Questioning the Happily Ever After in Romance in 2018

Does romance always have to end this way?

I’ve only written one romance, Been Searching for You, but there is a romantic element to everything I write, so I do (sometimes reluctantly) identify as a romance author. The Romance Writers of America (RWA), of which I am a member, will hate me for saying this publicly, but I don’t buy the rule that they espouse that says in order to be a romance, a book has to have a happy ending (a happily ever after or HEA) or at least a happily for now (HFN). They classify anything else as a tragedy or at best a love story, not a romance. *eye roll*

I know I’m going to make a lot of romance writers and readers mad by saying this, but personally think the “romance must have an HEA/HFN” rule is crap created by the publishing industry to condition readers. Now, I love a happy ending as much as the next woman, but some of the greatest love stories ever told did not have a happy ending: Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, just to name a few. (I know, I know, those are love stories not romances. Whatever.) In the romance industry documentary Love Between the Covers, author Eric Selinger points out that the 1920s and 1930s were when American publishing began to insist on happy endings in order to distinguish their books from the British version of romance. As I said, artificial.

Anyway, my larger interest in this has to do with a recent Huffington Post article that notes the rising trend of women choosing to remain single on TV. As the article asks:

So what happens when, for the first time in American history, you have a critical mass of unmarried women over the age of 30 who choose to or simply find themselves in a position to build family structures, financially stable careers and homes independently? Do the stories ― even the fictional ones ― we tell about these women expand along with their realities?”

According to the U.S. publishing industry, no. At least not yet.

Not only does this situation call the “traditional” definition of a romance into question, it may beg a bigger question about what the romance industry is saying to single women with this whole need for an HEA/HFA. As a single woman, I’ve felt the pressure inherent in that setup for a long time. (In fact, I wrote Been Searching for You as the happily ever after I haven’t actually experienced.) I’m 38 and have never been married. I haven’t really dated much. Romance books sometimes make me feel inferior because my love life is often non-existent and I’m not sure if I will ever get my own HEA. I honestly don’t have time for a HFA right now; I’m too busy building my career to devote proper time to a relationship. But as a romance author, I also know I’m required to give my characters an HEA or HFN if I want my book to qualify for a RITA (the American romance industry’s version of an Oscar). So I’m conflicted.

For example, I am going to (eventually) write a story in which my heroine, Violetta, is perfectly happy being single and is not letting it stop her from living a very fulfilling life. That is, until her ex, Miles, comes back into her life and she slowly realizes she has room in her life for someone else. Right now I don’t know if it will end in an HEA or HFN, but it will be one of the two. But given the article above, I’m wondering what message I’ll be sending to single women reading the book. I certainly don’t want to take a strong woman and turn her into someone inferior just because she falls in love. I’m hoping I’ll be able to show how Violetta and Miles compliment and strengthen one another and how the romance is a natural evolution for her, rather than her suddenly capitulating to societal demands. To once again quote the Huffington Post article,

Being single, even when you are satisfied with and excited by your life, does not preclude a desire for a romantic relationship that fits.”

Personally, I’d love to write a book where a strong heroine chooses to remain single. But if I do, it won’t qualify as a romance; women’s fiction, maybe. To me, the very fact that this distinction between genres exists is sad. I don’t get why the heroine can’t metaphorically be her own happily ever after. I know I am very happy and if my life were to end today (don’t get any ideas, Universe) I would consider this an HEA or at least an HFN ending, even though I am single. But according to RWA standards, my life story would be a tragedy – maybe a love story for a short period of time in my early 20s – not a romance.

Maybe in the future this will change. The romance industry in America is dealing with a lot right now, such as much bigger issues like racism and consent/harassment in the age of #MeToo, so I don’t expect things to change on this front right away. They may not ever. After all, several generations of women have been conditioned to expect happy endings from romance novels, even if that no longer accurately reflects life for all of us. But then again, they were also conditioned to believe (as an agent once told me) that romances could only be told in third-person POV with alternating chapters from the female/male POV. That is beginning to change, albeit slowly, with a number of successful first-person POV romance authors like Colleen Hoover, Jaime McGuire and Alice Clayton, so maybe this will, too.

Interestingly, the Romantic Novelists Association (of which I am also a member), which is based in Britain, does not have the HEA/HFA rule that RWA does and includes women’s fiction in its purview. So if American romance doesn’t change its definition, at least writers who feel like me will still have a home. (Or maybe I should just move to Britain. That’s never a bad idea!)

For what it’s worth, I have no desire to argue with writers/readers who feel that RWA’s definition is right. I respect that you feel that way. I just ask that you respect that I do not.

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3 thoughts on “Questioning the Happily Ever After in Romance in 2018

  1. Liisa

    I wonder what Violetta would think of this article? A strong woman would definitely have an opinion on this and the Huffington Post article….especially if her ex comes back into the picture. Maybe this article shapes some of her ideals of what a happily ever after could be rather than what it should be (according to industry standards).

    Thank you for sharing this!! It will be breakfast conversation with my daughter’s this morning. Topics like this always remind me to talk with them about standards vs options in America 🙂

  2. Shauna Granger

    This is why I knew I would never be a Romance writer; the HEA is the end for me. Once the 2 love interests get together, I get bored. I like the tension building up, even if they hook up or kiss, I want them pulled apart again because once you get to the point where they’re a couple, I’m bored. And I am in a very long-term committed relationship irl! But I too hate that RWA has this rule and broadly sweeps the genre this way. It’s alienating.

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