Can Romance Thrive Without Happily-Ever-After? (Hint: Yes)
I follow Angela James on Twitter--Editor-in-Chief of Carina Press, thoughtful reader, good citizen, and a generally entertaining person to follow. An interesting discussion thread popped up from a benign statement than rang true to me: maybe what we call Romance shouldn't have to end in HEA.
The range of responses that this musing earned was fascinating and varied. Primarily, many like-minded respondents agreed. Real life doesn't always end in HEA, a fact that dozens of respondents didn't feel cheapens the value of a great love story. It's possible (maybe even probable for most of us) to experience an epic love that isn't meant to be.
Yet there were other opinions: indictments of the disappointments of real life romance exalted the escapism of idealized endings. If our real boyfriends (girlfriends, partners, husbands) are likely to fail us, some argued, we need book boyfriends to give us the vicarious payoff we don't get in real life. "We" is relative, of course--some of us do get these payoffs. Maybe that's the unrecognized distinction between reader segments. Could it be that those who have been unlucky in love want HEAs while those who in happy partnerships want to witness the vicissitudes of characters forced to fight for a not-so-straightforward love?
I recently attended a talk by author Adrienne Bell, author of a craft book called Plot M.D., which coaches around the structure of stories. Her discussion of the much-talked-about hero's journey led me to a definition of romance that we need to talk about more. Satisfying stories are about being along for the journey as we witness a character change. Romance differs from the classic "hero's journey" by presenting dual heroes--each with his/her own change arc. Why can't se simply categorize Romance as any story that features the intimate sort of relationship in which neither can achieve necessary change without the other's romantic love?
But does this mean HEA? Me (and a whole lot of other people) don't think so. I think of a quote that's stuck with me over many years: "Every important character in your own story comes for a reason, for a season, or for life." The romance industry (as it defines itself via the RWA happily-ever-after) acknowledges only the latter. Yet, how can it forget iconic romances with bittersweet endings that have seen huge commercial success? What of La La Land, Brokeback Mountain, Titanic, and others that have stood the test of time? Epics like Casablanca, Gone with the Wind? Look no farther than recent nominees and winners, such as Moonlight, The Shape of Water, and Phantom Thread. None of these ends like romance novels do. The question then becomes, where do romance readers find stories like these while the industry is busy force-feeding us HEAs?
In my own author life, my debut novel, Snapdragon, has fought for its right to be considered Romance (which any common sense read would dictate that it is). Yet, it's on shaky ground with respect to the official rules of the romance community. The first book ends in a happy-for-now that mollifies only those readers willing to read its sequel, Chrysalis, which gives a hard-earned, realistic, delayed-by-real-life HEA.
But what is it with those readers who heat up their pitchforks when stories don't have a specific ending? Readers who are out for blood when they get a cliffhanger or a parting of ways instead of a romance that's tied up in a neat bow? Life itself is rarely tied up in a nice package--and there is something fundamentally wrong if we hold this standard to one of our biggest genres.
This approach also creates specific problems for authors who are fundamentally writing romance but who aren't sure where to place their books. Our intuition (that many romance readers will come out for them in droves) doesn't help us with publishers. Romance editors may reject bittersweet books for not being romance-y enough. Fiction editors may reject these books for feeling too romance-y for general fiction. Many readers don't care. They just want a really good book with a romantic thread. Outside of the industry, readers would have no clue that the genre they're looking for is Mainstream Fiction with a Central Romance ::sigh::.
My solution, of course, is for us to change the definition of Romance as far as the industry is concerned. Messy endings have a proven track record of commercial success, and, last time I checked, the industry liked to make money. Narrowing the definition of romance only serves to force readers who are open to realistic romantic depictions into reading a specific kind of story. The industry could be thriving at a different level if we simply made more space for bittersweet books.