Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I Love Beating Dead Horses

Every now and then a discussion crops up in Romance Blog Land about the definition of romance and how it shouldn't have to include a happily-ever-after.

Why do we keep having this argument? I'm sorry, it's probably the librarian in me rearing her ugly head, but it just seems really stupid. And pointless. Did I mention pointless?

You don't see mystery readers (or authors) sitting around discussing, "I think the books would be better if they didn't include a resolution to the crime." Or fantasy readers (or authors) sitting around saying, "I'm bored with the fantastical elements. Can we lay off the wizards, fairies and world-building and just get books about soccer moms and lawyers?"

Listen, genre fiction (all genres) by their very definition include some type of formula. In romance novels, that formula includes happily-ever-after. Boy meets girl, boy and girl overcome obstacles, boy and girl ride off into the sunset.

Last time I checked death is not, nor will it ever be, happy. Even when the person is really old, very sick or terminally ill, we don't go out and throw a big party saying "Yippee! They're finally dead! Hooray! Yippy Skippy!" We're relieved their suffering is over, but we still mourn. So while I think there is room in the fiction lexicon for tragedies, there is absolutely no room for them in modern romance novels. Again, repeat after me, "Death is not happy unless we're talking about Hitler."

I suspect where the problem comes in for many romance readers is the definition of what a happily-ever-after entails. While there are a few (very few exceptions), 99.9% of the time it means marriage and kidlets. Now, I read a lot of historicals. Frankly, if the book doesn't end in marriage it's a real surprise because back in the day (unless you wanted to be called a whore and stoned to death), this is what you did. You met a man. You married him. You had children. That's what women did. Hell, there weren't exactly a ton of options.

But in contemporaries? I'd like to see it spiced up. I'm sorry, when the macho Alpha hero with commitment issues is proposing after knowing the heroine for one week, my eyes roll back in my head. Like how believable is that? No sex is that good. I'd like to see more let's date a while, move in together, take it slow. This is a criticism for a lot of readers. They want less tradition in their happily-ever-after. Or do they?

I've been with The Boyfriend for almost 10 years. No, we're not married. No, there are no plans to marry. We're very happy. We love each other. We are very committed to each other. But the minute I talk about my personal life to another woman, I can practically see the gears turning in her tiny pea brain. "I'd force him to marry me. I'd have left him years ago. I'd nag him to death until I got that piece of paper and a big shiny diamond on my finger."

Frankly, I think the reason so many marriages end in divorce is because people get married in the first place because they think they should. Like it's expected of them. Like they wake up one morning and say to themselves, "Well I'm 30 years old, it's time for me to get married." But what do I know?

So when readers say they want more non-traditional happy endings in their romance novels, I don't always believe them. Or I chalk it up to the divide between online romance readers and non-online romance readers. Sure online romance readers say they want endings a bit more modern, but what about those oodles of women out there who aren't on blogs, message boards, and hiding their stash of Harlequins in the bedroom closet? My guess? Not so much.


David said...

Do any of these books end with the heroine being alone and having a lot of cats? Just curious :)

Wendy said...

David: You know, that might be a happy ending for some people. Not me though. Too many litter boxes to clean out.

Sherry Thomas said...

It would be like having Frodo go all the way up Mount Doom only to have the ring be seized by a Ringwraith and returned to the Dark Lord. People would have stormed Professor Tolkien's little cottage, yanked his pipe out of his mouth, and stumped it to a million pieces, all the while screaming about slogging through seven hundred thousand words for THIS?!

Romance w/o the HEA is like Fantasy where the quest ends in abject failure.

Mollie said...

AMEN. Well said Wendy!

Alyssa said...

Sherry, I love the image of people storming Tolkien's house and smashing his pipe.

Rosie said...

You know you make a good point about our online community of romance readers' view versus the greater romance reading community.

It lends one to think that those people interacting in online message boards, author sites, blogs, etc. might have a broader point of view about their reading and the non-traditional HEA ending. I'm thinking...maybe.

Kristie (J) said...

Here! Here! I agree. To me a HEA is an absolute must - but my definition of a HEA doesn't necessarily include marriage and 2.5 kids, the dog and the SUV (which used to be a station wagon) That's why I loved the end of Bet Me by Jennie Crusie. Cal and Min were definitely together, but they weren't married and it sounded like there were no kids in their plans. A historical - yes - marriage is needed, but contemps no - not a deal breaker. But! They must end up together, no ifs ands or buts.

Alie said...

ITA Wendy! I personally don't believe in marriage and when I tell people that they look at me like I'm insane or they think that I'll get past it when I meet the right guy. Whatever.

I agree that most romance readers want the characters to get married. I'm glad when I get a happy ending, but it doesn't have to be marriage. As long as they are committed to each other I'm good.

Kitten Bitch said...

First, let me say, I LURV :) your blog. Like they sort of say on a syndicated morning show, "Long time reader, first time commenter." :)

Anyway, I'm with you. The Boyfriend and I have lived together for seven years and making it "legal" wouldn't make a damn bit of difference. We've still raised his son together, argued over what's for dinner, and stolen the covers from each other. I'm thinking a Justice of the Peace and a wedding band isn't likely to make things much different.

And I definitely like the open-ended romances where they settle in for just seeing what might happen, but alas,in my experience, only Emma Holly has ever done this to perfection. :) Like you, Total Fan Girl for Emma.

Just starting Fairyville, so we'll see!

Dev said...

I confess, I read the last 2 pages of a book before I ever start it. If it doesn't end the way I want it to, I don't read it. Why bother?

Wendy said...

Not-online vs. online is how I explain the phenomena of sheik heroes, secret baby stories and The Big Misunderstanding conflict :P

Alie and Kitten: It's not that I don't believe in marriage - I just don't think a piece of paper and a ring makes a couple MORE committed to each other. You either are or you aren't. Another reason I think so many marriages end in divorce - people (OK, women) seem to think it will be "different" once they get married. Um, no honey - it won't.

Dev: I know a lot of "end readers." Personally I don't do it. I suspect it's because I also love mysteries, and I hate the chance that I might have the ending spoiled. I like to try to solve the puzzle myself.

Lori Devoti said...

Hmmm, I have seen mystery readers/writers debate whether to be a "mystery" a murder had to be involved--or if it could be just a theft for example. I've also seen MUCH debate as to when the dead body needs to appear. This topic parallels the romance world's "when does the couple have to meet" or "the hero arrive on the scene" though.
We all have our issues. :D

Anonymous said...

I agree that online readers are probably more liberal about what makes a happy ending. I am not into marriage for various reasons, though I would be upset in a historical if they didn't get married. I would love to see more together-but-not-married couples in my novels, and I would love love love for some childfree heroines. Even in historicals, I get a wee bit sick of books focusing on how the woman needs to have babies, how the man needs an heir, how they end up with eight children and three babies hanging on the heroine's tits. And I hate secret babies grown into children who bring their parents together by being "cute". Gag me with a spoon.


Kate R said...

Woot! woot! (along with that stupid air arm thing that no one older than a college junior should do)

Yeah! What you said, times a thousand.

Thank you.