My Problem with Polemicals against Happily Ever After

November 18, 2014 in rant

Over at SFNovelists Alma Alexander is talking about her problems with Happily Ever After endings. The parts of her argument that touch on her tastes in fiction as a writer and reader I have no problem with. The parts where she seems to be talking about absolute values on the other hand I find to be genuinely and deeply troubling. (Note: she has now clarified what she means to a greater extent and her post bothers me less, but I still think that there is an argument in there that needs refuting in greater depth) Let me quote two pieces to demonstrate what I mean:

1: “There is no such thing as a happy ending. Tolkien knew this – a writer who had not understood this concept could not have ended “Lord of the Rings” with such a terrifyingly truthful story like the Scouring of the Shire (and Jackson’s adaptation of the book into the saccharinely-ended movie shows that he has NOT understood this fact at all). Ursula Le Guin understands this perfectly (for an outstanding example, go re-read “The ones who walk away from Omelas”).

The best we can hope for is a resolution, and perhaps an epiphany – and, yes, love of good people along the way.”

2: “When it comes to writing, and characters, this is an important thing to know.”

These statements strike me as seriously problematic if that “know” is taken literally to mean knowing in the sense of an absolute truth. Now it seems to me that this is not entirely what Alma is getting at, especially after clarification, but there is still a strong implication here that the more real or true a piece of fiction is, the better it is, and that argument is one that is a huge problem for me on several levels.

First, I’m not a big fan of absolute statements about what people should read or write, and any argument that one kind of fiction is objectively better than another is inherently an argument that presupposes what people should read.

That would be enough to make me feel a responsibility to argue against the point all by itself. It is however a less serious issue than my other problem with the argument, and I want to preface this next piece with the note that I absolutely do not believe that what follows is what Alma is intending to argue. At the same time, I believe that even the weaker version of the argument carries certain implications by its nature, and they are quite problematic.

Here’s why. It’s a half step from saying Happily Ever After is not real and therefore not as good as a darker ending to one of the traditional attacks made on f&sf by those who prefer literary fiction, i.e. that lit fic is more real and more serious and thus inherently better than other genres.

More disturbingly, it also echoes the serious fiction/realist fiction argument that has been made by chauvinist academics and critics to devalue Romance in specific and more generally women’s fiction and women authors as writing less important works because they don’t hew to a maximally realist line as defined by said chauvinists.

Again, I don’t believe for an instant that Alma, an exceptionally skilled author and a woman, is trying to argue the inferiority of women authors or of women’s fiction. But I do think that she has made an argument that if accepted at face value lends credence to those other, much more pernicious, arguments.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog Sept 8 2009, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)