Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Swat At Mediocrity

by Cassondra Murray

A few weeks ago I walked into my office…uh…Starbucks…and was greeted by one of the Baristas.

“How’s your writing going?” she asked.

It’s my job as a writer (or my excuse?) to notice people, and I’d first noticed this woman months before she worked at my office (Starbucks), when she was, like me, still just a customer. She’s a memorable person because she’s tall and beautiful and so obviously an artist of some kind. She exudes that “I do art” persona—from her gorgeous haircut that I could never wear, to her lovely, un-made-up, yet open and naturally beautiful face. The artsy tote bags she carries and the individual way she puts together clothing—cool but funky—made an impression on me the first time I saw her.

But to be honest, since most of my “co-workers” (Starbucks employees) know that I’m a writer (I compose new material at the corner table by the outlet in Starbucks—just me and my Dana word processor, a big bank of windows and a cup of something hot and steamy) I didn’t actually remember speaking with her specifically about my writing.

I told her it was my weekly outing to relax and that I’d been to a wine tasting. I love wine. Everything about it. The anthropology. The history of people who grew grapes and the places it was grown. How it's evolved yet remained the same mashed grapes. I’ve been studying wine for about three years, and can’t get enough of it. It’s my diversion. She asked if I’d seen the film Sideways, which centers around wine lovers and wine itself.

"Well yes," I said, "I have seen it."

I guess I looked sort of glum as I waited for my one-shot decaf grande’ iced hazelnut latte, because she said, “you didn’t like it?”

“Well,” I said, “I think it was very well made, and I suppose it ended appropriately for the film that it was.” I drummed my fingers on the table as I thought about it.

“But?” she prodded.

“I like happy endings,” I said. “I write romantic suspense. There’s a high body count, and plenty of angst, but I like my films the way I like my books. Ones that have a ‘happily ever after’. Guaranteed.”

“Really?” She looked a bit quizzical. “What’s realistic about that?”

I shrugged. “Well, I dunno.” I shrugged again. “But I have a slight clinical depression. Reality is overrated. I live in it every day. I don’t want to pay anyone eight to twelve dollars to make me sad. If I go and pay for entertainment, or spend my time on it, I want to feel better at the end.”

“I hear you girl!” She nodded in understanding at the clinical depression comment. She stirred the milk into my latte. “But what about film or works that call attention to the mediocrity of life?” She handed me my drink.
I pushed out my lips a bit as I considered this and poked my straw at the X cut-out in the top of the cup.

“I think they do a good job of showcasing the filmmaker’s talents,” I said. “I think they have their place…I guess.” I drummed my fingers again. “I appreciate the artistry that’s involved in making them.” I smacked my hand on the counter a bit. “But I don’t want to watch them.”

She nodded, and took me for what I was, and was thinking about it as I left, I could tell.

And I’ve been thinking about that ever since.

All of us—the Romance Bandits—we specialize in happy—or at least hopeful--endings. It’s our stock in trade. We don’t do it because it’s popular, or because that’s what our publishers demand. I think we do it because inside, that’s who we are. Believers in the happily ever after. Now some of my Bandita sisters may have deep thoughts with which to chime in here, and I hope they do so because I’m a bit perplexed.

Honestly, is there a person out there who NEEDS to be notified that life is generally mediocre? That no matter how hard we try, we may end up just exactly where we are right now? That the efforts of any one individual could be (I don’t believe this BTW) useless, wasted energy, and that all things devolve into the same mundane least common denominator?

How does that lift the human spirit?

And if it’s art, SHOULD IT necessarily lift the human spirit? What do you think?

I consider the works of Michelangelo, the paintings of Monet that I referenced in a blog a few months ago, and the amazing cathedrals I’ve seen, all testaments to the human spirit and its yearning for things heavenly—things higher. Stuff that inspires, that says “go for it….you are more than flesh…you can make a difference.” I think of the films that make me laugh out loud—the episodes of I Love Lucy and Andy Griffith that are perennially popular, and how good I feel when I watch even the reruns. And then I think of those critically acclaimed films and works of literary fiction that, almost inevitably, end in subtle tones of quiet desperation, leaving me with the sense that all effort is, in the end, useless, and I think, why?

Why would people need to view this?

I taught a class with one of my critique partners, a professor of literature and education, last January at the local university, and one of the points I made over and over to the students was that, in modern genre fiction, the point was for the writer to disappear, to become invisible, so that the reader can become so immersed in the story that it becomes real, and they can live and breathe and experience with the characters.

With that as my writing philosophy, it’s obvious how it was in direct conflict with the idea of drawing attention to the mediocrity of life. For in these films and books, most often it’s the brilliant filmmaking that is spoken of by the critics. The powerful writing style. The seductive cinematography. The concise editing that brings the hopeless, desperate tone to the work.

Well, goody.

All that work, all to call attention to how good the filmmaker or the writer is?

I genuinely would love to know what you all—the writers and the readers—think of this. Are there really people out there who need to be reminded that there probably is no hope? No point to it all?

Or is this self-serving on the part of the artists?

Is it not a higher goal to lift the human spirit? To leave the reader/watcher with renewed faith and hope that it really is worth not just existing through life, but LIVING it to its fullest?

The belief in happily ever after keeps me going at the end of some very long days. Am I the only one?

What do you think?


Christine Wells said...

Fantastic post, Cassondra! I still don't know what I think about this. Often, I feel as if I *should* like these books or movies but most often, I don't. I used to think I liked a lot of so-called literature, but actually, the authors I like would fall into the category of commercial fiction writers if they were around today--Dickens, Austen, Thackeray, the Brontes. They wrote stories! With plots! And happy endings! Well, maybe not the Brontes, not every time, but you see what I mean.

Intellectually, I might respond to the wonderful language, or one of these 'mediocre' books might make me think about life more deeply, but I will go out on a limb and say that there is a lot of 'mediocre' writing masquerading as literature these days.

Keira Soleore said...

Cassondra wrote, "...a cup of something hot and steamy..."

I'd like a cup of that, too. What's it called? :)

While you asked advice of your Bandita sisters and I'm not one--I wish, oh so wish, for that heart--I still have plenty to say on the topic you brought up that's close to my heart. :)

Somewhere along the line, "literary" books and "arty indie" movies meant that they had to be angsty. Why can't literature be happy? No one denies Walter Scot wrote literature, but while they are full of sturm-und-drang, they don't have horrific endings. Perhaps distance in time allows for the reclassification of books.

In direct contradiction to the above are the following three...

1. Fairy tales, mythological stories, and fables, despite their antiquity, are not considered literature.

2. I loved Remains of the Day--the book and the movie. Anthony Hopkins disappears into the butler's role, but it's him we remember.

3. A Beautiful Life is a movie with an intolerable begining and an intolerable ending, yet it's the middle that's memorable and Robert Benigni, the actor that immediately springs to mind.

Perhaps the message then is not a HEA necessarily, but the triumph of the spirit above insurmountable odds. Thoughts?

Caren Crane said...

Christine and Keira, you both have excellent points. And Cassondra, what a thinker you are!

I am not (despite being an engineer) a terribly analytical person. I get carried away by emotion and imagination far more often than my analytical engineer husband finds necessary. *g* But even I have thoughts about modern literature and films in that genre (and it is a genre).

My best friend adores tragedy. She loves it! If she knows a book or movie ends badly, she will queue up to read it. She says it makes her life seem "not so bad" in comparison. This, I think, is the main difference in her life view and mine.

In Caren's World, there is a an expectation of happiness. I expect things to be fine at the end of the day. In my BFF's world, she expects things to go badly. This world view colors everything! I always knew I would have a wonderful marriage, above average children, enough money and a song in my heart. Even when things don't quite seem to meet that expectation, I fully expect it's temporary and things will balance out again in the long run.

But I think there are lots of people like my BFF. People who sit around waiting for the other loafer to drop. *g* The BFF has also told me that when things are going well, she gets suspicious, because she knows it's only temporary.

Not me! I just enjoy the moment and expect more of the same. I want that to show in my writing and I want it in what I read and watch. Sorry for the dissertation!

Anna Sugden said...

What a thought-provoking post, Cassondra!

I'm a happy/optimistic ending kind of gal too. Though there are films I love which don't (like Keira - Remains of the Day, Shadowlands and of course, Brief Encounter), I don't tend to go out of my way to see or read stuff which I know has a sad ending. Nor do I watch horror films or stuff that is so angst-ridden you leave in need of therapy.

Real life is so full of that, who needs more?!

But, the wonder of life and freedom of choice is the ability for any person to find what they enjoy most and over-indulge *grin*. So, all power to those who want to watch or read what I don't like. Just don't make me do it!

I do believe there are some sniffy people who deliberately say they like stuff to be seen as 'arty' or 'trendy' or 'literate'. Pfft. The same folks who sniff at crime, sci-fi and romance, graphic novels and comics. Who sniff at writers who are prolific and popular. Pfft again.

I like to be satisfied by what I read or watch - good plotting, good writing/acting, good characters. Luckily, most of the time I am - I wonder how much the sniffers are satisfied?!

Joan said...

Starbuck's have offices too?

Reason #534 why I'm not a fan of Oprah's book club. I'm all for the HEA ending.

But I like a story to be a journey to get there. One where the H/H have struggles and conflicts and angst and good show of temper as they realize that they can't live without each other.

We live reality. I see little reason to read about it.

I once went to have a massage. The therapist was a VERY chatty lady. I told her I had just returned from Disneyworld. She scoffed and said "Why would you go there? It's not real."

Well, yeah.

For a few days in the Magic Kingdom I didn't have to worry about the mundane truth of my everyday life. My biggest challenge was seeing how many times I could make my brother ride "It's a Small World" (admit it...the song's in your head now

Now, I'm off from my everyday (and the pressure of going to the gym). I have a date with a Roman spy.

Suzanne Welsh said...

I'm afraid I'm a lover of the HEA ending, too.

Reality. I live with it daily, in extremes. Most days my job is fun, upbeat, happy. But those days when it's not. When a baby doesn't make it, or the baby has severe anomolies that no one was expecting, or a mom tries to die, or perhaps I have a mom who when she undresses is covered in bruises and welts...then my job is the worst of extremes.

I prefer my reading to soothe my soul. It's selfish of me, I know, to want to find peace and happiness for characters in a book where I've bonded with them. But a good book that makes me laugh, cry and go Ahhhh at the end can be enough to help me through that next bad day.

One of my favorite movies is The Shawshank Redemption. The heroes both are living life in prison with no hope of any future beyond that. But then one takes charge of his future AND insures that his friend, the one person he's come to love as a brother, can have a happy future with him.

Another is Persuasion. A very quiet Regency period movie based on Jane Austen's book. After years of separation, the heroine and hero get their HEA! Yeah!

Kate Carlisle said...

Cassondra, this was brilliant!! I, too, love a happy ending--but it's more than that. I need the characters I'm watching or reading about to grow and learn and be changed by the experience--in a good way, please.

Thank you so much for putting into words my feelings of why I never liked the film "Sideways." My friends think I'm weird for insisting that character arcs should swing UP, not sideways, LOL.

Cassondra said...


Amen to the Dickens, Austen and others. Thank God for those brave souls--the first genre writers!

And by no means do I want to say the writing or production of the works I've called attention to is, itself, mediocre. Often they are masterpieces of cinematography or powerful writing.

But oh, my goodness. To state that rising above the mediocre way of living is impossible--to use my work to state that? I don't think I could.

But you're right. There is a lot of actual mediocre work. And a lot that celebrates the mediocre.

Darn. I still don't know what I think about it either. :0/

And BTW: That bold stuff in the text sort of does what it wants, doesn't it?

Cassondra said...


Yes, I did ask the opinions of the Banditas, but I know most of them love happy endings (grin).

Your comments as a reader are so insightful.

I used to hate hate HATE "Out of Africa" because of its ending. I saw no purpose for it to have even been made. I was SO mad at the end. But the end was so awful, it's all I saw.

It's a matter of perspective I guess, now that you've brought it up. Someone called my attention to the power with which she overcame so much through her life, and I had to say that yes, indeed she did. When I saw it, all I saw was "Her life was awful, and her lover dies at the end--WHY????"

Now I'm not saying I want to see that again. Shudder. But I finally get it.

And you're absolutely right about the triumph of the human spirit. In that, I can see the value. As for Sideways, well, I'll have to think some more on that one.

Cassondra said...

Caren -

Caren, I fall somewhere in the middle of you and your best friend. Some days I muster that "this is just temporary," other days, I fall into the pit.

But what a perfect view into the optimist vs pessimist archetype!

How did you two become best friends?

Cassondra said...


I just have one thing to say. Get another massage therapist.

Honestly. How much good can the woman do you if she's dissin' Mickey? I mean, he's a cultural phenomenon. I KNOW him.

Well, not actually. We've never met. But I think he's real.(very wide grin) And he and Minnie are very happy together, BTW.

Cassondra said...


Precisely! With this kind of job, you have to escape. I would definitely need the Happy ending for my escape. Actually I don't know that I have the temperament for that type of work.

Sad endings hang with me. As do the deep losses of others I meet in my journey. I would hope I'm helping to carry that burden a bit. But sometimes I think I'm just weak.

My husband works in nuclear medicine--read he's the one who finds bone cancer and other types of cancer in a large percentage of his patients. And he loves horror!

That's what he loves to read, and write. He wants the scariest, most psychologically bent piece of entertainment he can find.

So, we rent the chick flick for "us" and then he stays up late and watches his fix of scary/ugly.

Different strokes.

Cassondra said...


Amen to the ability to choose what does it for us.

And thank goodness that we live in a world where so much is available in all categories and from all viewpoints.

As to the sniffy people--maybe they get their satisfaction from sniffing. I think they must look at it from a whole different avenue. Their enjoyment must come from the process of critique perhaps? Which is certainly valid enough.

Great thoughts all!

Cassondra said...


There it is. Some sort of change and growth. And honestly, I never got the title of the film--until you said this.

Now I suppose the one character did grow--past his hanging onto his ex wife and into the ability to experience the now and go for the relationship with the new girl.

But that other guy? I've encountered enough real life guys like him. Ew.

Sideways. Yes, the arc does move that way. Suggests we all remain basically the same and move only sideways. Hmmm.

Depressing. Ugh.

Cassondra said...

Oh and Joan!

Persuasion is the one we taught as an example of the beginning of the romance genre!

I loved that book.

Gotta get the film.

Caren Crane said...

Cassondra, it's interesting that my friend and I are friends. But, as with many things, the ways we are alike are greater than our differences. We actually get a lot of pleasure out of hearing each other's views.

I need someone to be a reality check for me at times. My husband tries (way too hard), but sometimes you need to hear it from a girlfriend, right? *g*

We both have wicked senses of humor and very similar tastes in music and all things odd and eclectic. She has gotten me to watch movies and read books I would never have done on my own. I've done the same for her. Neither of us appreciates the alternate as much as the true fan, but it's important to know what else is out there and try to understand it.

Unlike most, I thought (upon much reflection) that "Sommersby" ended the right way. As did "Out Of Africa", "Breakfast At Tiffany's", "Forrest Gump", "Always", "Terms Of Endearment", "Steel Magnolias", "Brian's Song" and lots of other downbeat classics. Those endings (even if they made me mad), made sense for the characters in the context of the story.

Downbeat endings that served no purpose (IMO): "Cold Mountain", "Message In a Bottle", "The English Patient". I could go on, but why bother?

Btw, my BFF's favorite movies of all time include: "Gone With the Wind", "The English Patient" and "Cold Mountain". At least she's consistent! *g*

Anna Campbell said...

Cassondra, what a fantastic post! You're so thoughtful and smart, my fellow Bandita!

Just one point - doesn't Breakfast at Tiffany's have a happy ending? I've always thought so! Even the cat gets rescued! And Out of Africa I can forgive as it was based on a true story and the guy really did die (hope that wasn't a spoiler).

When I was a teenager, I loved sad endings. Tristan and Isolde. Wuthering Heights. Anna Karenina. Anything angsty. Mind you, I was also a big romance reader so that wasn't the only stuff I was reading. But it was like I was trying to learn about emotions that I hadn't yet experienced but I knew were out there. I must say as I've got older, I've discovered real life can be plenty grim. I'd like something else in my leisure time, thank you very much. And what I love about a really good romance is that it's cathartic. It says that people can overcome their problems and face the future together. I never believe the couple will have endless rainbows and daisies and sunshine, but I do believe that if they've weathered the difficulties in the story, they will weather future difficulties. So my happy ending idea is usually tempered by a dash of real life at least!

And personally, I think a genre which says absolutely everything must come to grief is as unrealistic as a genre that says everything must come to eternal happiness. Forgive me if I sound a bit twee, but I think the joy and sorrow is part of life's rich tapestry and if you concentrate on the sorrow, you're missing out on the best bits, frankly!

Having said that, if there's a compelling dramatic reason for an ambiguous or a sad ending, I'll go with that too. Keira, I think you put it perfectly!

Nancy said...

Cassondra, well said! I agree that we're drawn to the particular books we love, as readers or as writers, because they present the world either as we want it to be or as we believe it to be.

The literary establishment (a minority, though powerful, of book buyers) loves downer books. Over and over, our society says that happy endings aren't "realistic."

Sure, they are!

Despite the high divorce rate, there are still plenty of couples who've been together for decades, not for lack of alternatives but because that union is a fulfilling part of their lives. I sometimes wonder whether the people who scorn HEA are either reluctant to hope or have been burned so much that they've acquired a cynical world view. Despite their doubts, there's plenty of evidence to support the "reality" of happy endings.

Like Christine, I can appreciate the language and structure and ideas of these sadder books, but I have only so much time. I don't want to spend hours wading through a heavy tome, only to be bummed out at the end.

Donna MacMeans said...

Hey - I liked Sideways. I thought it had a satisfying ending when the writer/wine guy finally moved on with the new girl. And I loved that Sandra Oh really smashed the jerk a good one. Oh - and the naked guy running out in the street was too funny.

I love Hanover Street. It's an old movie (when Harrison Ford was young) and he doesn't get the girl. Even the music at the beginning makes me cry - but I love the movie for the emotion and the love two people share even for a brief time and the sacrifice for the greater good.

I love HEA, but I can appreciate other things as well - as long as there's emotion - be it gripping the edge of my seat, or swooning at the raise of an eyebrow.

Suzanne Welsh said...

Donna, I love Hanover Street, too! I thought I was the only person in the whole world who watched it though. :) Of course anything with the Harrison dude has me at the theaters!

Caren, I agree Somersby couldn't end anyother way, but I think Cold Mountain deserved a HEA ending, darn it!

Joan said...

Don't get me started on Sommersby....

I mean, what's a town good for if not to come to the rescue?


Joan, who contemplated boycotting Hollywood over that one!

MaryF said...

I LOVED Hanover Street!!!

My friend Cindi used to give me all these movies to watch, and in every one of them, the hero died!!! I no longer allow her to loan me movies. I don't think she even realized it till I pointed it out.

I NEED a happy ending!! Gotta have it!

Michelle said...

I absolutely HAVE to have the HEA!!!

I don't even like to watch the stinking news!!

I thought that WAS the reason to read romance.

Helen said...

I love HEA I am sure that is why I read romance there is enough bad stuff going on in this world and our lives that we live in I don't like to be reminded of. We all have hills and dales to cross thru our lives so loosing yourself in a story that is guarenteed to have a HEA is one way I cope with life thanks for the post Cassondra.
Have Fun

Carol said...

Hi Cassondra, i'm not a writer, but a devoted reader of various genre's of books, love movies too... regards 'Sideways' ... I loved that movie and did not find the ending to be an unhappy ending.I found the ending to be hopeful. He found someone who appreciated his novel and i was left with the impression that their relationship would grow...but it's all subjective isn't it!! a friend hated the movie and couldn't get past the part where the guy ripped off his old mum!!...I found that just really sad...and sort of dependent!! As for happy endings I love them, but they also need to be realistic!!
Cheers Carol

hrdwrkdmom aka Dianna said...

I read because that is my escape from the hum-drum, day-to-day exsistence that I live. I want a HEA for someone, somewhere, sometimes the road in my books is rocky, but they always get there. That shining place where all is right in their world. Confession time here...if I pick up a new author, I check the ending of the book, if it doesn't look happy, I don't buy it. I am not going to pay my hard earned dollars to be sad. I also don't pay to be scared silly as in can't sleep for 3 nights. LOL Just suffice it to say I want happy, too much of that other stuff in the real world, if I want that I will turn on the news and watch it for free.

hrdwrkdmom aka Dianna said...

Joan, I'm with you. I was so upset when I watched Sommersby! I couldn't get it out of my head for days. So, just like the books, if it is something I haven't heard about, I don't watch it.

Caren Crane said...

Amen, Dianna. We can be depressed any old time, but it takes something special to make you happy! :-)