Back in November, I had a conversation with an agent about a novel I am looking to publish. He had strong opinions about what types of books are marketable, as all agents do. His point of view was that for a story to sell it had to conform to certain reader expectations. There was, he argued, a natural ending for stories and the natural ending was exactly the one you would expect. In the Hollywood movie, the hero saves the world and wins the respect of his estranged girlfriend in the process, for example. If the film does not deliver the expected resolution then audiences will not be satisfied. Call it the “Rosencrantz Theory of Literature.”
Of course, what is considered a “natural ending” changes over time and across cultures. The satisfying end for the Victorians was one in which the protagonist was destroyed by cruel society. We prefer the “happy end.”
The “happy end” differs depending on whether the protagonist is male or female. Here are the two “natural ends” for popular narratives: In the male happy end the narrative is complete when the hero has scored a victory against great odds. In the female narrative the “natural ending” comes when she is content with the life she has (with bonus points if she finishes the story in true love).
Dorthy has all kinds of adventures in Oz, but the message she comes away with is “there’s no place like home.” Her victory is not becoming the leader of Emerald City, it is being content to live in black and white Kansas. She has a happy end when she stops dreaming of a better life “somewhere over the rainbow.” Put another way, victory for Dorothy is giving up on her dreams.
This is not a narrative that died in the 1940s. It was not pushed aside by women’s lib in the 1970s. In fact, I came to the realization that the expectation of a “natural ending” was different for women while watching “The Devil Wears Prada” the other night on a hotel TV.
In Prada, the protagonist is a young woman who scores what is considered to be a dream job as the assistant to the editor of a major fashion magazine. Her boss is demanding and ruthless. The young woman moves up the ranks and ends up on a glamorous trip to Paris Fashion Week rubbing elbows with high society. Her boss, incidentally, is pictured as having a rocky home life as is expected. Powerful female business women are expected to achieve status at the expense of real relationships. Our protagonist does not want to make the same mistake. In the end (spoiler alert) she walks away from the shallow and artificial life of status and glamor to return to a more “authentic” existence. We see her stepping out of a taxi and abandoning her boss as the boss looks on with disguised admiration for the young woman. The film ends with the main character walking in comfortable clothes with her head held high.
It struck me that this was the expected ending, the Rosencrantz ending, the one audiences are prepared to believe and publishers are prepared to buy.
It also struck me that it was an inversion of the expected male ending. The male protagonist’s story would tend to resolve with the man victorious in the career field he had entered. There was a point in the movie where the main character becomes aware of a plot that could oust the editor. She tries to protect the boss who has made her life so difficult. I would expect the male character to use this opportunity to forward his own interests and bring down the bad guy. It might end with him as the editor of the publication himself. It is not common for the male narrative to end not with worldly success but with the character deciding he does not want to play the game.
In “The Devil Wears Prada,” the main character is dumped by her boyfriend because her demanding job does not allow her to devote enough attention to him. As an audience we are expected to take his side and to agree that she is going the wrong direction.
This same type of conflict is quite common in films with male protagonists. A man becomes obsessed with a mission of some kind– winning a legal case, catching a killer, saving the world from aliens– what have you. At some point he argues with his wife who feels he is shirking his family responsibilities. In this case, however, the audience is expected to understand that his mission is vitally important. We do not want him to decide that catching the killer isn’t that important after all in the greater scheme of things and that he should walk away to focus on his authentic emotional life. What generally happens, instead, is that against all odds, with no one backing him, the hero completes his mission winning the admiration of his wife in the process.
Prada is not an isolated example of the “female happy end” where the woman shuns worldly status. One of the most popular films of all times is “Titanic” in which bold and feisty Rose realizes that her upper class life is empty after she meets working class Jack Dawson on deck. She walks away from a life of riches and even throws a priceless gem into the sea.
The female protagonist has a happy end not when she has status in the world, but when she transcends the desire for status.
Dorothy has a happy end when she gives up on her dreams.
What is the effect on women of being constantly exposed to this narrative?
A few years ago I saw this interview with Julian Lennon, and it stuck with me. I have always been a fan of the Beatles and John Lennon in particular. This interview, however, presents the stark contrast between John Lennon’s success as a musician and his performance as a father to his first son.
A couple of days ago I proposed that there might be a place in the world for the dramatic parenting narrative, a story that finds drama and heroism in the sphere of raising children. Here is one of the challenges I see in making such stories a reality. In order to have real drama, the hero must be in jeopardy. There must be a chance that the hero will fail.
Accepting the notion that a parent might not do well, that a parent might be on the verge of completely making a wreck of things, while not losing an audience is hard. It is especially hard with a female protagonist. We are much more apt to forgive John Lennon for his shortcomings as a parent than we would be to forgive a woman who prioritized rock star success over her child’s emotional needs.
But whether the parent is a mother or father, the dramatic parenting narrative is a challenge. Here in the land of the free and home of the brave, we have a culture makes it seem downright immoral not to be on guard at every moment. Terrible dangers lurk around every corner and if you fail to prepare for them, well, that is your fault.
“There’s been this huge cultural shift,” Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids said. “We now live in a society where most people believe a child can not be out of your sight for one second, where people think children need constant, total adult supervision. This shift is not rooted in fact. It’s not rooted in any true change. It’s imaginary. It’s rooted in irrational fear.”
The quote is from an article that is arguably a rare example of the dramatic parenting narrative. It appeared in Salon today. The Day I Left My Son in the Car was written by Kim Brooks, whose split-second decision to run into the store would consume the next years of her life. A stranger, seeing that incidence of what she believed to be a child in jeopardy, videotaped the boy waiting in the car and– without confronting the mother– went to the police. Lapses in maternal judgment find little sympathy in a media environment which features constant reports of child predators, kidnappers and bad guys with guns.
Why are we so fearful? My best guess is that it is the flipside, once again, of our optimistic American belief in the power of the individual to control her circumstances. If you believe there is really no such thing as an accident or a crime, only poorly prepared people, you can maintain the idea that nothing bad will happen to you. (Also, you do not need to expend as much emotional energy on compassion for victims who obviously brought their misfortunes on themselves.)
With almost no permission to risk mistakes, the dramatic parenting narrative becomes rare, almost impossible.
A discussion on the news the other night made me realize that my novel, published in 2011, is already becoming obsolete– and I couldn’t be happier. A panel was discussing how quickly the dominoes were falling when it comes to U.S. states recognizing same sex marriage. I thought about a now obsolete passage in Angel in which the two protagonists joke about the comparative merits of getting married in Massachusetts or Iowa, the two states that allowed such a thing when the book was written. “The ocean is sexier than corn,” Ian said.
In only three years, the novel has become a period piece.
Writing the final version of the book in 2009 and 2010 I described a mainstream church with a congregation divided on the question of whether or not to accept a gay pastor. At this time, there was a widespread view that Christianity and homosexuality were simply in opposition. In my depiction, I wanted to make it clear that this was not the case and Christians held a wide range of views. At the time, I was trying to show, in essence, that churches were more progressive on this issue than many outsiders think they are. Two years after the book came out, reviews tell me that some readers are now seeing the church as more conservative than mainstream.
When I was writing, I drew on official church statements from the Methodist and Presbyterian churches. By the time the book was in print, the Presbyterians had already changed their stance and were ordaining gay ministers.
While there were those who talked about the “controversial” nature of my book when it came out (one web site refused to run ads for it), I never felt as though it was all that controversial. By now, I feel as though its point of view is entirely mainstream.
I discovered something recently while searching through an old journal. I have told the story many times of how I came to write Angel, how I was inspired by a trip to Mount Rainer and the question of why a man would leave the ministry for a career as a mountain tour guide. “Why did the minister go to the mountain?” was a regular writing prompt for years. I wanted to bring out all those themes of natural beauty, transcendence, and the impermanence of life in the shadow of a sleeping volcano. I knew what the heart of the conflict had to be– a minister had to fall out of step with his congregation. He would have some sort of change in his worldview. I kept going back to what that change might be. Over the years I tried a number of different plots and nothing quite worked until I saw an image of a beautiful man, and meditated on my aesthetic response to his beauty. That is when the idea hit me that my minister might do the same, and this might be the thing that would put him in conflict with his congregation. From that point the story flowed as if it had already been written and I just had to take dictation.
That is how I thought it had happened. But memory is not always a faithful recorder of events. Apparently my subconscious had been at work on the novel for some time when I had that eureka moment. When I looked back in my journal at my earliest ideas for the novel I was then calling “The Minister and the Mountain,” written in 2000 immediately after my return from Seattle, I discovered two things. There was a draft of what is now the final scene in the book. It is quite similar to the final version. There was also my first idea of what the plot of the book should be. My very first idea for the central conflict had been that the minister would fall in love with another man. Why did I abandon that promising plot line and put it so far out of my mind that I forgot I’d ever thought of it? I don’t remember, and the journal doesn’t really say. The most likely explanation is that the idea scared me. It seemed too incendiary and I was not yet brave enough to tackle it. I ran away.
That was only 14 years ago, but it seems a world away.
I recently finished reading Franny Moyle’s book Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde. Constance Wilde is generally given short shrift in biographies of her husband. This book provided a much different perspective on the playwright’s life, and an important one. One of the things I took away from this book was just how many demands were being placed on Wilde in the years before his trials.
He was trying to capitalize on his new success as a playwright, he was courting the emotionally demanding Lord Alfred Douglas, taking part in dinners and social events not to mention a notorious secret night life (seriously, don’t mention it), all the while maintaining his domestic role as a husband and father. The domestic vantage point adds new dimensions to other, more well known, parts of his biography.
For example, in 1893, Wilde and Douglas had a series of arguments over Douglas’s translation of Wilde’s play Salome. Wilde’s memory of the events were recorded in De Profundis.
“After a series of scenes culminating in one more than usually revolting, when you came one Monday evening to my rooms accompanied by two male friends, I found myself actually flying abroad next morning to escape from you, giving my wife some absurd reason for my departure, and leaving a false address with my servant for fear you might follow me by the next train.”
Most of the biographies I have read of Wilde or Douglas which deal with this episode go on to describe the tensions in the relationship between the two men. After these rows (and the threat of a scandal involving some indiscretions by Wilde, Ross and Douglas) Wilde determined that Bosie should take a trip to Egypt and he wrote to Lady Douglas asking her to send him abroad. Without the perspective of Constance, Wilde’s reasons for wanting some space from Douglas seem to be entirely about the young man’s character.
What Moyle makes clear is that Wilde was being pulled in two directions. The demands placed on him by family life were just as strong as those placed on him by his lover. His quarrel with Douglas was followed hard upon by an equally draining quarrel with his wife. When Oscar flew off to Paris to escape Bosie, he bailed on a wedding he was supposed to attend. Constance was furious. This is when Oscar decided he could not live this double life any more. He refused to see Bosie, arranged for him to be sent away, and for a while he tried to be the “ideal husband” he had seemed to be early in their marriage.
It didn’t last long, of course.
The beginning of the book contained a bit more background on Constance, and especially on her wardrobe, than my level of interest supported. As the book reached its climax and tragic end, though, it is riveting. After society had torn the family apart in the name of protecting the nation’s morals by sending Wilde to prison, they did it again with a severe penal system. Prisoners were allowed few visitors and only one letter a month. Friends and family had to compete for available slots. Because of this, Wilde’s well-meaning friends and Constance’s well-meaning advisors could only guess as to Wilde’s true wishes. Each tried to act on his behalf, and at cross purposes. It would be comic if the consequences were not so tragic.