carefully controlled tale-- DeMarinis picked a situation, a point of view, a starting point, and then he picked one of the four characters to serve as the focal point, and then he picked an end point.  It's entirely artificial. 

so what am I saying here?  excellent question because I'm not sure I know.  Try this:  maybe the only difference between the endings of genre fiction and literary fiction is that the author of literary fiction chooses to end his/her story before the story is over. 

Which begs the question: when is the story over?  In the fourth century when bards were spinning tales in mead halls (I totally made that up), stories had resolutions--the hero was killed in battle, the wanderer returned, the monster was vanquished, the kingdom was saved.  Or maybe the only way a story can be truly over is for everyone to die, like in Hamlet or MacBeth.  Both genre fiction and literary fiction are just snapshots, a moment in time.

So believe it or not, that whole thing was a setup so I could say something else about Gone Girl, which I discussed in my Reading Report last week.

***SPOILER ALERT*** I'm not giving away any major plot twists, but I do talk about what doesn't happen at the end, which is its own kind of spoiler.  Stop reading now if you haven't read it and think you might want to.

What Gone Girl does really well--brilliantly--is describe the breakdown of a marriage.  The slow downward spiral of resentment, bitterness, and hurt that come from petty grievances, missed moments of connection, disappointed expectations, and especially the self-centered blindness that leads you to resent your partner's lack of understanding of Who You Are, at the same time that you're ignoring who your partner is.  Flynn describes it all so precisely that if you've ever been in a difficult marriage (if you've ever been married?), it rings all too eerily true.

But the story is amped up because the Dunnes are beautiful people-- phenomenally physically attractive, and also they move in the right circles, have the right sense of humor, see the right films and read the right books.  They're both smart as hell, and that intelligence makes their dissection of each other even more laserlike than it might be with more average people.  Then you begin to realize that one of them is crazy (we'll say that's A, and the other one is B).  And by the end, both of them are crazy (although I suppose that's debatable).

So I'm reading along and I can already tell that there is no happy ending coming.  Even though there could have been-- it wouldn't have been that hard to write it so that B gets away from A and moves on to a more normal life-- you can tell by the way the arc of the story is going that there is not going to be any happiness for these two.  I figured that one of them would kill the other, or they would somehow both die, or maybe a murder-suicide.

But even that would have been resolution.  Flynn didn't choose to let her readers feel resolved.  She chose to end the story with the two of them locked in an endless, perfectly balanced stalemate, where neither of them can, or at least will, leave.  By this time A is so horrible, such a thoroughly despicable person, that the whole thing just turns your stomach.  B hasn't been a jewel, but nobody deserves that.  Yet in a weird way, they have become dependent on each other.

Or at least, that's what Flynn tells you.  I wasn't sure I bought it.  If difficult circumstances in your life change you and make you a more responsible, compassionate person, do you then have to stay in the difficult circumstances in order to continue to be responsible and compassionate?  Can't you move forward into new situations without losing what you've gained?  And anyway, people are not perfect.  The perfect stalemate that Flynn works so hard to set up can't last forever.  It would have come unbalanced at some point.

Geeze.  This has been a long, interminable post about nothing.  See?  this is why I don't read books like this very often (the last one was The Secret History back in the early 90s).  I can't get them out of my head and it makes me crazy.


  1. Have we talked about this before, how I make up happy endings to books that don't sit right for me? Well, I do. I've done it with movies too.
    (If that guy with the ax had been a shithead I'd have had one of the other campers bash his head in. Self-defense, obviously.)

    Not a post about NOTHING! This was very interesting, and very think-y. You are under the impression that you're rambling, we are sitting here enjoying all the different directions these discussions send our brains. Tom-ay-to/tom-ah-to.

    Seriously, could you just move closer to me so we could talk about this shit in person, over a snack?!

    1. I do that too! (make up happy endings) One time I was so mad about how a book ended that I actually sat down and typed out a seven-page ending for it. ha. I'm glad you enjoyed the thinky-ness. I never really did figure out what I was trying to say (so I guess this post is...wait for it.... UNRESOLVED), but it was kind of fun to write.

    2. I like the make-up-your-own ending strategy. Good to remember when a book I care about starts going in a direction that feels way tooo "literary" to me.

      I love these theoretical, english-y posts. Keep em coming Aunt Bean.

    3. Cheery-o! I'm so glad you got the comments to work! (speaking of keep em coming)

  2. I love this post! This is something I have been really conflicted with as both a reader and a writer. Does having a resolution really make something genre fiction? What if a work that has all the ingredients of a "commercial" novel has an unresolved ending?

    It's so confusing sometimes. The more I wonder about it and whether what I am reading is worth it if it's "commercial" or "literary," the more I just ask myself if I am getting something out of it. If I am learning something new or feeling something emotionally, then it probably doesn't really matter what category it fits into.

    And thanks for the review of "Gone Girl." Need to read still! (Gah!)

    1. I think your criteria-- if I'm learning something new or feeling something emotionally, it doesn't matter-- is great. Also I think the lines between genre fiction and literary fiction blur more every day. Other than NaNo, I've never written a novel, but I suspect that as you're writing, every book has its own internal coherence and "feels" like it needs a particular type of ending. Like Gone Girl--after all the set up she did, it would have felt wrong to have a happy ending, although I would have preferred a different ending than the one she chose. After a few more days to think about it, I think the thing that bugs me the most is that she tries so hard to set up an "airtight" stalemate at the end, but there are so many loose ends. It doesn't feel as inevitable as she wants you to think it is-- which leaves you with a feeling of frustration instead of "That was a GREAT STORY!" which is what I'd want readers to feel if I were writing a novel.

  3. Very good rambling. I'll have to think on it a bit, maybe write something on my blog.