Speaking just after winning the Guardian’s First Book Award, Donal Ryan was unsure if he should say the novel he’s working on has “a very happy ending”. I didn’t like to inquire further – after all, he had a party he had to return to – but there seemed to be more to his reluctance than the author’s usual reluctance to discuss works in progress. It was as if Ryan was almost embarrassed to admit that after all the anger and desperation of The Spinning Heart and the dangerous greed of The Thing About December, his next book seems a little more optimistic. But literary fiction has had a problem with happy endings for years.
It has not always been so. I don’t know what Jane Austen would have thought of the “literary fiction” genre, but there’s no doubt that Pride and Prejudice will end with Mrs. Bennet “riding herself of her two most deserving daughters”. Charles Dickens may have dashed all of Pip’s high expectations at first, but he quickly bowed to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s ‘good reasons’ and chose an ending without ‘a shadow of another’. separation”.
Writers these days expose themselves to all sorts of angst as they approach the final act. Paul Murray, another rising Irish novelist, says he suffered from the fate of his characters in his sprawling tragicomedy, Skippy Dies. Joanna Kavenna admits she agonized over the balance between hope and less hope as she weaves together four narratives in The Birth of Love. But the most shameless apologist for the dark finish I’ve spoken to recently is Ben Marcus.
According to Marcus, while a lot of entertainment helps us “not think about the worst”, literature can “sometimes take up this darker task and try to illustrate a nightmare”.
I guess I’m not so drawn to very happy stories, nor can I think of too many examples in literature of safe and easy stories that make us feel good. Maybe it’s just a form of narcissism to want to tell stories about your death, maybe you’re just lucky enough to write your tombstone before you die.
He quotes Kafka’s saying that “the positive is already given” – a theme he returns to when discussing his poignant short story Rollingwood with New York fiction editor Deborah Treisman, saying that “what’s left for writers is to depict the negative, the darkness, the darkest possibilities”.
Judging by the bags of novels that come through The Guardian’s door, many authors have embraced this project with as much heart as Marcus over the past few years. Maybe I just picked the wrong books, but I’m having a hard time thinking of anything I’ve read lately with a genuinely happy ending. These days, the best a character unfortunate enough to find himself trapped in a literary novel can expect is the kind of deadly transcendence that Tom McCarthy finds in the enigmatic narrator of his haunting debut, The Remainder.
Life is complicated, I know, and perhaps fiction that aspires to live up to those complexities will struggle to find simplicity in anything, let alone in the sense of an ending. But the territory marked out by Marcus is too small, too constricted to capture all the richness of the lived experience. Happiness can be written in white ink on white pages as Henry de Montherlant’s Don Juan suggests, but Kavenna must be right when she suggests that it should be possible to write a great novel with a happy ending. . Perhaps Ryan, who says his “overarching goal” in The Spinning Heart was “to say things that were true,” should be less embarrassed about trying to redress the balance.