“If you look at our prize-winning literature, you would think we are humourless, violent and pathetic.” So says Ben McNally, an influential Toronto bookseller whose voice—think James Taylor after a bottle of Xanax–belies the sting of his zingers. He has a point: lasting romance, if not dead in contemporary literary novels, certainly isn’t winning any prizes these days. Sex, death, violence and depravity, yes, but true happily-ever-afterness? Dodo bird. “Conflict is where it’s at,” McNally laments before hanging up.
A review of winners of the Giller, Canada’s top prize for literature, shows that not a single winning book has a happy ending for a romantic couple since its inception in 1994. It is much the same for the Governor General’s Literary Awards. Since 1936, the winners of the award have been showered in superlatives—2007 winner Divisadero, by Michael Ondaatje, is replete with “tenderness, compassion and grace”—yet hardly any of the winning titles end with the ultimate culmination of tenderness, compassion or grace.
“Romance is not seen as high literature right now,” says Russell Brown, professor emeritus of English at the University of Toronto. The Jane Austen ending, in which the couple wanders off into the figurative or literal sunset after much hardship, has apparently become passé in the age of cynicism and conceit. “Modernists didn’t trust closure, and contemporary authors have opted for an even looser definition of an ending. It’s not as much happily-ever-after as it is nothing-ever-after,” Brown says.
There are two notable exceptions on the GG winners’ list: Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman and Paul Quarrington’s Whale Music, which won the award in 1971 and 1989, respectively. St. Urbain’s Horseman ends with protagonist Jake Hersh locked in a bedtime embrace with his loving wife, after struggling with the law and his Jewish identity. In Whale Music, the enigmatic Claire coaxes love and a symphony from corpulent recluse Desmond Howl.
“We are an affectionate, optimistic and humorous people, despite what our awards suggest,” McNally says. Still, the “romantic happy endings” question nearly stumped the Wall Street Journal’s “Dear Book Lover” columnist Cynthia Crossen. Challenged by a reader to name a few examples in literature written in the past 50 years, she managed Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Small Island by Andrea Levy. There are others, as McNally well knows: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, Death of a Murderer by Rupert Thompson and The Outlander by Canadian author Gil Adamson. Otherwise, though, it has been a relatively dreary affair in both official languages. “At best, French-Canadian novels don’t finish and at worse finish badly,” says Élisabeth Nardout-Lafarge, a professor of French literature at Université de Montréal. “Literature works best with negativity, especially in the ending.”
The Man Booker Prize, awarded to authors from the Commonwealth and Ireland, is an equally bleak affair. “I cannot think of a single Booker Prize winner over roughly the past 20 years that has had a happy ending, romantic or otherwise,” says Ato Quayson, English professor and Commonwealth literature expert at the University of Toronto. Consider J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, 1999’s Booker winner. It is a brutal read, a monument to the neutered power of post-apartheid white South Africa. It ends with protagonist David Lurie broke and exiled, his daughter pregnant with a child conceived through rape. He is reduced to euthanizing the dogs roaming near his daughter’s farm, itself in the midst of a takeover by her former farmhand. Given South Africa’s recent history, though, for Disgrace to end any other way would be, well, a disgrace. “Honestly, in my view, happy endings don’t make for very interesting writing,” says Quayson.
It might not be a simple case of cynicism, however. “These days, it’s more about redemption than romance,” says Montreal writer David Homel, whose 2003 novel The Speaking Cure ends more or less happily-ever-after. “It’s about getting better, not falling in love.” Homel blames Oprah Winfrey, who fell for A Million Little Pieces, James Frey’s faux memoir that, drugs, violence and cussing aside, is about making oneself a better person. In other words, Oprah-approved fiction is an extension of her TV talk show—on which self-empowerment, not romance, is the be-all and end-all. Now that’s a depressing ending.