At the Back Fence Issue #269

June 26, 2007 

From the Desk of Anne Marble:

Happily Ever After?

Romance is the red-headed stepchild of publishing, but it’s the red-headed stepchild that did well for itself and shows up at family reunions driving a brand new Mercedes. Maybe that’s why publishers often try to lure romance readers away with hot new reads that are marketed a
s romances, except for one thing…   They don’t end happily for the couple.

Yes, you heard me right. Sometimes I wonder if publishers know what romances are all about. They sure try to market to us a lot, but they often don’t know what we want. To most romance fans, a romance without an HEA is simply not a romance. It’s like a mystery novel without a mystery, a thriller without suspense, a Lurlene McDaniel book without “crying and dying.” Offer up a romance that turns out to have a tragic ending, and you’ll have angry readers. Yet that’s what some publishers may be pushing forward, by putting out non-HEA stories that are marketed toward romance readers. Check out the romance shelves in your store, and what do you find? Many stores carry non-romance erotica (such as the Aphrodisia imprint) in the romance section, as well as chick lit and even woman’s fiction.

All genres that don’t guarantee an HEA.

When I think about romances without an HEA, the first thing that comes to mind is Cameron Dean’s recent Candace Steele Vampire Killer trilogy. In the last book of this trilogy, the ostensible hero is killed off at the end. (The heroine does end up with someone else, so I guess it’s sort of an HEA for her, but that doesn’t really count if you’ve killed the hero, does it?) If this series had been marketed as horror or dark fantasy, readers might not have minded so much, as long as the ending fit the story. But don’t dangle this sort of story in front of romance fans and then say “Oh, you mean you wanted her to end up with the hero?” Controversial endings aren’t new. Consider the ending of Jude Deveraux’s A Knight in Shining Armor. At the end, the time-traveling heroine ends up back in the present, and the hero dies in the past. The heroine meets the reincarnated version of this hero in the present. While I enjoyed the book, the ending made me think “Big whoop, she meets his soul in the future.” My reaction was mild compared to many, who despised that ending, and remember feeling cheated to this day. The bets are still on about Colleen Gleason’s Gardella Vampire series, starting with The Rest Falls Away. This book clearly states “Romance” on the cover, but the romance isn’t resolved. Time will tell if fans get caught up in Victoria’s love life, or if they will wind up getting frustrated. Let’s hope Victoria ends up with the love of her life, not her second choice.   I bought the first book in the Dean series, only to learn later that the hero is killed off at the end. So I didn’t bother to buy books two and three, and I’m glad I didn’t buy the entire trilogy. I’m holding out more hope for the Gleason series, however.

Unlike me, Kristie had heard about what happens at the end of Dean’s series. She says that had she read the trilogy, the ending would have devastated her. That’s why she reads romance – because whatever the story, she knows the hero and heroine will end up together at the end. “If they start publishing books marketed as romance with endings that don’t necessarily end up happy – why I don’t know what I would do. My trust in the genre and what I’m reading would be shaken to its core.” The marketing of this trilogy to romance is a sign that publishers may be trying to experiment with the HEA, in the hopes of reaching a huge marketplace – romance readers.

Sometimes the experiments fail. For example, there’s the Silhouette Bombshell series, which were intended as action/adventure books for women. But they were marketed as series romance. Some of the books were popular, others not so much. The line was popular with some readers, but it eventually folded, possibly because readers were frustrated that there was no guarantee of an HEA. More recently, you have the Harlequin NEXT series. The guidelines for this series say ” These stories will end in a happy and satisfying manner, though not necessarily in a romantic resolution.” But in most stores, as with the Bombshell line, NEXT stories are shelved with series romances. So readers come in expecting one thing and get another.

JulieR was frustrated with her excursion into this line, Susan Mallery’s There’s Always Plan B. “The heroine has two men to choose from and decides to pick neither. I was left scratching my head at that.” She bought another book from this line but still hasn’t been able to read it because of her frustrations over the ending of the Mallery book. Even beyond Harlequin experimenting with series, many of the new erotic romance series (some of which are really erotica, not romance, no matter what the labels say) don’t promise the HEA. Which begs the question: What the heck are they doing in the romance section? I think they’re trying to hitch a ride in the red-headed stepchild’s Mercedes. Because it doesn’t matter that publishers keep warning us that these books are “not romance” – erotic novels in imprints such as Aphrodisia and Red are still shelved under romance in most stores. I’d say that the publishers want to have their cake and eat it too, but in this context, that sounds dirty.

The vast majority readers agree that open endings simply don’t work in romance, sad endings stink, and killing off heroes and heroines sucks. In recent discussions both on AAR’s Potpourri forum and on AARList, almost all posters agreed that they wanted the HEA. Most readers believe that the HEA defines romance. And I agree with them. A romance without that HEA is not a romance, although it might be very romantic. Most romance fans who posted in a recent Potpourri thread on this topic agreed. For example, tafka also believes that the HEA is what differentiates romance fiction from “romantic fiction.” Sure, the HEA can take a number of shapes, from a couple marrying and having lots of kids to a couple deciding to live together all the way to same-sex relationships and even multiple partners. And for that matter, werewolves and vampires living together in sin. The important thing is that the partners are together and still alive (or still undead in the case of some paranormal stories).

Genre expectations are a vital part of any genre. When I read a mystery, I expect the mystery to be solved. Period. If it’s not solved, it’s not a mystery, and I wonder what’s the point of reading it. In romance, the HEA is part of the expectation of the genre. Fans read romance novels expecting that no matter what troubles are thrown at the hero and heroine, things will work out at the end, and the couple will end up together. Tee points out that “Romance readers have come to expect the HEA in their romance stories.” The expectation is there even when some readers don’t feel that the HEA is necessary. The genre promises the HEA, and if publishers tried to take away that guarantee, they do nothing more than shoot themselves in the foot. Like Tee, other readers would feel betrayed by the publisher if they read a book marketed as a romance, only to end up without an HEA ending. That doesn’t mean the story has to be “all sweetness and light.” The h/h can go through hell in a hand basket on their way to that ending. But if it ends up with one of them dying, or the two of them splitting up, then what’s the point, if it’s meant to be a romance.

Publishers know that fans pick up mysteries expecting there to be a crime – usually a murder – and expecting justice to be served. Thriller fans want to be thrilled, and horror fans expect to be scared. So why is it that people seem surprised when they learn that romance fans want not just a story about a relationship but a happy ending? I think they might not understand what the HEA is. The HEA is more than just two people ending up together at the end. It’s not just a “fairy tale” ending (although it can be). It’s about two people overcoming problems and ending up together, and it’s about triumph. To Falcon, the HEA in romance is important, but so is what comes before. “Usually romance books are all about the discovery, journey, learning, overcoming trials and tribulations, acceptance – all these developments are the components in growing the relationship so that in the end, the love held for each other is so powerful that both characters cannot imagine life without the other. That to me is why I love to read romance books.”

I see it that way, too. In general, I’ll avoid reading a literary novel about abuse because I know they can end up with beloved characters dying, even killing themselves. But a romance about abuse can be uplifting, no matter what comes before the HEA, because the characters beat the odds and find happiness.   That doesn’t mean I don’t want tears now and then. Like many fans, I read in a variety of genres, and I don’t expect every book to end happily. One of my favorite books a few years ago was A Dog of Flanders, in which the ending can be summed up as “The dog dies, and then the boy dies.” (OK, now you don’t have to read it.) It was sad, but it was worth the trip.

Author Elizabeth Rolls also admits to liking a good weep now and then – although her romance novels must end happily. Like Elizabeth, I don’t mind tragedy now and then. But that’s what young adult novels and true crime books are for! Many of the YA novels I read lately were about the effects of horrible tragedy on a teen. Those books can be great. But not everyone can accept that kind of ending. Some romance fans go so far as to ask for HEA endings in everything they read. For example, not only does graceC refuse to read romance novels that don’t have HEA endings, but she also dislikes tragic stories such as Wuthering Heights and and The English Patient. Peggy used to read tragic stories, but she has started avoiding them, and she doesn’t miss them.

Yet just as some writers are lured to write tragedy, some fans don’t always want the HEA when they read a romance. I think for some readers, a steady diet of the HEA must be like eating the same meal every day for a month. ladynaava is one of these readers. She has found herself disliking almost half of the romances she’s read lately, so she thinks a non-HEA ending might liven those stories up. Also, some of her favorite series don’t always involve the same couple. Following these series has been more interesting to her than reading about one boring couple. For her, the formula, including the HEA ending, has “almost killed the suspense and interest in the genre.”

NoirFemme doesn’t think writers should do away with the HEA, but she doesn’t find as much satisfaction in it as most other readers. She sees the HEA as a device, just like the cute meet and other overdone story devices. In other words, if the book is labeled as a romance, then the hero and heroine are going to end up with the HEA, even if they never connect enough to have a healthy, believable relationship. She argues that, more and more, romances are coming across this way: “When a romance ends with the couple surrounded by their children, when will they get bored with the marriage one another once they realize they know nothing about one another?” On the other hand, while I find myself getting annoyed with the formula (must every Regency hero be a spy these days…must all vampires either be witty or angsty?), don’t mess with my HEA. When I get sick of romance, I read something else. Heck, I’ll read something else even when I’m not sick of romance. Last month, I was reading traditional Westerns. This month, I’m reading true crime. After a month of true crime, the HEA endings will seem a relief.

Like me, author Elizabeth Rolls doesn’t think the problem is with the HEA but rather with readers who don’t vary their reading diet enough. “When people start worrying that one genre isn’t giving them something that is available in other sorts of books, it sounds to me as though they need to look elsewhere. To paraphrase someone on another thread; try the vegetable section, not the fruit.” She doesn’t see a reason to mess around with the HEA because most readers expect that in a romance. Instead, she thinks that when readers tired of it, they need to try something else for a while. What about publishers “experimenting” with non-HEA romances? She thinks that if this happens, readers will feel cheated, just as mystery readers would feel if they got to the end of a mystery and realized the mystery had been left unsolved:

“If it is a romance and the romance comes to nothing, then we will probably feel as cheated as if Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple failed to solve a mystery. That’s not to say that a wonderful love story cannot end in the death of character, but part of the appeal of romance is the fairytale element. The ideal of love conquering all. Yes, we know it doesn’t always happen in real life, but for the span of a romance novel it does. Take that assurance away and you have women’s fiction or chick lit. Which is fine. Just don’t shelve it in romance. Doing so will create more problems than it solves, and irritate many more readers than it will please.”

But Dolly may say it best. “I don’t think it would expand or enhance the romance genre if the HEA ending wasn’t required. It would absolutely end it.” In all of her reading, she has found that romances gave her a satisfaction she couldn’t find elsewhere. For her, life has enough challenges and setbacks. While she has no problems with the heroine facing problems in her life, she “must solve them, outsmart the villain, save the hero … and give me hope.”

Questions To Consider:

Now it’s your turn. Let’s start with these questions, but by no means must you stick only with them on the ATBF Forum:

Is the HEA ending sacrosanct to you?

What has been your reaction to reading books you thought were romance novels that either didn’t feature a romance novel or were, in fact, not romance novels at all (ie, instead of hero character dying, there remain multiple heroes by the end of the book) Laurie points to Keri Arthur’s Riley Jensen series as an example. She loves the series, but found the banner at the bottom of book two, which proclaimed the author as “the new star in paranormal romance”, misleading.

How much leeway do you grant publishers along the way to an HEA? Can the hero or heroine, for instance, have multiple partners during a story as long as they are monogamous by the end?

Why do you think publishers play as fast and loose with marketing books as romance novels? If you read other genres, such as mystery or thrillers, is there such a loose interpretation? In other words, have you read mystery novels in which a mystery remains unsolved, or thrillers without suspense?

Do you remember the discussions surrounding Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series? We’re kind of vague on the details but recall the author being given a choice on how the books were to be marketed. She chose romance to reach a larger audience. Please correct us if we’re wrong, and talk about other series that seem to be following a similar marketing strategy.

It’s one thing to market books as romances to pull in non-romance readers, but what about romance readers who don’t need an HEA, or don’t find the HEA as delivered these days very satisfying? How big should the umbrella be? Do we need a warning label on the cover so that romance readers can skip over romances without an HEA, or is it a wiser choice for dissatisfied readers to vary their reading outside of the genre? By loosening up the HEA requirement, are we killing the romance?

Anne Marble

Post to the Archives for this Column

Readers on the HEA ending (1997)

(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)