March 3, 2006

Elite tastes: depressing entertainment, schmaltzy science

In a survey of the public's taste in books, happy endings were hugely preferred:

"Young people were most likely to prefer books with a sad ending - 8.6% of under 16s. Those aged 41-65, however, a group with more personal experience of sadness, dislike sad endings, with only 1.1% preferring books that end this way."

Economist-aesthete Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution commented:

"You must know by now, of course, that I prefer most of my endings tragic, or ambiguous, with a few happy tales thrown in to make the tragedies a surprise when they come. (Is it the dirty little secret of elite culture that we would be bored if in fact we had everything our way?) In fact all of you unwashed-masses-happy-endings-loving viewers subsidize me. You support so much feel-good slop that when something meaty does come along, I am genuinely shocked and delighted."

When I interviewed Steven Pinker, author of The Blank Slate, he made an astute comment about the paradox of modern elite tastes:

"Q: Aren't we all better off if people believe that we are not constrained by our biology and so can achieve any future we choose?"

"A: People are surely better off with the truth. Oddly enough, everyone agrees with this when it comes to the arts. Sophisticated people sneer at feel-good comedies and saccharine romances in which everyone lives happily ever after. But when it comes to science, these same people say, "Give us schmaltz!" They expect the science of human beings to be a source of emotional uplift and inspirational sermonizing."

Personally, I like honesty in science and (more than most critics) happy endings in art, because, as Nabokov pointed out, art is artifice, not realism. So why shouldn't the artist whip up an artificially satisfying ending, just as he's expected to make his work more beautiful or more intense or more interesting than real life? My favorite happy ending is in Evelyn Waugh's Scoop, where the great satirist contrives to give every single character exactly what they wanted (and give it to them good and hard).

Generally, novels with sad endings are not particularly depressing because the hero gets to do a lot of living before something bad happens to him. Nobody is much depressed that Rhett Butler leaves Scarlett O'Hara at the end of Gone With the Wind because she's enjoyed 1,000 pages of memorable adventures before then.

What are incredibly depressing, however, are contemporary literary short stories, which always end with the protagonist having some disillusioning "epiphany." The problem is that you don't get to see the character do much living before then, so the endings are just bleak. That explains a lot about why nobody pays to read short stories anymore.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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