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Dear Author

Is ‘happy for now’ happy enough for you?

Not that many years ago, there was a push within RWA to narrow the definition of Romance to one man and one woman. Although the campaign was pretty obviously a fear and ignorance-based reaction to the idea of same sex and polyamorous Romance, it did spark discussions about how Romance should be defined, and about how specific that definition should be. As I’ve argued elsewhere, it’s difficult to narrow the definition too much without conflating genre definition (what the form of something is) with individual taste (what individual readers find romantic, moral, inspiring, etc.)

With the rise of many different expressions of Romance, RWA has wisely chosen a pretty broad genre definition:

Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.

An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

However, for many readers of the genre, a happily-ever-after ending is still essential to distinguish a book as genre Romance, as opposed to books ending in an HFN, or “happy for now.” In 2007, Jane argued at Dear Author that the HEA was essential for her because,

I am willing to give myself over completely to author in a romance. She can take me anywhere because I know, in the end, for all the suffering, pain, separation, unhappiness, that these people will end up together. It makes it all worth it. Now, not every book ends well. Not every romance delivers but the reason I read more romances than any other genre? Because I feel safe in the certainty of the book’s ending. It’s not because life is tough because it is. It’s not because I like to read about the leisure class or lords and ladies or vampires and werewolves. It’s because these journeys that I am on always end the same way – together and happy. For romances, I don’t need to read the back of the book. They all (should) end the same.

By contrast, author Jeannie Lin wrote a blog post last year asking “are my happy endings realistic?” Lin said that

A common criticism that my romances receive is that the endings are unrealistic, clichéd, convenient. It seems that the other stuff, the research and the details and the character interactions pass inspection, but not the endings.

She talks about how cultural expectations of readers can shape their perceptions of her books and asks, “Are Chinese heroes and heroines allowed their fairytales too?”

Her invocation of the fairy tale is important, because we often associate the happily ever after with a fairy tale scenario, even when an author – like Lin – strives to provide a historically sound context for her stories.

Perhaps, as Jane said, it comes down to trust for many Romance readers, especially when real world relationships are failing at such a high rate. Knowing that you can find constancy in a fictional love match can be a point of comfort for readers. Also, readers invest considerable time and emotional energy in reading, and the HEA can serve as a dual payoff– not only do readers know that their time will not be wasted with protagonists who may not go the romantic distance, but there can also be a sense of emotional justice for characters who suffer or undertake a really difficult struggle to find true love. The more obstacles protagonists face, the more invested a reader may become in seeing the protagonists in an enduring happy relationship.

Moreover, happily ever after isn’t just limited to the book itself; when the reader walks away from the story, she can trust that the lovers have found their forever partner(s), and there may be a certain kind of closure for the reader in knowing that whatever they may face in the future (imaginatively speaking), there will always be the guarantee in place that they will do so as a solid unit.

However, I think that the HFN is equally important to the genre. I believe it increases the number of stories that can be told within the form, and allows readers the imaginative space to fill in the lovers’ future. In other words, readers who want the HEA can draw that out past the story’s end, while readers who prefer to see a couple’s happiness as primarily a present-tense situation can do so without the emotional burden of the HEA.

How can a happy ending be an “emotional burden” for the reader? How about, for example, when the lovers have just endured so very much that it’s difficult to see them without future crises in their lives and their relationship? The book that always comes to mind for me is Patricia Gaffney’s Lily. By the time the heroine gave birth in a cave, there was pretty much no way I could imagine trouble not following this couple around like a shadow. The most recent Shelly Laurenston book, Wolf with Benefits, includes numerous shifter couples who have either been together without marriage for decades or couples who are “mated” but not necessarily guaranteed for life. The reader can infer that lifetime coupling, but one of the reasons I like the way Laurenston handles her endings is that her heroines, especially, are so incredibly independent, powerful, and complex (and often just plain difficult) that part of me feels like the HEA would too fully domesticate them. Laurenston is doing all sorts of things with gender, race, species, and culture in her books, so I imagine she’s thought about the various implications of domestication when building out these relationships. And that self-consciousness is part of what I appreciate about her books.

Still, even when I read straight contemporary Romance it’s sometimes difficult for me to feel that the protagonists will remain happy forever, and for me, the HEA can be more restrictive than reassuring. One of my favorite Lisa Kleypas books, Smooth Talking Stranger, most definitely implies a HEA, but I frankly don’t want to think too far ahead for Ella and Jack, not because I don’t think they can make it, but because it’s too easy for me to imagine some of the things a couple like that would likely face, and that actually complicates the fantasy rather than comforting me.

Also, I sometimes enjoy really complicated, difficult, even combative relationships in Romance, and placing an HEA on those relationships can feel shallow and unconvincing to me. Had Nora Roberts not extended Eve and Roarke’s story past the first few In Death books, I don’t think I would have bought their HEA. It’s only after 30+ books that I actually feel comfortable thinking of them in those terms. Ditto Tack and Tyra from Kristen Ashley’s Motorcycle Man; I would much rather an HFN for that kind of relationship than a toning down of the relationship to make a HEA more convincing. And Lena and Trig, from Kelly Hunter’s What The Bride Forgot still have a long way to go emotionally at the end of the story, even though the narrative brings us to their wedding day. I think it would be great to see more of them in future West Family books, because I think both of them have more growing to do, and I’m not convinced marriage will always be easy for them.

For me, at least, a book isn’t necessarily any less romantic if I don’t expect the lovers to be together forever. In fact, I often don’t think past the ending of a book, because I’m most satisfied with the ambiguity of the HEA question (maybe they will be, maybe not). Sometimes I want the emotional intensity of a stormy relationship and a solid HFN, while other times I want to be able to imagine the protagonists always being happy and together. Still, the HFN can give me enough to build on that expectation, merely by making a convincing case in the story itself, without, for example, a wedding or baby epilogue.

That doesn’t mean I don’t want to see how the lovers are doing in a few years; that’s one of the pleasures of series – you get to check in with your favorite relationships to see what’s happening. I just don’t always need the guarantee of forever happiness. Sometimes I definitely want that security and comfort, but more often than not, I just want to feel like the lovers are in a solid place emotionally with each other. That’s often enough of a guarantee for me.

In terms of the genre’s form, I would argue that the other part of the definition — the central love story — is more fixed and less flexible. Therein lies the work of the story and the building of the reader’s emotional investment. I understand that for some readers the HEA is essential, but at the most basic level, the centrality of the love story is what lays the foundation for the reader’s  emotional payoff in a “satisfying and optimistic ending.” The ending can feel powerful, perfunctory, or even contrary, depending on how the reader has engaged with the development of the love story. For me, if the central love story is especially stormy and intense, an HEA may feel emotionally trivializing rather than amplifying. That doesn’t mean I find the story any less romantic or part of genre Romance – it just means that the bar for “emotionally satisfying and optimistic” is set at a different level.

For those of you who would argue that the HEA is necessary, does it need to be prescribed by the book itself, or is it enough that the reader infers it? We know that readers often disagree about whether lovers will go the distance, even if the book tells us they do. So is it the HEA on page that defines the lovers’ future, or is it the reader’s expectation for them? Or is it both? And if so, why? Is it enough for readers to finish a Romance novel emotionally satisfied and optimistic, or must the lovers meet that standard in a particular or uniform way?

Dear Author

Isn’t It Romantic?

Sunita has a nice post up at her personal blog detailing some of her thoughts about a conversation she and I had the other day about the difference between a Romance (objective genre classification) and a book one finds romantic (emotional identification on the part of the reader). I want to piggy back on her post and push the issue a little further here, because lately I’ve been feeling like there’s a conflation of these two terms when discussing books, especially those that tend to be more envelope pushing in any given direction (R. Lee Smith’s The Last Hour of Gann, for example).

Moreover, I think that “romantic” is starting to become a marker of genre Romance for any number of readers, not just in what they find readable, but beyond that, what they would classify as books belonging to the genre. In other words, “romantic” is starting to feel somewhat prescriptive (and proscriptive) to me, in a way I worry may be setting arbitrary limits on a genre that – if you take it back to Hull’s 1919 book, The Sheik, has always held the petal to the metal when it comes to topics such as sex, violence, sexual violence, torture, and extreme power dynamics between romantic protagonists.

When this first became an issue for me was back when there was a lot of resistance within and from RWA to the idea that you didn’t have to have a hero and heroine as the two “official” romantic leads – that you could have same sex couples or even polyamorous relationships, as long as the story conformed to the basic genre tenets of a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. The same argument was being made about same sex or polyamorous Romance that I now see being made about books that some readers feel promote rape or have too controlling heroes, or the like: it isn’t romantic; therefore, it should not be classified as Romance.

Let me say up front that I think the “romantic” element of genre Romance is key – it’s often what invests readers in a story and in the development of the characters toward their happy ending. It is, in fact, a crucial element of what makes the genre work for so many readers.

However, it is also an element that differs from reader to reader, and, in fact, can make a book an absolute top of the genre, comfort re-read for one reader, and a wallbanger/dog toy/never to see the light of day again failure for another reader. Loretta Chase’s Miss Wonderful falls into the first category for me, but Catherine Coulter’s Rosehaven hits the second with a wallbanging skid. Anne Stuart’s Ritual Sins is a book so crazy I can’t help but find it crackstastically appealing, but if I never have to read Into the Fire again I’ll be a happy woman. I know that many Romance readers adore Sandra Brown, but Hawk O’Toole’s Hostage made me scared to read anything else by her. I used to love Shannon McKenna’s Romantic Suspense books, but at some point I felt that the violence tipped back toward the heroine in ways I could no longer stomach. Still, I know other readers who love her books but can’t stand Kristen Ashley’s, for similar reasons. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time wondering why The Last Hour of Gann has been so under the microscope, when Captive Prince seems to have escaped the same level of scrutiny.

Whatever complex level of analysis we could apply to each of these books, defending and explaining why one works for us while another doesn’t, at some level it seems to come down to what each of us find romantic. Or, to quote Sunita’s masterful phrasing: We all have boundaries about what we’re willing to be lied to about (for want of a better term) and what is beyond that boundary.

At a fundamental level, reading is about trust, and about being able to trust a book to take us where we want to go. Some readers are firm about what they want that experience to be; other readers are willing to be led into unknown areas under certain circumstances. There is nothing wrong with either way of reading. Expectations can, however, make or break trust between a reader and a book, and in that break there can be hard feelings. After all, Romance is about feelings, and about generating a level of sympathy in the reader that allows her/him to move with the protagonists to the end of their journey in collusion with their happiness. When something happens that the reader does not consent to, or that thwarts the reader’s expectations of how things should be, it can create a harsh, severe break between reader and book.

And beyond the personal reactions we all have, there are elements of the genre that are routinely under scrutiny. We at Dear Author have a long history of singling out different themes, tropes, motifs, and devices and taking them apart to question their ongoing use in the genre. This is a thoughtful and important element in genre discussion and critique.

Where I think things get dicey for me is when we move from looking at specific elements and parsing those through a close reading, to questioning a book’s categorical identity as genre Romance because of those elements. In some cases, that might be a warranted discussion – when, for example, one or more of the protagonists dies at the end of a novel. Can a book fulfill the generic requirements of a Romance if one of the romantic partners is dead? I don’t know, but I’d say this is an open question, one to which the answer will vary from reader to reader. Just like some readers prefer a HEA to a HFN, because if they cannot imagine the couple happy in the long run, the book is not successful as a Romance to them.

However, there is a difference between a book being a failed Romance and a book not being a Romance at all. In the first case, the book fails because the reader cannot find sufficient reason to trust the romantic promise of the book; in the second case, the book fails to meet the very basic and general criteria established to identify genre. I know that there are cases where those criteria seem subjective (if the reader doesn’t find the ending emotionally satisfying and optimistic, will they call the book a Romance?). In fact, Pam Rosenthal has written a very interesting essay in which she argues that Jo Baker’s Longbourn fits the definition of a genre Romance. But I think it’s very often the case that the reader can tell that the book intends for its ending to read as those things, even if the reader doesn’t buy it. If the romantic protagonists proclaim their love and some sense of commitment to each other’s happiness, wouldn’t that qualify as a emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending? The absence of those things might knock a book from being classified as genre Romance, but if they are present and simply unconvincing to a reader, I would argue that’s a failure of the romantic project of the Romance.

Here’s the thing: not everyone reads for the same reasons. For some readers, extreme power dynamics can be emotionally cathartic or symbolic of other issues in their lives or society. For some readers, non-human protagonists can play out social dramas in a way readers may relate to in a new or previously uninvestigated way. Just like the age-old rape fantasy can allow some readers to indulge in a sexual fantasy without guilt or the fear and loss of control real life rape entails.

Perhaps there is the opportunity to work through a sexual trauma or to think about how people do or do not negotiate a breach in trust within a relationship. Perhaps there is a desire to experience a certain kind of domination or submission within a safe, completely fictionalized space. Perhaps there is a sense of emotional justice that is fulfilled when certain types of violence are perpetrated on a heroine or hero. Perhaps there is simply curiosity about how things would be within a context completely unknown or unknowable in real life. Perhaps a reader would like to explore certain aspects of a different lifestyle — polyamory, for example — in a space where there is no judgment from friends or family? Who among us really knows why each of us reads unless we feel safe in sharing those secrets with other readers?

Which brings me to the reason I wrote this post: because the more comfortable we, as readers and authors, are with calling books that fail for us romantically not Romance, the more we’re narrowing the definition of the genre and limiting the stories authors feel safe telling. Even when we have the best of intentions – trying to minimize misogyny or racism, for example – the structure and functions of fiction are so complex and multi-layered that I think we risk unintended – and wanted – consequences. Think about all the Romances that would not exist if you threw all the books that contain protagonist-to-protagonist rape – how many books would be eliminated? How many of those books would you miss and what would the genre look like without them?

What is the one element in the genre you find most (i.e. deal-breakingly) unromantic? What book(s) – if any — proved to be the exception to that rule, and why did they work for you?