In Defense of the Happy Ending

Happy endings have a pretty lousy reputation in modern culture. They’re considered childish, naïve, and worst of all, unrealistic.  Let us all gasp in horror at the audacity of creating fictitious scenarios in fiction, of all places!

Obviously, I find this viewpoint simplistic at best and downright nihilistic at its worst. Why don’t we dispel, right away, the myth that darkness and grittiness and doom and gloom are more realistic? Real life is not composed exclusively of bad endings. Nor, I acknowledge, is it composed exclusively of good endings. It’s not really composed of endings at all. Endings, and beginnings, are all matter of perception, of constructing a sort of narrative out of the rather random happenings of reality. You might dispute this by pointing out that birth and death are rather obvious starts and finishes in a story. Sure. But you could just as easily argue that if you were creating a family saga, one individual’s birth or death could mark merely the beginning or end of a chapter, only one part of a much greater, overarching generational tale. The beginning and end of a war could be a self-contained story, or it could be one more step in the broader chronicle of a country’s history. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Stories are, by nature, fabrications. Whether they’re purely fictional or an artful presentation of historical facts, they must be crafted into a narrative that requires a deliberate shaping by a writer.

So dark stories are not more realistic than optimistic ones. But we’re not really talking about literal realism here, are we? A plain, unfabricated relation of events as they tend to happen wouldn’t make much of a story at all — “He got out of bed. He brushed his teeth. He ate breakfast. He drove to work. He had a conversation with a co-worker that will have no bearing on future events” — but we do want to offer something that our readers feel is realistic, even if it takes place in the most fantastic of settings. We want to ease a little bit of that burden of suspension of disbelief.  And when a story has no complications, no significant obstacles to overcome, nothing but an easy happy ending, it doesn’t feel very satisfying. It doesn’t feel realistic. I think, at the end of it all, that’s what people mean when they say happy endings aren’t realistic.

Obviously, as an avid reader and writer of speculative fiction, I’m more willing to suspend my disbelief than otherwise. I don’t mind if the worldbuilding is fabulously unrealistic compared to the actual world, as long as it has decent inner consistency and an engaging story. In fact, I’d rather that the story didn’t hew too closely to real-world happenings. Why? Well, if I wanted to read stories that matched up with reality, I wouldn’t read fiction. I want a narrative; I want meaning. There is something deeply imbedded in human nature, I believe, that drives us to create narratives out of the random, chaotic happenings of our lives. To fabricate stories that reflect reality but have a more deliberate point, something more than “Life’s hard; then you die”; to make sense of reality by stepping outside of it for a while. Some people label certain types of fiction as “mere escapism,” spoken with a contemptuous sniff. But I fully embrace the notion of escapism as a positive feature of fiction. Its purpose is not to deny the existence of real life, not by any means; it gives us a place to examine all the deep questions of life from a fresh perspective. And if it’s truly good fiction, then it allows us to come back to reality with a renewed ability to cope with it.

Grim and gritty fiction, I feel, has very little to offer me in terms of coping with the real world. It presents just as fabricated a view on reality as optimistic fiction, but it leaves me bereft and hopeless instead of invigorated and hopeful. Even if the world really were as dark and pointless as such fiction seems to say, why embrace that? Why wallow in cynicism without relief? And for heaven’s sake, why do fantasy authors insist on claiming that the truly brutal stuff, particularly the violence against women, is a conscientious choice to hew to “realism” when they’ll happily include wizards and dragons and zombies? I’m not buying it, guys.

I’m not calling for stories without conflict. Those are hardly stories at all. (Though I might argue that a better word is complication. A good epiphany-tale, for example, has little conflict but plenty of complications as a character rises nearer and near to enlightenment.) I want to see the characters struggle and strive; that’s how I relate to them, as someone who’s struggling and striving through life myself. But I want to see a purpose to the struggle. I don’t want a happy ending that hasn’t been earned, but if it has been earned, then those characters darn well better get it.

I might as well include an example from my favorite thing to obsess about. The original trilogy of Star Wars has a happy ending, not because it ignores the existence of darkness and evil, but because it stares that evil right in the face and conquers it. It’s bittersweet, full of sacrifice and loss, but it is an earned, much-deserved happy ending. (Which is why, among many other reasons, I reject the Disney movie’s notion of “Ha ha just kidding nobody really lived happily ever after.) On the other hand, the prequel trilogy was written as a tragedy, and I fully expected a sad ending. Not a despairing, nothing-matters-what’s-the-point-of-trying ending, but sorrow with only the promise of hope many years in the future. It would have been unearned, not to mention bizarre, if Episode III hadn’t ended in tragedy. Different stories call for different endings. But there’s an enormous difference between a story of relentless bleakness where there’s no real distinguishing between the consequences of good or bad behaviors, versus a story where bad choices lead to sorrow. Yes, I like my stories to be moral. Not obnoxiously moralistic, but definitely moral.

Lucas himself sums it up pretty darn well: “Being a pessimist doesn’t seem to accomplish anything…if I wanted to change the world it was no use saying how awful our society is or how stupid. The way to make things progress is to point people in the right direction, to show how wonderful life can be. Tearing things down, being pessimistic makes people simply accept the conditions that prevail. Whereas if you give them hope and point them in the right direction, things are more likely to get better.”

Fans of Tolkien might have already recognized that I also share a lot of his ethos when it comes to the purpose of stories. I’m going to finish with a quote from him.

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous ‘turn’…is not essentially ‘escapist,’ nor ‘fugitive.’ In its fairy-tale — or otherworld — setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace, never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

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Fear

“People who are governed by fear are the most dangerous sort of all…Worse than anger…far worse than envy or bloodlust. In fact, you might say that every other dangerous emotion has its true roots in fear. Never underestimate a fearful man.”

This is from my novel Mimic. There is a definite irony in the context of who is speaking, and to whom (he’s manipulating her for his selfish purposes, enabled by her fear that he’ll reveal her secret), but I think it carries truth nonetheless. I’m also quite fond of Yoda’s iconic words from Episode I: “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.” Of course appropriate fear, perhaps better termed caution, is essential to protect one from unnecessarily endangering one’s self or others.  But in excess, it is debilitating, mind-clouding, even dangerous. I believe that the less I am governed by fear, the better my life will be.

So how’s this for irony: I spent a lot of my time feeling terrified.

I worry about my children. That’s perfectly normal for a mother, especially when one of the children has special needs. I worry about our house falling apart and how we’re going to pay for repairs. I worry about running out of money; also fairly typical for a family living off the single income of a school teacher. I would say one of the main things I discuss with my therapist is how to fight off the crushing anxiety that weighs on me. Well, at least I’m working on it.

But I’m functioning. I’m doing my best to confront adulthood even if I’d rather hide under the bed like a three-year-old. It’s another set of fears that’s on my mind right now. The fears that keep from me putting my work out there for other people to see.

The fear of rejection. The fear of ridicule. The fear of achieving only the infamy of public mockery — or the fear of not getting any notice at all. These fears are truly crippling. I long to be published; it’s the only career I could feel really passionate about, even if I never become more than a mid-list author. And yet I hesitate to send out more queries, fearing that I’ll ruin my chance with another set of agents. Fearing that one more round of form rejections will have me so depressed that I’ll just give up on it forever. (And yet if I’m not querying, haven’t I already as good as given up?)

Even with my sillier hobbies, I fear to put it out there. Fear that for every person who enjoys the goofy Star Wars video I made, there were be some nasty troll. That there will be more snide laughter than good-natured chuckling. I am constantly torn between wanting so much to share what I’ve created and cringing in terror at the very notion of it. I’m not sure if the Internet has made this mindset better or worse. I find it delightful that I can post fan fiction and gain a following of readers who happily provide immediate feedback. I’ve also tortured myself if I post something and don’t get any replies within the first half hour. I’m sure without the Internet, my neuroses would find some other way to manifest. But anyway.

I suppose it would be helpful for me to acknowledge what I’ve been able to do, in spite of my fears. I’ve sent out plenty of queries. I’ve gritted my teeth through the rejections and sent out more. I’ve gotten helpful suggestions from beta readers and hunkered down to do revisions, even though I loathe revisions and sometimes truly fear that I’ll just make my book worse by trying to fix it. I’ve put some of my creations out there, fannish or otherwise, and weathered the negative responses along with the positive. It helps that I haven’t really encountered any trolls yet. But when I do, I’ll just have to remind myself not to listen to their voices, any more than I should listen to the little troll inside my own head whose name is Fear. I’ll finish with another quote, from Frank Herbert’s Dune:

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

This Time, It’s Personal (But it’s always personal)

Back when my husband (then-boyfriend) was participating in a writers/actors/directors workshop in college, he invited me to the staged reading of all the plays they’d been working on. One of the plays was a sort of dramedy that explored a marriage wherein the husband suffered from narcolepsy. I enjoyed it well enough, though it seemed like it still needed a lot of polishing. And then, during the audience feedback afterwards, a woman spoke up and almost immediately began crying. Apparently she had come to see this play specifically because she was living it as the wife of a narcoleptic. It was powerfully validating for her to see it portrayed like this.

I recall feeling deeply uncomfortable. First of all, because this woman was having a personal, emotional moment and it gave me a sense of eavesdropping on something private. But secondly, I felt like every criticism I’d had was now irrelevant. What did it matter what I, a non-narcoleptic or spouse of a narcoleptic, thought? This wasn’t a metaphor for marriage issues as I had originally been interpreting it; this was a real problem and I couldn’t begin to comprehend it, so my opinions didn’t matter and I’d better just keep my mouth shut. (Ha, like I would have ever opened my mouth, shy and timid mouse that I am. But anyway).

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve grown and learned a great deal in the intervening years about what it means to engage with art on a personal level, both as the creator and as the audience. And I wish I could go back in time and tell my young self this important truth: your opinion is still valid. It’s not more valid than someone else’s, but it’s not less valid either. And you can just throw out the idea of objectively assessing a work of art, because such an assessment is impossible by definition. Every artist will approach their creation with a set of experiences and opinions, and every audience member will engage with that creation with their own entirely separate set of experiences and opinions. And that’s okay; it’s more than okay; it’s what makes the creator-audience relationship so exciting and dynamic.

Sure, you can assess skill to a certain degree of near-objectiveness. Some writing is clearly better crafted than others; great painters have more proficiency than lesser painters; a poorly-edited movie is going to be less coherent than a well-edited one. But those observations can only get you so far. Everything past that point is going to be opinion, and opinions are always, by definition, personal.

I have a son with low-functioning autism. He is non-verbal. This is a specific circumstance of my life that a great many people do not share with me. It informs so much of my day-to-day experience, and of course it affects my perception of stories, particularly ones that portray autism. I’m done feeling apologetic for that fact that I can’t objectively read or watch anything involving autism, judging it by its artistic merits alone. That’s just not going to happen. And my reaction is perfectly valid as long as I’m aware of and acknowledge how my personal life experiences are coloring that reaction. As long as I’m aware, in turn, of how other people’s reactions to my writing or any work of art are going to be colored by their own experiences. The quest for objectivity belongs in the realm of science. When it comes to art, it’s personal.

I saw Rain Man before my son was born and then again after he was diagnosed. It was a vastly different experience. The first time — I enjoyed it, thought it was a heartfelt, well-told story, with nice touches of humor and pathos. The second time — I was in tears almost from the very beginning. What struck me most was the character arc, not of the autistic character, but his brother. At the time the film was made, living in a group home with dedicated caregivers was just about the best they could envision for someone with the degree of disabilities Raymond has. So he doesn’t change much. He has a little adventure, but he’s not going to suddenly become functional or independent. The best possible outcome for him is to return to the group home, with at least the added feature of having a relationship with his brother Charlie. Charlie, on the other hand, undergoes a drastic shift. He begins the film as a very selfish, resentful man. He essentially kidnaps his brother just to try to get the inheritance he feels he deserves from his recently deceased father. Having to take care of Raymond, however, is a transforming experience. He has to think of someone else’s needs almost constantly — if he doesn’t, he could trigger severe public meltdowns or endanger his brother’s life. And gradually he learns to take care of Raymond not just out of necessity, but out of love. It all builds up to the climax, when he must become selfless enough to recognize that Raymond can’t stay with him and that the best thing he can do is let him return with his trained caregivers to the safety of his group home.

Let me tell you, taking care of someone with severe disabilities is beyond exhausting. It’s physically and emotionally draining on so many levels. And there are times when I fear that it’s turning me into the worst possible version of myself. I need stories that tell me there is hope of becoming a better person because of my caregiving.

Which is why reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime was one of the most excruciating experiences of my life. Because for me, personally, it presented the exact opposite message. I know this book is a celebrated portrayal of autism; it’s a bestseller; it’s been praised every which way. It might be a deeply sensitive, well-written book, a warm and meaningful experience for countless readers. All of that was irrelevant to me, because the main character’s parents are terrible. They do awful, awful, awful things, and it’s implied that it’s because his condition was so challenging for them to deal with. His autism made them worse. I couldn’t bear it. Oh, I know there’s a lot of realism going on there; marriages are frequently strained or broken by special-needs children. I already mentioned my fears of becoming the worst version of myself. I’m not denying those fears. I just don’t want to read a book where all those fears play out in vivid, vivid detail.

Clearly, this is not a universal experience. As it happens, my husband enjoyed the book. It’s not the parents’ story; their dysfunction is peripheral to the main character’s growth and development, and he liked that character’s story. But for whatever reason, I couldn’t get over the parents’ messed-up lives. Both opinions are valid. I don’t have to like the book just because lots of other people do, including parents of autistic kids. I don’t even have to like it because it’s well-written. It’s not for me.

The Speed of Dark was a very different experience. I came across it in a bookstore shortly after our son had been diagnosed and I was feeling very morose, particularly after perusing the parenting shelves that were full of cheerful guides on how to raise your child to be perfectly well-adjusted. Even the books on autism seemed to focus on high-functioning, verbal kids, and I just felt so alone. I didn’t need advice; I needed a story. And I found it, written by one of my favorite authors. It wasn’t until then that I learned she actually has an adult son with autism. Obviously she drew upon her on personal experiences and viewpoints in the creation of her story, just as I did in my reading of it.

It’s a book with a lot of ambiguity. Set in the near future, it addresses some pretty intense issues. Is it right or wrong to seek a cure for autism — is it wrong to even call it a “cure” when it’s just a different way of seeing the world? I’ve seen reactions to the ending ranging from exuberantly positive to deeply negative, which seems to indicate that Elizabeth Moon struck a peculiar balance between portraying the main character’s choice as either right or wrong depending on your own personal perspective. My daughter read it recently and said it was a sad ending. I think it left me more contemplative and wistful than sad. But it was what I needed at that time in my life. I understand the criticisms I’ve read about it. I understand the frustration that too many books about autism focus on a cure plot-line rather than almost anything else. I wouldn’t object to the wider inclusion of autistic characters in stories, because the more variety we have, the more likely chance of finding one that strikes the right chord with an equally wide variety of individual readers.

The important thing is recognizing that your personal response will rarely, if ever, be universal. And that’s just fine. It’s still no more or less valid than anyone else’s personal, fully subjective reaction. It’s always personal.

Sticks and Stones

Words are powerful.

Of course I believe that. It’s not really possible, as a writer, to believe otherwise. Why else would I choose words as my primary medium? And yet I find it fascinating that sometimes the most powerful words are those that approach, without ever quite arriving at, the inexpressible. Sometimes it is the very ambiguity, the approximate value of language, that does more than precise words ever could.

Let me offer Jane Austen as an example. She has this peculiar habit of avoiding direct dialogue quotation during her most dramatic scenes. Any fan of Pride and Prejudice knows Mr. Darcy’s famous, “You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you” but what does he say after that? There is no precise quote, only a description that allows the reader to fill in the details of how he manages to simultaneously gratify and insult her. Again, after his second proposal, Elizabeth’s reply is described indirectly — “Elizabeth…immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change…” Rather vague, so that readers have interpreted it to mean anything from a blushing, stuttering, “Yes, my feelings have changed,” to a decidedly non-verbal (and non-ladylike for the time period!) passionate kiss.

Why does Austen do this? It’s clearly a deliberate choice. In other passages she displays a clear talent for writing excellent dialogue, so when she chooses not to, we can assume that she felt a certain amount of ambiguity would serve the narrative better. Sometimes the most powerful thing that words can do is to say, “It was so amazing, I can’t even describe it.” In fact, another of her characters, Mr. Knightley from Emma, says as much during his proposal. “I cannot make speeches, Emma…if I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.” I find it quite amusing that this line, claiming an inability to compose sweepingly romantic speeches, is frequently cited as one of the most romantic lines in literature.

I’m sure that the inherent ambiguity of language is the primary reason for the warring agony and ecstasy of being a writer. Sometimes the perfect turn of phrase seems so close, almost within my grasp…but I can never quite reach it, having to settle for whatever approximation is sufficient. And yet I love the striving, always trying for perfection, even if by their very nature words will never quite be enough. If not for ambiguity, reading would be dull and workmanlike. The meaning of every phrase and passage would come across without effort or nuance. Useful if you’re reading a how-to guide, but not if you’re trying to delve into the mysteries of the ineffability of existence. Those mysteries are fluid and multifaceted, and a writer must find the language that mirrors such complex fluidity. It may never be a perfect reflection, but we never stop trying.

Place Title Here (Subtitle Optional)

I love coming up with titles. Book titles, chapter titles, even titles of blog posts. Not that I claim to be especially good at it — in fact, I think I enjoy it because it’s so challenging and I know I have plenty of room for improvement. I’ve spent considerable time, far more than necessary, on finding just the right word or sequence of words to pithily encapsulate a story or message. I don’t always find it, but when I do it’s intensely satisfying.

In most cases, it’s easier to be wordy than concise. It requires a special kind of discipline and creativity to pare something down to its most essential elements. I haven’t gotten a Twitter account because I know I’d drive myself crazy trying to contain my thoughts within a particular character limit. Writing a one-page synopsis of a 80,000 word novel? Exhausting. So you can see how coming up with a brief title is an exercise in supreme self-control.

I’m especially fond of one-word titles. There is something so powerful about a single word evoking an entire book, particularly when ambiguity comes into play. Silver is probably my favorite, because it refers to a hair color, a type of woman and a collection of supernatural abilities all in a single word. Of course with just one word there is the higher risk of other books with identical titles, but sometimes it’s worth it. Other times, as with, well, Other, I’m fully aware that it will probably only ever be a placeholder title, because it’s just too generic. Yes, it’s referring doubly to the Other World accessed by magic users and the fact that the Beauty and Beast characters are the other, or opposite, genders from the original, but it’s such a generic word that it simply doesn’t stand out enough. If I ever get it published, I’m sure there will be a new process of selecting a title.

In the world of books, shorter titles are usually better, easier to remember and less unwieldy on a cover. But on the Internet, long headlines are growing more and more popular. I can’t say I have a high opinion of this trend, because it’s related to clickbait. “You’ll never guess what how this inspirational story ended” “This video will restore your faith in humanity” “What happened next will shock you”. Please, no. A headline or title should be a deft tool, offering a glimpse of what the entirety contains and allowing you to decided for yourself whether you want to read it. It shouldn’t be a sledgehammer that cracks you on the head and commands you to click the link.

As artists, we have a fine line to walk between a fostering of emotional responses and plain old manipulation. Of course I want people to read more; of course I want to them to click on my links. But I want them to come honestly, without being tricked. If it’s not something they’d be naturally interested in, that’s too bad, but better for them to know it from the start.

Readers don’t like to be tricked. Let them know what they’re getting into! This is where titles can be a useful indicator of genre or tone. If it contains words like “dragon” or “sword” or something fabricated like “Sinhallia,” it’s probably a work of fantasy. “Forbidden”  or “desire” (or both together)? That’s a romance novel. Oh, but then there’s that pesky ambiguity, giving us two “Invisible Man” titles in drastically different genres. (One science fiction, the other a work of realism that examines race relations!) So there’s another fine line between teasing your audience and just confusing them. It’s not easy, but it sure is fun to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t.

Reviews, Please (not that I’m begging)

I want to write a little bit about audience feedback and what it means for an artist. By writing this I’m aware that it could be construed as a shameless plea for feedback, but being shameless is kind of inherent in the process of putting your art out there. Too much shame will just make you want to bury your head in the sand.

It’s hard to expose your work to the world. It requires a peculiar combination of vulnerability and thick-skinnedness. You have to know that there might be negative responses from people who don’t like your art or simply don’t like you. And yet you yearn for acknowledgement and praise, and the only way to get that is to risk the opposite.

So we have two basic categories of audience response; negative and positive. But of course it’s more complicated than than. Some feedback is mixed. And sometimes there’s no feedback at all. Allow me to offer a look at the continuum and a sort of ranking of which feedback is the most gratifying and useful, and which is the worst. All of this is my own opinion drawn from my personal experience, but I hope it’ll match up fairly well to the average artist’s experience.

Let’s start with negative just to get it out of the way. The worst kind of feedback is the nasty, personal attacks that have little or nothing to do with the actual work. These are particularly common with Internet trolls whose only drive seems to be spreading around poison and cruelty. Obviously, this is awful. But it’s so blatantly awful and thoughtless that you should be able to recognize how little bearing it has on the actual quality of your work. These people would probably attack the Mona Lisa if they thought it would get them attention.

So it might be even harder to read a well-written and thoughtful review that thoroughly eviscerates your work. This is someone who has taken the time to examine your art seriously and reaches the conclusion that it’s terrible. Ouch. And yet, if it’s honest and written without rancor, you might use it as an opportunity for genuine artistic soul-searching. It’s not fun to realize your work isn’t very good, obviously, but if it leads to improvement, there might be value in even a scathing review. And then, sometimes you can shrug and dismiss the whole thing because they clearly weren’t the right audience for your work, and the right audience got it.

Less useful is a negative response without any qualifiers. Just “I don’t like it.” It carries the same painful quality as the full-fleshed negative review, but not much instruction on how to improve. It’s the equivalent of disliking a video on YouTube, and while there’s certainly no law against someone simply not liking something, it can be very frustrating as an artist to wonder why.

On the positive side, we have the “like.” This is great for a quick, easy boost of confidence for an artist. Counting likes or 5-star reviews is highly encouraging and provides a tangible, even numerical, sense of how popular your work is. But it’s not the best possible positive feedback, because after all it doesn’t help the artist know why or how their art was successful for that particular audience member.

So specific feedback is even better. Not just “I loved this” but “I loved watching how the protagonist changed throughout the story” or “the descriptions were so evocative” or whatever. I understand that while this comes fairly naturally for me as someone who spent her college career writing about literature, it might be a bit more challenging for others. But even a brief detail or two is so helpful. It doesn’t have to be an eloquent 20-page paper (though I certainly wouldn’t turn up my nose at that either!), just anything specific. And if you liked the work overall but some things didn’t work for you, please include constructive criticism. Because, again, opportunity for improvement is much appreciated by any artist whose ego hasn’t grown too inflated to accept it.

I would have said that detailed favorable reviews are the best, but my husband pointed out that there’s one way to improve upon them — a favorable review that finishes with “I’m an agent/editor/producer and I want to work with you; shall we draw up the standard Rich and Famous Contract?” So, there’s that.

Now I’m going to finish with what might be the worst response: none at all. I’m divided on this, because trolls and merciless review can be pretty awful, and I don’t know that anything could necessarily top them in testing the thickness of an artist’s skin. However, silence is most assuredly not golden. The answer why is very simple. Artists are blessed and cursed with rich imaginations, and when you get no response, you begin to fill in the silence with the worst possible scenarios. How could we not assume that our work was so abysmal that no one dares to respond, unable to come up with a polite way of saying, “It stinks!” Now, if one takes a moment to reasonably consider the possibilities, one might realize that it’s just as likely the reviewer doesn’t feel they have anything new or useful to contribute in terms of feedback. But one is not inclined to behave reasonably when one is putting one’s work out there in view of the entire world. One feels terrified, and one could take the slightest hint of rejection as good cause to turn and hide one’s work in a hole in the ground forever.

When I was a teenager, I enjoyed participating in my church’s choir. Usually my contribution was as the accompanist or one of many sopranos. I was confident enough in my piano skills, though always gratified to receive compliments after a performance. I was not as confident in my singing, but I could safely hide among the blending voices. Until one day the choir director asked if I wanted a solo. I was rather terrified, but the part wasn’t terribly complicated, and in a fit of daring, I decided to give it a try. Even if it didn’t turn out great, I figured that people would be nice enough to acknowledge my efforts.

After the performance, no one said a word. No one told me I’d done badly or offered any backhanded compliments. But no one offered any praise or encouragement or the slightest acknowledgement that I had done anything at all. And the memory still stings some twenty years later. Because of course I could only assume that I had sung so terribly, no one could think of any way to respond other than avoiding any mention of it. They couldn’t say anything nice, so they said nothing at all.  I must have been really bad.

I have no idea how I actually sounded; maybe I was terrible and maybe I was fine. And it’s not like it stunted my promising vocalist career. That was never going to happen. But I cannot tell you how much of a difference it would have made if just one person had said something nice. Not fake, overwrought flattery, just “Hey, good for you to get up there and sing a solo!” I don’t believe we should convince mediocre artists that their work doesn’t need improvement, just to protect their fragile egos. As I said, constructive criticism is very valuable. But above all, feedback. It’s basically the only reason we put our work out there. Deep inside, most artists are like that 12-year-old fanfic writer who posts “PLEASE READ LIKE AND REVIEW” with every new installment. We’ve just gotten a little better at hiding it.

The Long View

Lately I’ve been trying to puzzle out why I feel a disproportionate irritation at the phrase “fan theory.” I think there are a few interrelated reasons for my dislike. First of all, from a pedantic standpoint, theory seems the wrong word to me for this particular usage. Theories are created through scientific analysis in order to provide a working explanation for something not yet fully understood. But you can’t approach a story the same way you approach natural phenomena. Stories aren’t created through some confluence of natural laws. They’re created by people. So any questions or mysteries that exist were either deliberately manufactured by the storyteller, or cropped up in the form of plot holes or inconsistencies. Deliberate mysteries have deliberate answers. Unintentional mysteries have none. Either way, the source is right there in the writer’s brain.

Now, I don’t mean to say that I disapprove of any exploration of a story beyond the author’s conscious intent. Far from it! You can interpret a story any way you please, whether the author agrees with you or not. But that’s creating interpretations, not theories. Every time someone uses the word theory, it seems to imply that they’re analyzing real events that arose from underlying causes other than “someone chose to write it that way” and it makes me twitch.

But my annoyance goes deeper than that, I believe. There are really two different kinds of analysis at play here, and the distinction between them is quite significant. The first type is most common with ongoing stories, particularly the sort wherein the storyteller likes to leave out all sorts of dangling questions to keep the audience guessing. It ensures that they’ll tune in next time, desperate for the answers that the following installment will provide. This sort of questioning takes the form of speculation, often accompanied by a fervid accumulation of spoilers. Who is So-and-So’s long lost family? What is the cryptic hero’s mysterious tragic backstory? How did this random character acquire the coveted object? And almost always, the set-up of the question is paired with the winking promise that the answers are coming, as long as you keep watching the next episode.

You might have gathered that I’m not particularly impressed with this sort of storytelling. Don’t get me wrong; I have jumped on the spoiler train many a time, caught up in the need to uncover mysteries just the same as everyone else. But I’ve learned from those experiences that the reveal of surprises, while exciting at the time, is not enough to make a story truly engaging. It’s a once-and-done thing, and the excitement fades with every subsequent re-watch. Because the answers are very simple once you learn them. There’s no more room for speculation or nuance. After a while it begins to feel like nothing more than a collection of a cheap gimmicks.

So what kind of analysis do I prefer? The questions that have no definitive answers, the mysteries that go beyond the limited scope of a story’s specific details to encompass the eternal questions of human existence. What is the nature of good and evil? What does it mean to be truly selfless? Is perfect happiness possible in an imperfect world? And so on and so on. What makes these questions so compelling is the myriad of potential interpretations, allowing you to go on thinking about them long after the initial idea was sparked. It’s not clear-cut. And it’s the sort of thinking that rewards multiple re-reads or re-views of a story rather than diminishing once the answer is revealed. The best stories, I’ve always felt, are the ones I want to keep coming back to. And if all the answers have already been given, what’s the point of coming back? As I’ve said before, I like stories that encourage me to think, not stories that tell me how to think.

I understand that my preferred method of engaging with stories is not universal…probably not even close. There’s a reason that cliff-hangers are so effective. And I’m not opposed to the occasional tantalizing question leading to a shocking twist. But a story that’s built upon nothing more than a series of ever-more complex mysteries is probably going to collapse in on itself by the end. For true substance, you need to have deeper questions that are worth considering long after the more straight-forward mysteries have all been revealed.