Sunday, October 3, 2010

New York, Peterborough, happy endings

The two Animals events this past week could hardly have been more different. The first, a reading in the KGB Bar’s Sunday Evening Fiction series (with Matthew Pitt, whose fine collection Attention Please Now is new this year) was entirely conventional in its format: two or three dozen people listening to authors read, and then drinking and chatting. The venue was delightful, as was the dark Russian beer—and so was the evening generally. (There's a write-up at NBC New York Online:

The second, at the Only Café in Peterborough, Ontario on Thursday, attracted only seven people, almost all of them old friends of mine from the years in the late eighties and early nineties when I was starting Broadview Press. Sean Kane, whose own books include the extraordinary Wisdom of the Mythtellers, wisely suggested we just pull a couple of tables together and forget about having a formal event. That turned out to be a lot more fun, not least of all in hearing of other literary events with small turnouts—Sean recounted one story of poet Dennis Lee flying from Toronto to Vancouver for an “event” to which one person showed up.

The low turnout in Peterborough fits in with the larger picture for Animals in Canada: despite some fine reviews, a year after publication the Canadian edition has sold fewer than a thousand copies. Some of this, I'm sure, is simply a reflection of the fact that Canadians remain resistant to expressions of concern over how farm animals are treated. (Driving into Peterborough I noticed the huge Sealtest Dairy sign: “where good things never change.” No doubt people want to believe that their milk and cheese have not changed in Sealtest's 60 years; most would prefer not to know that lower prices and higher outputs have been achieved by adopting methods that greatly increase the suffering of animals.)

But I’m sure there is also a good deal about the book itself that has contributed to the Canadian edition being—so far, at least—a commercial failure. For one thing, it’s not a book that lends itself to sale through word of mouth. Many people who have read it have clearly found it deeply moving—“devastating,” even—but how many of us are likely to say to our friends, “hey, I read this great book recently; you should give it a try. It’s really disturbing, and maybe not in a way that you can easily leave behind when you stop reading. Oh, and don’t count on a happy ending to the book. … But you’ll love it!” As I mentioned to the group on Thursday night, I have thought of proposing to UK publishers a version of Animals that would give the book a less bleak ending (as well as cutting back on the footnotes that several reviewers have complained about).

Like most people who have read the book and been moved by it, my companions at the Only Café weren’t keen on the idea of giving the book a happier ending. And from any aesthetic angle, nor am I; I have no reason to think it would be a better work in any literary sense if the story ended differently. But it might be more effective in encouraging positive change. Certainly it is the case that most of the novels that are known for having helped to inspire significant social change recount tragic events but do not end on a note of devastation or despair. Mary Barton, Oliver Twist, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Black Beauty, The Jungle—in all of them the story takes a hopeful turn at the end.

A couple of years ago one of the pre-publication readers of Animals (a former editor at a major publishing house) suggested to me that I should change the ending—that readers “deserve” a happier ending than they are given in Animals. Jonathan Franzen has recently spoken in a similar vein about his own writing:
There’s so much to be upset about in the world, I feel an obligation from time to time to have the final note in a book not be a despairing one. Or an ironic one. To actually maintain the possibility of some kind of hope. (The Globe and Mail, August 27, 2010)

The ideas that readers deserve a happy ending or that writers have an obligation not to strike a despairing final chord seems ludicrous on the face of it; would anyone seriously suggest that readers of Madame Bovary, or Jude the Obscure, or The House of Mirth (or, for that matter, Romeo and Juliet and King Lear) deserve a happy ending? Surely we should never try to make tragedy a no-go zone for literature.

But Franzen’s reference point in suggesting that readers may deserve hopeful endings is clearly not literature but life—life at a specific point in human history. The obligation to provide happy, hopeful endings exists because “there’s so much to be upset about in the world.” With all around us so grim, in other words, we must be given hope. It’s an idea that might ring true if we were talking of readers facing extraordinary privation; if the Black Death is all around or you have just lost everything in the Haitian earthquake you might fairly be thought to “deserve” a little light reading. But surely such an idea isn’t applicable to the majority of readers in North America today. Indeed, it seems almost self indulgent to suggest that most of us in North America have too many upsetting things to deal with. Even as we come out of a deep recession, most of us in North America are extraordinarily pampered by comparison with most people, here or elsewhere, at any other time in history. And we are, if anything, shielded too often from the true horror and tragedy that is the reality for humans in much of the rest of the world. Most people hear about such horror only very briefly in the context of an extraordinary disaster such as an earthquake, and then the upsetting truth is tucked away again out of view.

Such is surely the case for the horrors endured by non-human animals—horrors rarely reported by the media, horrors hidden from view behind the walls of North America’s factory farms. Animals, of course, is a work that aims quite deliberately to look behind those walls and to upset the reader. And I don’t think as a matter of aesthetics that it goes too far. But it may well be that it does go too far as a matter of practical reality—that it would have a better chance of influencing more people in the direction of positive change if it ended more happily. And that would be no negligible thing; I think I’ll write that letter to a UK editor tomorrow!

* * *

A question prompted by the above: is there some correlation between the flourishing of tragic literature and a relative absence of tragedy in society at large? The age of the Black Death was also the age of the Decameron and The Canterbury Tales. Compared to the horrors of that era Shakespeare’s England was a place of ease and contentment—and on the stage tragedy flourished. A few generations later a land exhausted by the horrors of the English Civil War had no wish to face Shakespeare’s King Lear—except in Nahum Tate’s new “happy ending” version. The great tragedies of the nineteenth and very early twentieth centuries—by Flaubert, Hardy, Wharton, and others—come from times that for all their troubles were tranquil and prosperous relative to, say, the time of the French revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, or that of WWI. Perhaps it is not by coincidence that the literature of Europe or North America has not tended successfully towards tragedy since WWII and the Holocaust. But we are now almost as far distant from 1945 as Hardy was from Waterloo when he began to write his great tragedies. Perhaps we are almost ready again ourselves for tragic literary forms; perhaps the reception that The Road has received is one sign that we might be.