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What’s Wrong with a Happy Ending?

I recently read a book about the art of writing movies (Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting).

What I found interesting was how the same rift that plagues the book publishing world is also a hotly contested issue among screenwriters.  There is a trend among late 20th century screenwriters toward highbrow, morally neutral films that lack a clear protagonist who wrestles with good and evil before triumphing in the end.    Scholarly critics love this sort of film, and tend to give Academy Awards to dreary and depressing films.  Meanwhile the public flocks to Star Wars, Dances with Wolves, Lord of the Rings, and The Shawshank Redeption.

In the book world, most genre fiction is heavily based on values.  Beneath the trappings of space aliens, murder mysteries or steamy love scenes, most genre novels reflect core values of justice, love, truth, fair play, accomplishment and perseverance.  By the end of the novel a fantastically drawn protagonist will figure out what is worth fighting and dying for.  And the American public loves it.  If they didn’t, you never would have heard of Nora Roberts, Ken Follett, John Grisham, Harlan Coben, or Francine Rivers.  The triumph of genre fiction in the market place makes literary writers cringe.  They castigate popular fiction as predictable, simplistic, something to make the reader feel good by confirming their preconceived values.

Lucky for me, I don’t write for critics, I write for the lady in New Zealand who emailed me and thanked me for making her elderly mother happy because she fell in love with Bane from The Lady of Bolton Hill. Or the high school student who wrote to tell me that reading about Clara made her feel a little less like a dork.   I write because of all the wonderful genre writers who have embodied the values of hard work, perseverance, and fighting for a cause who helped me through those stress-filled adolescent years. 

I don’t know if this split will ever go away.  I’m merely glad that there are plenty of readers and writers who still flock toward a wonderful, life-affirming ending.

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