I would like to thank author and blogger L.E. Henderson (soon to release her newest book, The Ghosts of Chimera) for another thoughtful post, one concerning hope in fiction (http://passionatereason.com/2017/06/hope/#more-1553), which prompted me to write this, my take on the subject, for what it’s worth:
As for abject hopelessness in fiction, I, for one, would at least like to have traveled a long, arduous, and engaging road first before I’m left without any hope, before finding my favorite characters’ doomed without any ability to improve their fate. Makes me think of the horror pieces in Apex Magazine’s Issue 93, which I loved, though they upset me. And I’d like to point out that in each story, right up to the end, however faint, hope persisted. But yes, events did whittle away at it awhile until prospects didn’t look so good, and usually it was about then the horror author cut me off.
Yep. And that’s what horror authors do. We’re left reeling, and that, arguably, is the emotional truth behind the metaphor. But to take back our power, we need only allow our imaginations to extrapolate into the larger, longer view, within the story and within our own lives. When you look for it, hope’s always present in the sense that every circumstance, no matter how exquisitely cruel, miserable, or depraved, must end. There’s relief in this knowledge, especially for those of us going through a tough time: glad it’s not me in that sewer, on those hooks, in that box, etc. I’ll take my own problems any day.
Tolerance is a factor, though. How low can the reader’s spirits sink before the mind balks and kills the narrative?
“Alas,” said the mouse, “the whole world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when I saw walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.” “You only need to change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.
–Kafka, Franz (1979) The Basic Kafka, New York, NY: Washington Square Press
Right until the last, the mouse hopes to escape; but alas alak, no better alternatives ahead and bad advice from behind lead to the irreversible choice to reverse course. Mouse is dead. The mind closes. The story ends.
But before the mouse dies, he thinks! He runs!
If we want to end on a down note, we have to remember that nobody, but nobody, wants to read about a simple death, whether mental, physical, or spiritual. Struggle is where interest lies, and the different genres will toy with our hopes to achieve their respective emotive goals. But a story only engages us while, however slim, hope persists—when the characters experience worse and push for better. And don’t forget: Humor, even if a simple absurdity (such as how much we identify with that mouse) is an expression of hope (Look, it’s the bitty mouse who’s foolish, not me!), and all genres profit from it on some level.
An acclaimed novel by Emma Newman, After Atlas, has a scene towards the end, an intolerably hopeless situation that negates all the character’s aspirations and desires. My mind actively pulled away from it; I felt the character’s confinement so viscerally I was this close to putting the book down for good. That’s how important hope is. For the record, I didn’t put the book down. I finished it. And I enjoyed it quite a lot. But one could argue that stylistically she’d just about gone too far. For me, in any event.
On the flip side, when I was in my mid-twenties, an author-in-residence at my university handed me a galley proof to review. It wasn’t his own, and he wasn’t supposed to do that, so I won’t say what book it was, but when asked my opinion, I said the writing was beautiful, but the story lacked something important. In spite of all the activity and upheaval, despite its eloquence, the story never captured my heart, never transported me out of my world and into its. The characters were too heavily going through the motions; I simply couldn’t care. This expression of desire in anticipation of change—hope—is as indispensable as change itself. Other engaging emotions ride its upswell. In its absence, there’s no joy, no dismay, no relief, no rage, no nothin‘….
Someone at some point must be reaching in order for us to feel it, which is the reason we take these literary journeys in the first place, isn’t it? But, even if it’s not the main characters who push for a better tomorrow, even if by some masterful stroke of dramatic irony the reader is the only one left hoping, the characters must at some point hope in order for the story to satisfy—and perhaps inspire us to spew our coffee, cry a puddle, or put a fist through the wall.
Now, I say, if you want to end your story on an uplifting note, go ahead. If you don’t, that’s fine. If the choice is meaningful (there’s the rub!), how can we go wrong?
Wholeheartedly, I agree with Henderson here:
‘To me one of the most interesting questions of fiction is, “Despite suffering, despite the knowledge of death, despite the fact that the universe cares nothing for our deepest wishes and aspirations, how to we go on? How do we make the best of what life has to offer?” Every time I write a story, that question is always lingering at the back of my mind.’
I relish hope, foolish and otherwise. And yes, I’m painfully shocked when faced with an utterly bleak outcome (Apex Magazine Issue 93, again, so impressive). But our brains do seem to savor a nice juicy dysphoria every once in a while, feed off it, and manufacture a few vivid Hells of their own. To test our resilience, I guess. Keep us on our toes.
As for me, I prefer to resolve my stories on shaky ground. Not to leave off with everything hopeless or rosy—either way feels too rigid and preachy. But I will test my positivism, as in “What exactly were you hoping for, Dawn?”
I don’t like the situation to be settled. Tending to be more focused on experience and less on information, stories where an author leaves frayed edges or even substantial threads hanging tend to linger in my brain, sort of echo in there like an earworm that wants to play to the finish, but can’t. Maybe I’m meant to participate as I dream, and according to my convictions, end it or not.
A story must on some level resolve, I know, and mine do. But I like to embed them in a larger dynamic setting. I expect the ground to move, on and off the page.
These are my thoughts today concerning hope.
You might also enjoy this article from Wired Magazine: “‘Sci-Fi,’ Dystopia, and Hope In the Age of Trump: a Fiction Roundtable” at https://www.wired.com/story/dystopia-trump-science-fiction-roundtable/