I feel free to appropriate this title because, although it happens to be the title of Julian Barnes’ celebrated piece of literary fiction, he borrowed it from an older, and much wiser book by Frank Kermode: The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction.
Despite the title, Kermode’s book isn’t really about endings. It’s about how we deal with time in fiction, of how we sequence fictional space, of how stories take on certain spaces because of where we choose to start and finish our fictional tales.
One of the hallmarks of literary fiction is the way time is represented. It eschews definitive endings in favour of realism. Because if you ask someone to tell you the story of an event, you will notice that knowing where to begin and end are very problematic. Existentially, it really starts at the moment of self-consciousness and ends with death.
If I were to tell you a small story involving my altercation with a Laotian immigration officer, do I start in the line-up to get my passport stamped for entry? Or on the flight there? Or do I start by telling you why I decided to go to Laos in the first place? Now I have to ask myself the question: is this really just a story about an altercation at immigration, or is it something broader, deeper, wider than that? What did I go to Laos for? Why is it important to get in? Or perhaps this is actually about barriers and how we keep each other out of our respective ‘countries’?
It’s ironic that no critic every complained of too abrupt a beginning. It’s the endings we seem to feel more keenly. Perhaps this is because they are the last words we read and they stay with us. That happens in that last chapter seems to frame the entire story, tint it. Once read, it can never be unread.
Genre fiction has different conventions when it comes to endings. Some, like the Romance genre, have quite overtly proscribed endings. But in detective fiction, the reader can usually expect to have the murder or crime solved. In thrillers, one can be pretty confident that the bad guys will be stopped and brought to justice (or killed).
Hollywood and television drama have played a tremendous role in the kind of endings we define as a ‘good ending’. Over the years, our tastes have been recorded through ‘test audience’ surveys and focus groups. Then those tastes are reflected back to us over and over. It has resulted in an interesting progression in taste training. Recursive and diminishing returns until only one possible ending will ever be acceptable to a majority of viewers. The happy one. The one where everything turns out beautiful. The fairy-tale ending.
No one today would end Gone With The Wind the way it was ended. No one would end The Graduate the way it was ended.
And I’ll put money on it. If they remade the Titanic (I’m sure they will), Leo will live.
You think I’m exaggerating? Okay, let’s play a game.
I’m a market researcher helping to start a new food product.
What’s your very favorite food?
Excellent. We’re going to make that! Do you want it grilled, fried or poached?
The grilled and fried votes are kind of split down the middle.
Fine, we’re going to make both. You’ll get a choice!
Until it becomes clear that a slightly higher percentage of people like it grilled. Then we’ll discontinue the fried type.
Now, you’re going to eat grilled * everyday, because that’s what you said your favorite was.
Remember: food companies aren’t in the business of making food, they’re in the business of making money. Hollywood is spending $159 Million on a film, they aren’t going to take a change on an ending the majority of people don’t say is their favorite ending. They’re going to go for the one every one likes.
Because they’re not in the business of entertaining you. They’re in the business of making money. And so are publishers. And, I’m sad to say, a lot of authors.
You’re going to get exactly what you want, exactly the way you like it… FOREVER.
And you deserve exactly what you get because
YOU GET WHAT YOU WANT, ALL DAY, EVERY DAY!!!!
The only other possibility is that you don’t really get an ending at all, because that way they can sell you a sequel.
God, we’ve turned the world to shit.