Vonnegut and the Y-Axis

More on happy endings — I just read in “Lapham’s Quarterly” this excerpt from Kurt Vonnegut’s “This is a Lesson in Creative Writing.”

Vonnegut offers a “marketing tip” — in commercial fiction, heroes start out quite fortunate, become unfortunate, and wind up more fortunate than they began.

He reports that “after the war I went to the University of Chicago and studied anthropology, and eventually I took a masters degree in that field. Saul Bellow was in that same department, and neither one of us ever made a field trip. Although we certainly imagined some.” During this bout of anthropology, Vonnegut read transcriptions of stories told by primitive people from around the world, and noted that the heroes of these primitive stories tend to wind up no more fortunate than they were when they started.

Now that I think about it, the oral folktales the Grimm brothers collected didn’t have happy endings – the Grimms mostly tacked those “fairytale endings” on themselves. I guess happy endings aren’t an organic feature of the stories ordinary people are driven to tell, but rather a constraint imposed on us by capitalist realism or socialist realism as the case may be?

With his trademark faux-naïf irony, Vonnegut comments — “So all right. Primitive people deserve to lose with their lousy stories.” He proceeds to graph “Hamlet” and concludes, “I have just demonstrated to you that Shakespeare was as poor a storyteller as any Arapaho.” Recalling some of Vonnegut’s own story arcs, we might conclude that Vonnegut’s stories are likewise lousy.

What does the y-axis on Vonnegut’s graphs actually measure? At first he says it’s “death and terrible poverty, sickness down here — great prosperity, wonderful health up there.” But suppose the hero winds up materially poorer but spiritually richer, should we show that as an upward or a downward line?

“Our deep selves welcome our catastrophes.” — John Updike, Brazil.

Vonnegut’s conclusion — “The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.”

Perhaps this is why plots that could be plotted as a straight downward line can be among the most satisfying. In Scott Smith’s thrillers, for instance, things just keep getting worse, and you can’t bring yourself to look away.

The hero of Elise Blackwell’s Hunger is a Soviet biologist who once traveled all around the world collecting a cornucopia of botanical specimens. Lysenkoism has derailed his scientific career, and he’s stuck in Leningrad during the Seige, forced for survival to eat the rare seeds he has collected. Such a plot nourishes our hunger for story because to survive such a terrible decline must also mean having gained something…

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  • Research Papers

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  • Bly S.

    "We don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is.” That's so true!

  • Dorinda

    "I guess happy endings aren't an organic feature of the stories ordinary people are driven to tell, but rather a constraint imposed on us by capitalist realism or socialist realism as the case may be?"

    I think the reason why we change the "ordinary peoples'" endings are because deep down we are hopeful and we want our stories to reflect our ideals, not necessarily our realities.

  • Ralph Ferraa

    But don't aboriginal peoples hope for the same things we do?

    Maybe they just have a deeper understanding of how story works than Hollywood does.

  • Anonymous

    Of course aboriginal people have hope. But I'm sure it takes a different form. I don't think they hope for the "same" things we do. We take health and food for granted, until they become unaccesible, scarce. We don't have to fight for these things on a daily basis the way that aborigninals might. As it is, we hope for bigger cars, popularity, sprawling lawns, etc. etc. So when they tell a story, perhaps what might be considered a happy ending is not exactly the same as what we consider a happy ending.