Should there always be a happy ending?


Voting has now closed for this year’s Costa Short Story awards, and the winner will be announced at the end of the month. The three finalists are:

  • Dirty Little Fishes
  • The Boatman
  • The Persistence of Memory.

Though voting is over, you can download them, either to listen to or to read here:

I’d be interested to hear what you think. They are all good, well-written stories, with good characters. But the subject matter in all three, it has to be said, is pretty gloomy. I find this quite striking as writers for the UK magazine market are actively discouraged from taking on gloomy themes. The women’s magazines look for something upbeat (or at least an upbeat ending, even if the themes tackled are sad), and entrants for the Writers’ Forum magazine monthly competition are advised in capital letters that stories “MUST BE ENTERTAINING/RIVETING NOT UNREMITTINGLY BLEAK” and should not rely on themes of death, abuse, etc.

A couple of years ago there was a reader’s letter in Writers Forum about the fact that stories printed in the magazine seemed to focus on the gloomier side of life, and Carl, the Editor, responded by “cracking down on stories that dwell on harsh realities” and so this accounts for the policy and the above instruction. His view was that “We point out time and time again that you have to think of the target market before you start writing, and so it is wrong of us to encourage writing for which there is no other outlet.” This is fair enough, as Writers Forum tends to be aimed at those writing for the domestic magazine market. But often when you read stories which are considered “literary fiction”, the themes are pretty bleak and if there is a move towards a more uplifting ending, it’s very subtle!

So, if we consider our target market, do we conclude that it is considered perfectly acceptable to focus on dark themes when writing “literary” fiction, but if you’re writing for the domestic market, you need to think positive?



5 responses »

  1. I think this trend has been in five for decades if not longer, if you look back to magazines and their fiction even as far as 150 years ago. The idea of entertainment? The definition of what’s literary? Interesting to think about.

    • Yes, true I’m sure. I think my concern is that aspiring writers are being steered away from “literary” fiction as there is perceived to be no market for such stories – and yet the prizes which achieve anything like critical acclaim are for literary short stories.

      • Yes, I can see that. I find the same thought in art circles, from street fair artists (my group!) to the most famous gallery artists. I think money has driven art and literature forever, and yet it confronts each era in somewhat different ways – but in all cases, money can be stifling, can’t it, either the lack of, or the excess of it (because I guess if you are very commercially successful it’s hard to let go of that, either?) I think it’s a fascinating question and not solved by just saying, Oh, write (paint, etc. ) to your inspiration and it will all be ok. Thanks for bringing this up.

  2. Interesting. Surely there should be room for both, after all life doesn’t always have a happy ending. However, too much gloom is depressing. It seems to me there should be a balance and editors should reflect this in their choices for publication, after all even a gloomy story can promise a brighter future. When reading popular magazines we want to be entertained and to leave the story feeling uplifted. On the other hand we read ‘literary fiction’ expecting to read something rather more deep and meaningful, giving us food for thought, so perhaps there is more scope for darker themes here.

    • Agreed. But hopefully we’re not saying that if you sell stories to the magazine market, you can’t aspire to also write for literary magazines – they are also a market, if perhaps not a particularly large or well-paying one!

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