Thomas Ramey Watson

The tyranny of happy endings

British librarians recently tallied up the number of times they’ve loaned out 50 classic novels over the past 20 years. They found that some authors — specifically Charles Dickens and Jane Austen — are more widely read than before, while others — George Eliot and Thomas Hardy — have suffered a decline in popularity. Determining what people are actually reading (as opposed to which books they merely buy or download — with the best of intentions!) is a lot trickier than you might think. But if anyone has a decent grasp on which literary works are standing the test of time with the average reader, it’s librarians.

Asked by the Telegraph newspaper to explain why Eliot and Hardy have fallen out of favor with the public, John Bowen, a professor of 19th-century literature, suggested that readers increasingly prefer “more optimistic and comic novels, with happy endings.” A staffer of the agency that conducted the survey noted that libraries always see an upsurge in loans of books by authors whose work has been dramatized on film or television. (Elizabeth Gaskell got one of the biggest boosts during the two-decade span, thanks to a popular BBC adaptation of her novella “Cranford.”)

Happy endings and film adaptations: That might sound like two different explanations for a surge or dip in readership, but in essence they’re one and the same.


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