Why Tolstoy is Bullshit

I’m hanging out here in Pennsylvania. It’s a rare three weeks when I live with people: normally, I’m a single woman in a Boston apartment, working from home as an editor and going out every couple evenings, whether that’s to a LARP (the only way I spend the night in a situation where I need shoes to take a leak) or a party, a religious celebration or a night of drinking with friends. Right now, though, I’m living with my parents, who married in their thirties after years of being co-workers at boarding schools, continued to work at various schools until their retirement a while back, have two adult daughters, and enjoyed camping and backpacking until pulled ligaments and arthritis got in the way. My sister and her husband are also visiting. They live in LA normally, they’ve got one son, she teaches yoga and he’s a professional chef, and they’re way more enthusiastic about sports than any of the rest of us.

All of us are (reasonably, mortal life being what it is) happy.

I’m not gloating here. There’s a point, because Twitter’s latest crop of manbabies with too much free time has turned once again to romance, whining that happy endings are all the same and too predictable and blah blah blah, and someone is eventually going to quote fucking Tolstoy.

Tolstoy had some great ideas. That “happy families are all alike” bit isn’t one of them.

First of all, the idea that *unhappiness* is the condition with an infinity of singular forms is complete bullshit. Just to start, I majored in English, and my parents, like I mentioned, taught at boarding schools during my childhood, so I’ve observed a fair amount of petty unhappiness. I Have Pimples And Can’t Get Laid is pretty common, and  Will Smith wasn’t the first or last on the Parents Just Don’t Understand train. Older people? My Wife Doesn’t Get Me or Midlife Crisis: Did I Really Want to Be A Banker? are not exactly unique either. Hell, even the serious problems–bullying, bigotry, abuse, sickness, war–have a depressing familiarity. (My parents and I can predict most Law & Order episode resolutions by the time the show’s half over, and I have a decent record with true crime.)

Second, the idea that happy families are all the same is predicated on the idea that there’s only one way to be happy, to which I say: shut up, Jordan Peterson, and more generally, shut up, Victorian notions of “happy family.” You can be happy in a heterosexual monogamous relationship, living in the country with two kids and a dog, and many people are–but you can also be happy traveling the world with a same-sex partner, sharing an urban apartment with the rest of your triad, living contentedly alone, being a member of a celibate religious community, or raising a kid with your platonic BFF. You can be happy on a plane or a train, and while “in a box” sounds tougher, YKIOK.

(Not even touching “with a fox,” y’all.)

Even concentrating on romantic relationships and on just the end of a story,  married co-workers with kids have a very different dynamic than childless professionals, which in turn is different from a situation where one person stays home, or where one or both have professions that involve travel, or personal risk, or media attention. Living in the suburbs of Pittsburgh is not living in Boston, or on a ranch in California. Friends, family, and hobbies are all going to influence your lives, so endings where these things are different are different endings–unless you think that getting together with a romantic partner is the only thing that matters about life. (And dudes, frankly, that makes you sound more than a little unattractively desperate.)

*Then* there’s the fact that process matters. If your characters come from different situations, even superficially-similar HEAs don’t make the books “all the same.” No, they don’t. Are Macbeth and Hamlet the same play because they both end with a lot of people, including at least one king, dead? No? Then shut up. And go away. And suck on a wasp nest.  Originality, to the extent that it matters (and yes, there is definitely a Why Originality Is Bullshit essay forthcoming), exists in the space between the beginning and end, in the details of the plot and characters–in other words, in the story. I could drag in sonnets and haiku and, for an example on the other side, Shyamalan, but I hope to God you take my point as is.

Guys: when you start with the “romance novels can’t be quality literature because happy endings make everything repetitive,” you’re not *just* being pretentious mope-addicted assholes who bring down every social occasion. You’re also implying that there’s only one model for happiness in romantic relationships, and if you want to stick with that point of view, you’d better enjoy the company of Rick Santorum and Phyllis Schafly.

Yes, I know she’s dead. Take that as you will.

Now shut up. I have heavily-spiked hot chocolate to drink.



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I'm Izzy. I write stuff: mostly vaguely fantasy stuff, and most notably the following books: Hickey of the Beast, published March 2011 by Candlemark and Gleam Romance novels from Sourcebooks: No Proper Lady Lessons After Dark Legend of the Highland Dragon The Highland Dragon's Lady Night of the Highland Dragon Highland Dragon Warrior Highland Dragon Rebel Highland Dragon Master I also like video games, ballroom dancing, and various geeky hobbies like LARPing. I have been known to voluntarily purchase and eat circus peanuts. Like, a whole bag at once.

10 thoughts on “Why Tolstoy is Bullshit”

  1. A small part of this may be that genre fiction often looks formulaic and dull to people who don’t like it. Cozy mystery fans see huge difference between all the different series about small-town shopowners who keep stumbling over corpses; I don’t, which is why i rarely read cozies. Conversely, the difference between Flash, Batman or Thor busting crooks is very clear to me, not so much to non comics fans.
    Doesn’t make the twerps any less annoying though.

    1. Very true–and I’d say that’s true of “literary” fiction as well, these days. A friend and I have summarized New Yorker-style stories as “Everyone is miserable and dysfunctional, stuff happens with no point, everyone is still miserable and dysfunctional and maybe dead.” But in my more charitable moods, I’m willing to believe people who like that sort of thing perceive differences. ;P

      I think “don’t harsh on or try to ‘revolutionize’ a genre you haven’t read” is where we’d end up with this, and I think that’s a good idea 90% of the time. Genres that explicitly embrace horrible worldviews, a la Left Behind, are different, and I feel that my time in HS/college lets me snark about litfic with relative impunity, but I’m not going to get into The Problem With Modern Spy Novels or Legal Thrillers, even though slash because they’re not generally my cup of tea. (I may mention the reasons they’re not as a book request–like, I find the technical descriptions of weapons beyond medieval tech boring, but if there are international thrillers that don’t want me to care about gun makes and models, I’d be up for trying one–but otherwise, I think it’s important to mark a difference between “this doesn’t work for me” and “this doesn’t work..”)

  2. You can also be happy at the same time that your spouse is unhappy, especially if you have different expectations of what the world owes you.*
    It took a long time for me to realize that any novel which was highly praised on NPR was sure to definitely not be My Cup of Tea.++ I will read the Long Goodbye for the 10th time, thank you very much. I found that the same regards most forms of Art which are highly praised by our betters. Ten years back I went to see Gods of Carnage on Broadway, when it was winning all sorts of awards. I thought that it was a rewrite of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, except that the puking was on stage.
    Enjoy your hot cocoa, or whatever you’re up to by now!
    *or if your presence makes your spouse unhappy, but at least there’s divorce for that.
    ++Jhumpa Lahiri excepted.

    1. Thanks!

      And yes, very much so. I had to read enough Mind-Expanding Works of Modern Literature in high school/college, and found that most of them expanded my mind into realms of boredom and/or depression.

  3. I’m very happy that, in Uni, my female friends insisted that I actually READ some romance novels before I trashed them, and gave me some they considered worth reading. It’s a fun genre, and, yeah, there’s some same-yness there, but that’s how genres work.

    1. Same thing with cozy mysteries or urban fantasies (which I think have a lot in common). To me they tend to blur into one another, but if you’re a fan of the genre the distinctions between Series A and Series B are clear.

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