The pleasures of happy endings – Paula Marantz Cohen

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By Paula Marantz Cohen

I recently asked the students in my literature course their thoughts about the books we were reading. The course was entitled “The Family and Literature” and included the following titles: Anzia Yesierska’s The Bread Givers, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child, and Alice Bechtel’s Fun Home. My students had liked all these books, they said, but they liked Yesierska’s book best. One of the reasons they cited was because it had a happy ending.♥

The book was, for the most part, very grim and disturbing, but things did work out for the heroine in the end. The other books were interesting, even profound, but not, ultimately, happy, and my students were bothered by this. “We can get unhappy endings all the time by looking around us,” someone said, “but fiction doesn’t have to be unhappy. It is artificial and can make the story end well.”

Chick lit tends to be devoted to the happy ending, and is often denigrated for that. This preference for happy presumably makes the genre naïve and unrealistic. But to me, the opposite is true. Readers of these books know only too well that life isn’t like that. They embrace certain sorts of plots specifically because they enjoy the power that the storyteller has to diverge from life and make things work out.index

I write the books I do – a series of chick lit titles, most of them based, directly or loosely, on Jane Austen’s novels – because I want to have that control over the outcome, to deliver the sort of uplift that I know we often don’t get in our own lives. A happy ending in a novel doesn’t mean the novel is shallow or foolish. It means that the author has decided to manipulate the plot in a particular way in order to give a particular kind of pleasure. The notion that we should apologize for this – that we are somehow less literary and important because we embrace this kind of intervention in our storytelling (as writers or as readers) irritates me no end.

My latest novel, Suzanne Davis Gets a Life, has, once again, been dubbed “chick lit” and referred to as “insufferably cute” in a recent review in The Wall Street Journal. I suppose this is because my heroine’s run-in with cancer is handled with humor and turns out well – and because she finds the love that she has been seeking all her life. But I have to say that I am rather pleased by the review. I have come to like being called a chick lit writer, and I don’t mind “insufferably cute.” Both tags signal to my readers that they are going to get the sort of narrative shape that so many of us seek when we read books.


Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University where she teaches courses in literature, film, and creative writing. She is the author of five nonfiction books, including the recent e-book, Getting Dressed: Confession, Criticism, Cultural History, and five novels, including the bestselling Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs, and the literary mystery What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper. Her new novel, Suzanne Davis Gets is Life, is published by Paul Dry Books.

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