There was recently an article on the Book Riot website arguing in favor of romance novels without happy endings. I read it and thought, “But happy endings are the one requirement!”
RWA’s definition of romance is pretty loose. A romance novel must have a central romance story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending. Most readers interpret the latter as the romantic couple (or ménage, etc.) ending up together.
But that still gives writers a massive amount of room to tell stories. Characters can fall in love in Regency or Medieval England, in 1920s New York, in the Wild West, in China, in India, in Africa, in South America, in the future, in space, in some imaginary place. These characters can be rich or poor or somewhere in between, they can have a whole host of interesting jobs, they can solve crime or make scientific discoveries or save the universe. Romance heroes and heroines can have any background, can be Irish or African American or Japanese; they can be vampires or cat shifters or aliens; they can be Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or atheist. The characters can be a man and a woman, a man and a man, a woman and a woman, they can be trans or asexual, or there could be three people, or seven, who all fall in love with each other. They can express their love physically behind closed doors, explicitly on the page, or not until they’re married.
The only limit to what happens in a romance novel is that there must be a love story at its heart and we need that happy ending (or at least a happy for now). Otherwise, the only limit is what your imagination can cook up.
So why do we periodically get these think pieces arguing that literally the one thing that defines romance as a genre should not hold true?
The author of the Book Riot piece argued that the happy ending, while satisfying, does not always reflect reality. Sure, that’s true. In real life, some great romances end in divorce or death. But love stories with unhappy endings can be found aplenty in the literary fiction section of the bookstore. Why would one argue for romance to change?
Romance authors on Twitter had theories. For example, sometimes these think pieces about romance novels not requiring happy endings come from authors who write lit fic but want romance money, so they try to argue that the book they’ve written belongs on the romance shelf where the hungry readers buy books, even if the book doesn’t technically fit the definition. Or you get an author who assumes all romance is trite and formulaic and argues their new, edgy approach to the genre—an unhappy ending, how revolutionary!—is going to change everything.
But we as romance readers know that the genre is rich and full of talented authors. Let’s keep that as a given. Because romance has two requirements: central love story, happy ending. And that’s it.
We romance readers and writers know, the guarantee of a happy ending is not a spoiler. For us, it’s about the journey, not the destination, right? And given all the room that still gives to tell stories, if you can’t fit a romance into those wide boundaries, you’re the one lacking in creativity, not the genre.
I am all for pushing genre boundaries. But if you took the whodunit plot out of a mystery, what are you left with? If you took the suspense out of a thriller? If you took paranormal elements out of urban fantasy? Genres have parameters for a reason. They help readers find the books they want to read, mainly. And for a lot of romance readers, the happy ending is what they want. They want the hope, to believe that everything will work out.
Consider this: writers have been publishing novels with gay characters since the early twentieth century (at least!) but until fairly recently, the characters in those books met with unhappy endings. Even through the eighties, AIDS was a prominent theme. In the last 10–15 years, with the ballooning popularity of gay romance, these characters are finally getting happy endings, and we’re sending a different message to readers. This is true of romances involving people of color as well. What we’re saying is: You deserve happiness, not tragedy. You deserve love. And great things are possible.
So why would you rip that rug out from under the romance genre? Damon Suede often calls romance “the literature of hope.” If you want to read or write books that don’t have happy endings, that’s great, but those novels are not genre romance. The core of romance is hope.♥
Kate McMurray is an award-winning author of gay romance and an unabashed romance fan. When she’s not writing, she works as a nonfiction editor, dabbles in various crafts, and is maybe a tiny bit obsessed with baseball. She has served as President of Rainbow Romance Writers, the LGBT romance chapter of Romance Writers of America; and as Vice President of RWA/NYC. She lives in Brooklyn, NY. Visit her at www.katemcmurray.com.