Phillip Pullman published a well-known trilogy from 1995-2000 called 'His Dark Materials', comprising Northern Lights (aka The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.
The point I wish to make about this series is that it starts very well, and ends very badly. The contrast is extreme - the first part of the first novel is very good, and by the end of the third volume it has become very bad.
This interpretation of His Dark Materials is not really a matter of opinion, but as close to objective fact as you can get in literary criticism - anyone who doubts should read John C Wright on the technical aspects; and the ideological reason for these gross errors and incompetencies.
But bad endings are not unusual - indeed, it is quite normal, statistically common, even fashionable and mainstream - for books, plays, movies, and TV plays and series to start well and end badly.
But why should this be? Why do they, on the one hand, start well; and on the other hand, finish badly?
I think the answer is quite simple. Great works are written with the assistance of genius, which can be understood as a visitor who will only stay if treated well.
Many more talented writers are visited by genius than succeed in completing works of genius, because most writers betray their visiting genius before the work is complete - the genius flies away, and the work must be finished without it; and talent without genius is comparatively a very poor thing.
So, Phillip Pullman was a talented writer who was visited by genius and began Northern Lights; but he was dishonest in the way he used this gift - so away it flew and he cobbled together the rest of the trilogy on his own - getting across the 'message' which meant so much to him, but making a an artistic pig's ear of the writing.
JK Rowling is different. She was visited by genius when writing Harry Potter, and it sustained her through seven volumes - and the last volume, including its ending, are wonderful! The best thing in it (probably).
There are signs that, part way through, Rowling became personally dishonest and corrupt - probably due to the temptations of fame - but she kept this out of the books. However, when she finished Harry Potter, Rowling embraced the dark side, and away genius flew - her work has waned even as her commitment to political correctness has waxed - and she has been caught in several blatant lies about her life and work. I would not expect her ever to write anything really good ever again.
However, throughout HP, Rowling was true to her visiting genius - it stayed with her for the duration, and she was therefore able to complete a great work.
And of course the benchmark classics all end well, else they would not be real classics. The Lord of the Rings, the Narnia Chronicles (despite extreme digressiveness en route), The Wind in the Willows (despite major incoherence and a detachably episodic structure) - all of these have deeply satisfying endings.
No author is so great as to overcome the need for a good ending. When George Bernard Shaw tried to end Pygmalion with an anticlimax, the actors when on tour secretly substituted the dramatically-implied-and-required 'comedic' ending (ie implying marriage between Higgins and Eliza). This, to Shaw's extreme annoyance! - but they would not stop doing it, because the audience response told them what was right. And the highly successful musical adaptation (My Fair Lady) made exactly the same change.
So, even so great a playwright as Shaw was not immune to the absolute requirement for a good ending. Even the greatest of all - Shakespeare - has to bow to this imperative...
All Shakespeare's best plays (best, that is, according to the consensus of playgoers through the ages) end well; and the ones that don't end well are not regarded as great.For instance, Measure for Measure is shaping-up superbly for most of its length; but the play has a truly terrible ending - so it never has become a part of the standard dramatic repertoire (despite having the best 'strong' female role Shakespeare ever wrote).
This, then, is a possible reason why too many books end badly; and why so many other narrative forms end badly too. It comes down to the abuse of visiting genius.
Bad endings have indeed, become a feature of modernist writing over the past century. The inability to finish a book, play, movie has been covered-up with nonsense about the sophistication of an 'ambiguous' ending, or 'deliberate' anticlimax, or the desirability of 'dark', 'subversive' conclusions; or the need for some kind of radically transgressive and expectation-thwarting finish (to educate the audience).
But the fact is that it is an extremely difficult thing to end a narrative well - and I would regard supposedly deliberately ambiguous (etc.) endings as a fake; an excuse to cover-up incompetence and failure.
Bad endings are so common nowadays because corruption of writers has become so common as to be nearly universal. When visited by genius, the writer is not grateful, does not perceive that this entails a duty to be truthful to his inspiration - but instead he tries to use the gifts of genius to pursue to fashionable ideology, or to ride some personal hobby horse.
Corruption leads to betrayal of genius - usually by dishonesty; and the cause of dishonesty is usually some brand of Left Wing/ radical politics - which the writer or artist places above the truth of art.
Dishonest art cannot be great; and an habitual liar can only be a great artist when he is (nonetheless) utterly truthful in his art - however badly he behaves the rest of the time.
Really insightful post Bruce - I enjoyed thinking about this one. I have often suspected the same thing about needing to cherish true artistic insights and inspiration by treating it with respect and integrity, otherwise it may leave the recipient. I had tended to think of this as part of the magic and mystery of creativity/beyond understanding. But the way you describe it, it almost sounds as though you regard a 'visitation by genius' as somehow the opposite of a demonic possession in which the receiver is gifted by the visit of a virtuous and creative spirit and the artist is merely the vessel and never the source. Or do you mean that it is an act of divine grace/visitation by the holy ghost to gift a human with artistic genius? A kind of reward to an honest seeker of truth...seek and you shall find in action, as it were...even if the truth is restricted to that person being a channel of truth in the artistic medium.
If this is so, could we expect to be able to attract genius in writing by being strictly honest in whatever we write? Or is it a case of once betrayed the spirit leaves for good, never to return again. Could the wayward artist repent, make amends and the visitor will return to an old friend?
Just some thoughts..
Elegant. Honest. But incomplete. how are they corrupt? Don't you mean that they rationally construct the ending rather than capture the ending that their imaginary world and our interpretation of it would sense to be an honest and believable consequence of the narrative?
@D - Genius only visits those with talent that have also put in work learning the skills.
Genius, djinn, daemon, demon - they all share an etymological relationship. In the end, real creativity is subcreation, and divine.
@C - Yes but not entirely. Some people are inspired, they start work - then they betray that inspiration by trying to use it instrumentally (for status, career, to impress etc) - and then they mess up.
One of the best articles that I've seen on this subject was by Sarah Hinlicky in First Things:
Her own take is that the problem of fantasy (and the problem of fantasy endings) is the problem of power.
I'm struggling in understanding whether you are remarking on 'negative' endings (where things turn out unfavourable for the protagonists) or 'unskillful' endings (where the craft of writing has been shoddily employed).
@f - I am talking about narrative works which start-out promisingly and end disappointingly, start out high quality and end low quality, start out as good art and end as bad art.
Which of Shakespeare's plays would you say carry the genius most fully through to the end?
@ajb - All my old favourites - Midsummer Night's Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet (if it is ended after "Good night sweet Prince".
There is a need on the part of the artist to not impose, but to give utterance as he is given word to speak.
It is a matter of fidelity and honest listening, and desire also, but the desire is to see, hear and speak what is whispered in his ear.
As a lover with rhapsodic longing pouring out, he has to simply remain entranced and faithful to his Beloved's voice. There is a need to give unto one's muse oneself, and to not reach across and attempt to pull oneself back. Pimping one's muse is the worst of artistic crimes, and the result is always dribble because it is a deep betrayal of what should be most cherished. Listen, be possessed, and hang-on tight for the ride; that is what is called for.
The best story that ends disappointingly is Virgil's Aeneid.
I don't know what your feelings are about Game of Thrones (did it "start out good"?), but those books are at this point simply awful and unreadable. The author is positively wallowing in evil at this point - "realism" requires the humiliation and destruction of any good or admirable character, and only the ugliest, most treacherous, most sadistic, and most bloodthirsty characters prevail.
Everything you said about Moorcock in the other post applies to Martin.
@JP - No, I haven't read Game of Thrones - I gathered that it might be as you described; and I must admit I was put off by a few minutes watching the earliest episodes of the TV adaptation.
(I should know better than to assume that the TV bears any resemblance to the book; e.g. the current BBC adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a drab, humourless dirge - 'enlivened' only by episodes of needless peril injected by the screenwriter.)
I probably should have mentioned in the post that many great stories entail a happy ending/ eucatastrophe - but this has become regarded as a low status, cop-out thing - and authors all always critically praised for violating the artistic structure to impose a hope-less ending - even when this destroys the structural integrity of the work.
e.g. Moorcock lambasts Tolkien for having a happy ending to LotR - a real tough-guy like Michael 'I was expelled from school' Moorcock would have none of that, of course.
(The fact that LotR has the saddest happy ending in literature was presumably lost on him - or would just be regarded as pathetic as well as a cop-out.)
Reading your post immediately brought Watership Down to mind. Adams maintains excitement and emotion throughout, and created a world almost as beautiful as that of Tolkien. It is the only book the ending of which will still make me cry with sadness and joy (although I carefully hide it from the wife and kids).
@MK - Completely agree - a truly great book with a wonderful ending.
Thanks, a most illuminating post! One thought that occurs to me as a result is that the bad ending to A Farewell to Arms may have been indicative of Hemingway's mental and moral turn for the worse....and ultimately despair claimed his life.
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