Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Good Endings?

Recently I had a discussion with a friend who was advocating the reading of non-fiction over against fiction. In his opinion, reading novels does not educate the reader in anything near as valuable as what could be gained by reading non-fiction. An investment in fiction does not add to a person's storehouse of intelligence. [I am paraphrasing].
And I did concede him a few points, along these lines -- proceeding to defend my approximate 80% to 20% fiction-to-non-fiction ratios by saying I read novels for entertainment. The chemical rush I get, etc.
But thinking about it afterward -- there is so much more to it than this. For me, it is much more than merely a different way of watching a movie. By reading fiction, I believe we actually do "learn" things in ways that we could not otherwise know [in our limited experience] and sometimes we gain this "knowledge" in ways that would be impossible by learning facts.
Anyhoo -- my friend also said that he does not like to read novels because "not a one of them has ever ended well." To summarize, he feels that all novels have poor endings that only serve to exemplify an author's frustration with the requirement of a last page, at some point.
I sort of disagreed, but when he asked me to provide an example of a novel that satisfactorily ended, I was a bit mute, I must admit.
But then I thought of Anna Karenina, and so I offered that one as my choice of a well-ended novel. I've read it twice, and it's probably my favourite novel ever. It merits a third reading. I'm a bit of a collector, the three copies shown above are mine, and I have a misplaced fourth one around here somewhere.
Both times, I remember finishing Tolstoy's Anna and thinking, "Damn, that is a good novel!"
It ends up zeroing in on the character of Levin, rather than Anna. All though the book, Levin [some say a representation of Tolstoy himself] holds out for real love. His love for a woman named Kitty. This calm pairing is pitted against the tempestuous one of Anna and Count Vronsky all the way along. And in the end Tolstoy focuses his attention on Levin's spiritual regeneration, showing this to be much more a novel of ideas than a book fixated on romance. The very last paragraph is so amazing -- my favourite in all of literature. [Don't read it if you have not read the book, don't peek!]
But the very final line is this:
…my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, is every moment of it no longer meaningless as it was before, but has an unquestionable meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it.
I love that.
It emphasizes the very thing the suicidal Anna was unable to accomplish in her own life.
Do any of you have any further arguments I can offer my friend, as to the merits of fiction? Any favourite well-ended novels?
Books with a last page that can justify having read the first one?

******

11 comments:

Alyce said...

I know that there have to be many, but as far as classic literature my mind is blank, and award-winning lit does tend to be depressing. I think it's pretty standard to have a higher percentage of happy endings in genre fiction. (I'm not sure what he meant by ended well - artfully crafted, or happy?)

Regardless of all that, your discussion about ending quotes brought to mind an awesome last line I read the other day, from a book that I thought was just okay. That last line sure took it up a notch though. It's from a sci-fi book called The Engines of God by Jack McDevitt:

"Priscilla Hutchins continues to pilot the Academy's ships. She has established a reputation of her own, and people meeting her for the first time are always surprised to discover that she is not quite as tall, or as beautiful, as they had expected. That comes later."

That line spoke to me because that is exactly how I've felt about some wonderful people in my life. The more you get to know them the deeper the beauty goes and they seem larger than life.

And I agree that fiction has a value beyond entertainment. Instead of watching as a spectator (TV), you can get inside of the mind of the character(s) and you get to learn from their experiences in a more immediate way. It's the difference between learning bald facts and being placed in the middle of the action (albeit a fictional setting) on the day it happened.

And I have to say that I have learned a lot from historical fiction because I have an emotional link on some level to the events from the stories, and that helps me remember the historical setting, rulers and dates more accurately.

Stefanie said...

There was a study published recently in Science magazine I think about how reading novels increases one's emotional intelligence. You lear how to interact with a variety of people is a wide variety of situations. People who read novels are better at picking up social cues and are also more empathetic. Living in the world is not just about facts!

As for books with good endings, there are loads! Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, most books by Dickens, Ulysses has an awesome and very famous ending. I could go on. Let me know if you need a longer list ;)

Beth said...

“The joys of sincere work and worthy aspiration and congenial friendship were to be hers; nothing could rob her of her birthright of fancy or her ideal world of dreams. And there was always the bend in the road!

“God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world,” whispered Anne softly.”


Anne of Green Gables – L. M. Montgomery

(You didn’t specify that it had to be adult fiction…)

BBB said...

Said friend here. I certainly don't mean happy endings - I mean endings that are stylistically fulfilling. Cipriano points to Tolstoy but that is like using Jesus as an example of all people being good. Of course the world's greatest writer is going to be able to end a novel well. However, I think I am on to something as all these avid readers are also having problems pointing out great endings. That being said I reference Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment as my great ending (not to mention best novel of all time).

Anonymous said...

Aceops fictional account of the sturn yet leinuent mother goose would be my choice. Truth comes in only one form... Truth.

Isabella said...

I would argue that a lot of nonfiction is more fiction one might think. In the case of biography, for example, it's often given a narrative structure and it's full of conjecture regarding teh subject's thoughts and motivations. History, famously written by the winners, also "suffers" from narrative to make a point; "facts" are coloured the perspective from which they're viewed, the order in which they're presented, etc. As for science, the facts so regularly change, and new facts completely change our understanding of previous facts; at best it expresses a truth at a given moment in time. Whereas fiction shows you universal truths.

Most satisfactory ending ever: Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace.

Cipriano said...

Thank you all for such sincere and thoughtful comments.

Alyce:
You make a good point with your quotation of McDevitt's book. It is this very sort of thing, fiction reminding and reinforcing the real in our own lives that makes it so valuable.
As far as "getting inside the mind of characters" again, this is why I love writers like Margaret Atwood, because I think she really excels at this very thing.

Stefanie:
I think that Science magazine is onto something, for sure. As for the gaining of emotional intelligence, I would say that thoroughly reading poetry [a dying art form, if bookstore shelves are any indication] is even a higher level of emotional intelligence, via words.
When we read fiction or poetry, at some level [be it subliminal subconscious, or fully conscious] we are saying that we CARE about what someone else thinks. And this is very important.

Beth:
Such a great final statement.
Oh, that Montgomery.
I seriously do not know what I love more, her fiction, or her starring role in that old TV show, Bewitched!

BBB:
Dear Instigator of This Entire Discussion -- thank you for your patience with us die-hard Fictionites!
Can you believe that I HAVE a cope of Crime and Punishment here and have yet to read it?
Ahhh -- this is the beauty of the word "tomorrow."
Another day to read fiction!

Anonymous:
I LOVE Aesop's Fables. I remember as a kid, MAKING my dad buy me a copy of the Fables in a store on The Pas, Manitoba. I think I was about 10 years old, or thereabouts. I read it with the same appetite as a fox, reaching for the inaccessible grapes.

Isabella:
I am in full agreement. There has never been a book of "history" -- from Gibbons to Tuchman, that has not been colored in the shade the author chose to give it.
Except The Holy Bible.
Of course, I jest.
Infinitely.

Melwyk said...

Fiction supports holistic health -- as you'll have read in my brief notes. Fiction creates health in the brain, the mind, the emotions and in social situations. I could go on for at least forty minutes on this one (as I just did this week....)

patricia said...

I was going to mention the scientific study example as to one of the MANY benefits of reading fiction, but Stefanie beat me to it. Ditto on what she stated: "Living in the world is not just about facts!"

I may be a more INFORMED person from reading non-fiction, but I am a fuller, deeper, more insightful, passionate and caring person from reading fiction.

And finally, regarding endings. What does this friend want? What is the definition of a 'satisfying ending'? That's different for different people. Some people want all loose ends to be tied up at the end, and some folks want everyone to live 'happily ever after'. Sometimes I like those kinds of books, but really good fiction is a lot like life – everything is always jumbled, nothing is truly resolved, and well, if we're gonna get picky, eventually it won't end well for any of us.

Merisi said...

"…my life, my whole life, independently of anything that may happen to me, is every moment of it no longer meaningless as it was before, but has an unquestionable meaning of goodness with which I have the power to invest it."

Good endings, with a deeper meaning, are beyond the conventional "Happy End": See above!

I am on your side of this discussion, but unable to add anything worthwhile that has not been said already.

Amy said...

I agree with the assessments of reading fiction as a conduit to emotional, deep-thinking intelligence that has nothing to do with facts. Ironically, the book's ending I was going to choose for this discussion was Crime and Punishment, which I recently read and blogged about, although I won't say I loved the book as a whole. Knowledge and understanding are often completely different things.