By Joseph Sale
There’s a spectre haunting us that’s making its presence more and more known. At first, I dismissed my awareness of this wraith, thinking it was perhaps simply a trick of nostalgia, or changing tastes. Every generation, after all, cannot help but hanker a little for the way things were before. Times change, and this is a good thing, because it provides an opportunity for growth and new beginnings, but we should be wise enough as a species now to know that sometimes change is not always for the better. The relentless advance of technology has enabled incredible things: friendships that could have never been, connectedness during a pandemic, access to medical care that the medieval world would have undoubtedly considered magical. However, it is also bringing with it a slew of astonishingly awful consequences, and to my mind the worst of these is a frightening endemic occurring in the Western world: the inability to end stories.
I should say that I am not some grumpy old man bemoaning the changing face of literature. I welcome innovation; I welcome a broader array of writers and writing styles, and I have done my small part in shepherding and promoting (in my humble opinion) some of the finest of these new voices. I should also say that I am not proposing that no-one can end their stories, as that would be hyperbolic nonsense, and would denigrate the amazing authors I’m connected to who are absolutely knocking the ball out of the park. However, outside of my circle of author friends and brilliant writers, I am noticing a problem, a problem that, if left unaddressed, could have serious consequences for the cultural psyche of the Western world.
Over the last three or four years I’ve noticed a trend, one that is gaining frightening momentum; for lack of a better descriptor, the “anti-ending”. This is where the author decides that resolutions are for wimps and instead destroys everything they have spent 400 pages (or multiple seasons) building; there is not one shred of hope or redemption in it. This is not – I hasten to add – simply the “downer” ending or the “claw out of the ground” stinger, which certainly have their place in horror (or indeed any genre if done right). No, this is a not so much a decimation as an abdication, where the writer neglects their duty to deliver, but yet makes a meal out of that fact, as if they have achieved something tremendous.
Neil Gaiman once said “George R. R. Martin is not your bitch” and that “the only contract a writer makes is that the book in your hand will be good” and people loved it. But we need to examine this statement deeper, because I personally think Gaiman is wrong. Profoundly wrong. Martin is obviously not our bitch, but he does have a duty to us, all writers have duties to their readers. Martin made promises, and good human beings keep their promises to the best of their ability to do so. An independent author like myself could never have gotten away with failing to finish my Black Gate trilogy. My readership was and is small, but very passionate – I don’t think they would have easily forgiven me. We should not therefore believe this fake narrative that successful writers have no obligations to us. They absolutely do.
As I stated before, this “anti-ending” isn’t universal – yet. It’s prevalent largely in the West, and I think results from several cultural factors, which someone with greater knowledge of sociological movements can elucidate further. There are also many bright lights who I think will carry us forward into a booming new era of narrative, if we let them. My concern is the negative shadow-image of these bright lights, the darker forces opposing meaning, beauty, and truth. These shadows are nihilistic, and rejoice in the absence of meaning, in the subversion of expectations for the sake of subverted expectations, rather than to deliver true catharsis.
You have probably already worked out where I’m going with this, but for a moment, let’s talk about Game of Thrones. We understand some of the reasons why that show failed to conclude satisfactorily: the showrunners Weiss and Benioff wanted to get their Disney contract, so weren’t fully committed; they lacked the source-material because George R. R. Martin has failed to produce books 6 & 7; the list goes on. However, I think there are deeper and more philosophical reasons than these. Game of Thrones didn’t just feel like a rush job (although undoubtedly it was), it also felt heartless.
If you look at the character arcs that the previous seasons had set up, such as the redemption of Jaime Lannister, we see a rejection of those ideas in the conclusion. The philosophy of Weiss and Benioff is that Jaime should not be allowed to redeem himself and change. Ultimately, we always go back to being the scumbags we were, however much we “seem” to develop. This is done under the pretense of being “realistic”, but actually is exactly the opposite, for human beings are able to grow. For someone to have been through all that Jaime had been, and then U-turn in the final episodes, was a defiance of storytelling and all it means. This is just one pillar of a collapsing palace, but it illustrates the overarching dearth of understanding quite emblematically.
In my view, storytelling is healing. We tell stories to rectify the broken narrative of the Self. In psychology there is a concept called “narrative therapy”; it shows once again that the ancients and myth-makers understood something quite profound: we need stories as much as we need physical medicine, to make sense of the world, to understand why we exist, to answer the big questions, and to show us that we can grow (and sometimes warn us of what happens if we don’t, as with the tragedies). Stories can only achieve this healing when they end truly, when they give us some kind of resolution, even if it’s a dark and forlorn one. I think it’s psychologically fascinating that this problem of not being able to “end” seems to have been exacerbated by the pandemic, which has no visible termination point; it’s an endless suspension of life, of real human interaction. However, this only increases the importance of ending our fiction, of finding a healing there where it is more difficult to find in reality.
I’m seeing this worrying trend in novels as well, which is, in some ways, most disturbing of all. In television and film, there are producers and marketers and other factors involved that all want to have their say, and control the financial resources to a degree; I get that (it’s also what makes the failure of Game of Thrones so bizarre – the producers were uncharacteristically accommodating due to the success of the series and would have let Weiss and Benioff have as much time and money as they needed to make it work). But with novels, there should be fewer external factors, especially in the independent field.
Yet still, I’m seeing so many writers throw away their endings, as though they’re the least important part of the story, as though the reader is somehow a naive fool for expecting things to pay off. I’m not going to name names, because that would be childish and spiteful, but I’m shocked because in some cases these are writers I considered high calibre – the fault isn’t due to a lack of technical ability. This brings me back to an age-old editing adage I often repeat: “I’ll take passionate writing over perfectly edited and boring writing any day of the week.” When passion is there, I rarely see this problem, and this is why I echo reviewer Dan Stubbing’s wise comment that a lot of the best work coming out these days is independent or self-published; it comes from the heart, the Muse, a higher plane of being. It isn’t the product of crude pseudo-intellectualism.
Star Wars and its sequel trilogy are an easy target, but it is good to have such a cultural touchstone as an example. Suffice to say that if we compare the mythopoeic and Taoist depths of the original trilogy (which are not without fault, but they did a lot right), to the modern toy-selling vehicle, there are simply no words to describe the vast gulf between the two. There were moments where it shadowed greatness, where I felt there was hope, but it was always dashed by some bizarre inability to embrace consequence. And this is one key way to look at it. The great biographer Tristine Rainer said that the definition of a climax is “Something must die, so something can live.” This implies a kind of sacrifice. If words are magic, then this is the ritual we must perform – we must make an offering, we must take something away, in order to achieve complete healing.
In some ways, this is the archetypal mythology and theology that sits at the heart of the human mind: it is Christ upon the Cross, healing the world by virtue of passing out of it. The problem with “Disneyfication”, as it has been termed, is that “no one is ever really gone” – these are the words spoken by Luke Skywalker to Princess Leia in The Last Jedi. I love the spiritual sentiment of these words, but they also reveal a deeper level of narrative fear.
We see this in many of the blockbusters – no one is ever dead, characters are just brand-assets that can be wheeled out again at a later date, all endings have to be open to allow for sequels. And I should say I’m not just talking about a literal interpretation of Rainer’s words and killing a character. Many things could die for something else to live. A way of life could die, a memory, a hope, a dream, or, if you are writing a more light-hearted or comedic story, perhaps a character’s pride and hubris could finally perish on the altar in order to birth true love.
I find myself increasingly appreciating the joy of a single stand-alone movie, an open and shut case, as well as stand-alone novels. Big long-running series (I’m talking more than three entries here) – whether of books or films – are ambitious and can be beautiful, but they should not be the default, as this often leads to the writer having to artificially extend the plot via crude means. In sitcoms, it’s the old trick of having the principle couple split up after they’ve finally gotten together so a few more series can be eked out, but this isn’t real story, this is filler content. I admire Japanese animes for how they boldly declare “FINAL SEASON” and stick with it; rarely do animes run longer than four or five seasons. They are complete stories, with structure, with beginning, middle, and end. This is one reason they have such fanatic fanbases (and boy am I a part of it). We can talk about animes as whole and complete artefacts.
If we’re to start a cultural revolution, we need to remember how the story ends, and that the ending may not be your favourite part, but it is undoubtedly the most important part: it’s what you leave the reader on, it’s the final goodbye to the lover on their deathbed, it’s the summation of all your story means. Don’t cheaply discard such moments as if they mean nothing, or eternally suspend them with the hope of sequels, because you only denigrate your art. Whatever modernists say, creating any form of art, whether music, literature, fine art, or film, is a moral duty – I leave to you where this duty is bestowed from. It is our role to show the world as it truly is, to use lies to tell the truth, and to show the secret and invisible palaces of dream that can only be described in the language of the imagination. In the words of Theoden in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, “If this is to be our end, then I would have us make such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance.”
Paradoxically, it’s only when we learn how to end, that we become everlasting.
Joseph Sale edits non-fiction and fiction, helping fledgling authors to realise their potential. He has edited some of the best new voices in speculative fiction including Ross Jeffery, Emily Harrison, Christa Wojciechowski, and more.
He has authored more than ten novels, including his Black Gate trilogy, and his love-letter to fantasy: Save Game. His short fiction has appeared in Tales from the Shadow Booth, edited by Dan Coxon, as well as in Idle Ink, Silver Blade, Fiction Vortex, Nonbinary Review, Edgar Allan Poet and Storgy Magazine. His stories have also appeared in anthologies such as You Are Not Alone (Storgy), Lost Voices (The Writing Collective), Technological Horror (Dark Hall Press), Burnt Fur (Blood Bound Books) and Exit Earth (Storgy).
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