The Happily Ever After Ending – Part III

The HEA Ending – Part I

The HEA Ending – Part II

Happily Ever After? A 2007 ATBF column

(If you linked to this page from Issue #32, you can link back here, after reading the responses to E.P.’s posting):

EP: I have read your two columns (Issue #27 and Issue #28)stemming in part from my comments about happy-ever-after endings. But Laurie, I have never doubted for a moment that the average romance reader wants a happy ending. What I was questioning was whether what most readers want should be the same as a definition of the literary form.

You know, there are a lot of science-fiction fans who like to argue that Ray Bradbury is not a science-fiction writer because of his negative view of many aspects of modern technology and because of his lack of extensive scientific background details in his novels. They like to say he is a fantasy writer but not a science-fiction writer. (BTW, Bradbury himself has said he doesn’t care about the argument; he thinks of himself as an “idea writer.”) But, really, I think this is a lot of nonsense. In Ray Bradbury, we’re talking about a man who got his start writing for sci-fi pulp magazines and who comes to most non-sci-fi fans’ minds when they hear the phrase “science fiction.” Saying he is not a science fiction writer is like someone saying Louis Armstrong didn’t play jazz. The fact is, those I-love-modern-technology sci-fi fans are trying to force their sci-fi preferences onto a definition of the genre – just as some of your pro-happy-ending romance readers seem to be doing to the romance genre.

I’ll stick with my definition: “A romance is a work in which the plot centers around a love relationship.” You and most other readers of paperback genre romances may only like romances with happy endings, but you shouldn’t force your preference onto a definition of the form. Because, by removing tragic romances like Romeo & Juliet from your definition, in my opinion you are doing a disservice to romances as a respectable literary form – something I care deeply about.

Several of your letter writers have expressed the view that what today is called “genre fiction” (a new term for “pulp fiction”) is escapist fiction with happy, or at least tidy, reader-pleasing, endings. Well, first of all, I don’t see how you can separate techno-thrillers and spy novels from genre/escapist fiction – and in those books the endings are often messy. But, in addition, happy endings are frequently absent in science fiction; and westerns (though I know less about the genre) don’t always have them either. So that leaves us with one other genre, mysteries, in which you point out that the mystery is usually solved. Well, that may be true, but in one of the most famous British mysteries of all time, The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey, the detective’s solution to an actual historical mystery must remain merely a theory (albeit one bought by the Plantagenet society). And this book is hugely popular with British mystery fans. They don’t complain about the failure to give a complete solution, and they don’t suggest that the book is not a mystery.

I’m not being critical of your romance definition just for the sake of argument, or to get the female equivalent of my rocks off. I just feel very strongly about the viability of romance as a literary form capable of greatness. And while I have seen most forms of genre fiction (especially science fiction and mysteries) becoming increasingly “respectable” in the past few decades, romance has gone in the other direction. (Mary Stewart and Daphne Du Maurier and Victoria Holt and Georgette Heyer were a lot more “respectable” than romance writers today.) And, like many of the characters in that delightful book The Boyfriend School, I think the failure to give romances their due is in part a form of sexism. But the solution does not rest with outsiders, including the literary critics: It’s really up to publishers and readers to allow romance writers to break out of the mold once in a while and not force the genre to be forever boxed in to a corner. Any romance reader has the right to have specific demands regarding what kind of romance she or he likes, but if romance readers (and publishers and organizations) refuse to be more broadminded about what a romance is, then they have only themselves to blame when outsiders poke fun at their reading tastes.

Because there is one literary form whose definition does require a happy ending: It is called a fairy tale.

Emily Cartier ([email protected]):
In many ways, I have to say that E.P. is barking up the wrong tree with her *example* of defining science fiction and comparing it to defining romance. Many many many critics have tried over the years to produce a definition of science fiction that didn’t require 2 typed pages, did not include works that are clearly fantasy, and didn’t exclude any works that are clearly science fiction. As far as I know, no one has succeeded (and I’ve done a fair ammount of research on the topic (shudder) ). In other words, defining science fiction is a non trivial problem, except on a case by case, individual basis (and not surprisingly, Ray Bradbury is one of the classic stumbling blocks).

Her initial *question* however is one that we need to think about… The definition that I usually use for romance does not require a happy ending. However, the test of a definition is whether it allows one to take books and analyze them and come up with a fairly good idea of which genre they belong in. The definition she offers is unfortunately *too* general, because you could then include most of the stuff that hits the bestseller lists where people have a relationship, about 25% of all fantasy, and another 25% of all SF (and as far as I know, for critical purposes it is useless to presume from the start that a book can belong to more than one genre at a time). And a fair ammount of the SFF that is covered by her definition is definitely *not* what one thinks of when one thinks of a romance. M. le Comte de St. Germain is serially in love with a fairly hefty number of women, as are Atta Olivia Clemens and Marguerite in love serially with a fairly hefty number of men. Anita Blake is in love with two men at once (and dates them both too!). The Forbidden Tower portrays a pair of married couples who indulge in adultery amongst themselves. And several of the books about Miles Naismith Vorkosigan can be read as romances… very *bad* ones, but romances by the definition given. And each of the books (or series) I’ve listed has a happy ending *shrugs*. Most people want romances to have happy endings. It isn’t *required* but it’s definitely a factor in whether or not a book is a romance.

Defining a genre in a satisfactory fashion is not an easy task. There will always be books in a “grey area” between genres. But, it’s worth the effort to try to come up with a formal definition. Oh, and in case you’re wondering, my definition of science fiction starts out with: Does the author ask him or herself the question “what would happen if… (insert technological, scientific or historical change)?” It also looks at the author’s *additude* towards change, and the style the book is written in. My definition of romance is: A story about the relationship (tending towards being formalized via marriage) between two characters (generally one male and one female) that may take place in any time period (past present or future). I also tend to look at what audience the book was written for, because my definition is not immune to accidentally including SFF or mysteries by accident. Whenever a book falls within the “grey area” I basically guess as to what the correct choice of genre is by which definition it fits better.

Jan Siberry ([email protected]):
Honestly, I’ve been reading these books for years – and I want a HEA every time. Every time. No kidding. No matter what sub-genre of romance – HEA must be there. An epilogue just adds to my delight.

When I’ve been reading into the wee hours of the morning – my ever-loving, long-suffering husband will ask, “are they married yet?” He just knows that ending (or beginning or middle event) should happen in my book!! Even he knows what that happy sniffle from my side of the bed means . . . that my hero and my heroine are together, married and riding off into the sunset.

And I want that HEA in romantic movies, too. I know . . . there are terrific sad, wrenching movies . . . But most of the time I want a happy ending.

Pamela Tullos ([email protected]):
It seems you have many comments already on the HEA syndrome. I am going to add my opinion anyway. I have to agree the majority of the responses. Life is full of problems and situations that we must muddle through each day and to read a romance that leads to disappointment leaves you with a yucky feeling. I want to sigh and smile at the end. I want to feel warm all over at know the hero and heroine are happy. I don’t always have to go as far as the wedding alter and kids, but I want to know that it’s right around the corner.

LaNita Cornwall ([email protected]):
Put my in the camp that has to have happily ever after. I get enough reality in life and I don’t need it in my books. If I wanted angst, I’d read Sidney Sheldon. The romance genre, along with mystery and science fiction, has a few hard and fast rules. HEA is one of them. If it’s not there, don’t advertise it as a romance. Cause I don’t want to read it.

Susan Irwin ([email protected]):
I couldn’t agree more with the views expressed in EP’s letter. I also prefer a happy ending to my romances, but I would not object to some other ending – provided it fit with the story, its mood, its time and its characters. Let’s face it, even the happiest stories in real life sometimes have less-than-perfect endings, but real people have to learn how to go on, and this isn’t necessarily unhappy, although perhaps only in the long run.

Maudeen Wachsmith ([email protected]):
I know we have practically beaten this topic to death but I have to respectfully disagree with EP’s definition of a romance novel. Although she is correct in saying romance novels are books where the relationship is the center of the plot, editors, writers, and readers all agree: A romance novel must have a HEA ending. If it doesn’t it’s going to be a hard sell to say it’s a romance. But there are romance novels and then there’s romantic fiction. In romantic fiction a HEA might not necessarily be the case. Romeo & Juliet, Gone With the Wind, and The Horse Whisperer while being great examples of romantic fiction, are not romance novels. No way, no how. In many of the novels labeled “romance” today, this is a fine line. In many of the romantic suspense novels the plot is centered around the mystery rather than the romantic relationship of the hero/heroine, although there is romance in the book. In romantic fiction there is a romance but it might not be the center of the plot and there does not have to have a HEA ending.

I read a lot from romance, to historicals, to biographies, mainstream fiction, “literary” works, nonfiction, etc.; so, I don’t necessarily have to have a HEA in everything I read. However, when I pick up a book labeled “romance” I have become to expect a HEA ending — it’s the twists and turns getting there that makes it interesting.

BTW, kudos go to Avon Publishing for labeled several recent novels “romantic historicals” giving the impression that there’s more history than romance.

Katherine Lazo:
I’d have to say that I don’t consider Romeo & Juliet to be a tragic romance. Personally speaking, I have always considered it to be a tragedy. But if excluding it from the pool of romances would be “doing a disservice to romances as a respectable literary form,” (correct me if I’m wrong but) the implication seems to be that romances can’t be great unless it’s tragic! Why is that?

And contrary to fairy tales being the one literary form whose definition does require a happy ending, The Red Shoes is a fairy tale. And if I remember the tale correctly, some woodsman ended up having to chop the heroine’s feet off.

Ellen Hestand ([email protected]):
Interesting letter of the week. It certainly gave me something to think about, but it seems to me that the question of “what readers want” vs. “the literary form” is somewhat beside the point. Sure, the definition of romance can be made broader by the inclusion of love stories with non-happy-ever-after endings, but if few romance readers want to read (and spend money on) these books, why would any romance publisher want to spend money to publish them? I’m all for publishers being less rigid about the “formula,” but I can also see that they’re in business to make money. It’s also their business to give readers what they want, and on the HEA issue, it does seem as if a majority of readers want the HEA ending. But hey, didn’t I just say I never say never? Maybe the right writer could even make the non-HEA ending work for me. So maybe publishers should give it a try. Did I just contradict myself? Yes. There’s a slim chance that I’d like such a book, but still, I don’t really expect to see a horde of publishers going after that chance, and certainly not for the altruistic purpose of garnering more respect for the genre.

Geez, what the heck was my point?

Janet Dugas ([email protected]):
I just finished reading the letter from E.P. about the HEA Ending and I’m a little confused. Does she want a new “section” of romance novels? Or just have the unhappy with the happy endings? That would cause a pretty big uproar with fans like me of the HEA. I really don’t like the idea of not knowing if in my book everyone walks away happy. That’s why I read the darn things, got to have some happiness if life.

Tammi Kibler ([email protected]):
Well, I have to agree that romances don’t require happy endings. In fact, the most enduring romances don’t have happy endings: Romeo & Juliet, Cyrano de Bergerac (I hope that’s spelled correctly), The Scarlet Letter, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, The Bodyguard, Love Story – to name just a few. I think there will always be a place for the regret of love unfulfilled.

And this may be behind all the scorn of catagory romance: the idea that once the hero and heroine recognize and acknowledge their love for one another, they live happily ever after. In reality there are new conflicts and misunderstandings as time goes on. Perhaps this isn’t what every reader wants to read, but I can’t be the only one who gets tired of connected stories where the hero and heroine of a former novel are depicted as deliriously happy and their only hint of conflict is the playful references to the strife they suffered before they learned to live happily ever after.

The reality is that love and marriage are hard work. I have no problem with ending a novel on the note that the hero and heroine have reached an understanding and desire to live their lives for and with each other. However I cannot deny the truth and appeal of all the romances out there that recognize that the purest loves never came to fruition. These stories survive the ages because everyone knows that love without question must have ended before the questions could be asked, or once answered, before new questions could be asked.

N.c. Anderson ([email protected]):
I would like to comment on the letter from your writer: The literary subject that requires a happy ending is a fairy tale…. Every conference I have ever attended with a talented romance writer giving a talk: the first thing Ms. talented writer says is: “romances are our modern fairy tale”. This then, is why romance writing isn’t taken as writen by anyone with talent? That, and the stupid cover issue. Anyway, romances are fairy tales – there are classic romances Romeo & Juliet (male writer), GWTW (female writer) considered classic literature? There are some who don’t take any “fiction” seriously as something written with talent. Perhaps it is the “glut” of availability that lifts their noses at fiction. It matters not, because fiction is a release from the crap of life and a happy fairy tale can make the crap look like a rose… I don’t care much for reviewers that shoot down a book because they didn’t find it “real” enough. I don’t wanna read “real” – I read fiction to enjoy another dimension, and I write fiction to enjoy another dimension.

Holly Fults ([email protected]):
E. P. is mistaken about fairy tales. I have done a bit of research on this topic and have found a number of fairy tales with gruesome and/or unhappy endings.

I disagree with her comments on a number of counts, but even if I did agree that romance novels are like fairy tales, my response would be, “So what?” I don’t care if other people disparage the romance genre becuase I read romances for my own pleasure. The idea that society may not approve hasn’t dimmed my enjoyment at all.

I have no desire to see the romance novel elevated to the realm of “serious” literature. I don’t understand this idea that everything has to be serious and high-minded. Lighten up!

The remainder of this page is not in response to E.P.’s Letter of the Week, but on the HEA topic in general. (If you linked to this page from Issue #32, you can link back here or continue and read additional comments on the HEA ending.

Katy Cooper from The Romance Reader:
On happy endings: I think the reader must sense that the main character(s) are happy at the end for the book to be satisfying. Now, the characters’ definition of happiness may not be mine, but if the writer has done her job, then even bittersweet happiness can be more sweet and happy than bitter. I have a couple of books in mind as I write this which, to me, have happy, satisfying endings. One is Anya Seton’s Katherine and the other is Marion Meade’s Stealing Heaven.

In Katherine, John and Katherine are apart for about 15 years. Now in the book, those 15 years pass very quickly; in fact, most of them are skipped over and summed up. Then, once John and Katherine are finally married, it is made clear to the reader that John is having heart trouble and his time on earth is limited. In fact, in the author’s note, she tells us that John dies four years after finally marrying his Katrine. Yet, in John’s ruminations in the final scene, he realizes that she has always meant more to him than the power and glory he strove for his whole life; if power and glory had passed him by, he was still one of the most blessed and favored of men, because of her.

In Stealing Heaven, the story ends with Heloise finding Peter Abelard waiting for her on the other side of death. She runs to him, glad to see him again now that they are finally beyond the reach of Church and State in their troublous times. That’s what’s happy for me, knowing they are together where no one can ever come between them again.

But I had to see this, so I agree with everyone who thinks Katherine Sutcliffe missed the point. And the boat. If I don’t need to see the happy ending, then I can pick up her book in the bookstore, read the beginning and then put the book down, unbought. After all, I know they get together, don’t I? I’m picking up a romance, aren’t I? Do I have to be hit over the head? I haven’t read the book in question, and probably won’t, even though I do like more subtle endings.

Ebonye ([email protected]):
This discussion on HEA endings reminds me of the first romance I read with a sad ending. It was a historical by Janelle Taylor and if I could remember the name of the book I would tell everyone in order to warn them. This book had a case of two heros and I think I should have put it down right then and there, but I was new to romance and therefore, had no idea what was coming. So fool that I was, I kept reading. Big mistake. The first hero has escaped from prison and so is eventually sent back (even though he was innocent) after he has impregnated the heroine, of course. The heroine is unmarried and pregnant, so who does she turn to? Hero #2 who kindly offers to marry her because he’s always loved her. So what happens? Eventually Hero #1 (who I prefered by the way) comes back, finds her married, confronts Hero #2, finds out he has a child, and goes off into the sunset heartbroken and alone!! What kind of mess is this? After all the torment we witnessed Hero #1 go through, the least thing Ms. Taylor could have given him is a smidgen of happiness at the end. I read this book in October of ’95 and to this day I’ve yet to read another Janelle Taylor. I do not trust this woman.

I’m sorry but when I read a romance I have to see the HEA. I should think that we deserve it after all we went through with the hero (heroes in some cases) and the heroine. Therefore, I want to see the couple still married with five kids 10 years later.

Phyllis Lamken ([email protected]):
I definitely want a happy ever after ending. But a great writer with a great book can write an exception to the rule. The ending can be ambiguous (i.e. Gone with the Wind). I can accept a unhappy ending in a great novel, but it would have been better with a happy ending, i.e. The Horsewhisper.

Men also write romances. However, I notice in male-written romances written for a more general audience, the romance ends in full bloom by the death or separation one of the lovers. These lovers never see their love stand the test of time. I loved the The Horsewhisper. But I find it typical of a male-oriented romance (think Madame Bovary or any Victorian novel by a man). The hero or heroine dies when the romance is at its peak. I get the impression that the romance is better to be cut off at its peak than face the toll of time. One gets the impression that love can not stand the test of time in these novels.

I prefer woman oriented romance in which the end is the beginnig. In female oriented romance, the lovers face the future and all its uncertainties. However, in these romances, love is worth the risk.

Melissa ([email protected]):
If I want to be subjected to a sad-ever-after ending I will watch the news or rent whatever the latest Academy Award Best Picture happens to be. I have been reading romances since I was 13 years old (for 16 years) and I know myself well enough to know that, even if I enjoy the book as a whole, if the author doesn’t give it an “HEA” ending, I will not buy another one of her/his books.

Author Karen Alarie aka Karen Anders:
Hi. I write contemporary romance and firmly believe in the HEA ending. In fact, I like HEA’s period because I am looking for escapism. I’m looking for fiction and something uplifting. I wanted to write romance because I loved that feeling of being uplifted and I wanted to share it with other people.

I would like to point out that the romance novel is the courthship between two people who find it very inconvenient at that time in their life to fall in love. So the reader is seeing probably the most difficult time in that couple’s life. The satisfaction with a HEA is to know that these people get what they deserve. That’s the key in my opinion. I see these people struggle through so much. I want them to overcome the obstacles and be happy. I think that is why so many people felt so bad about the death of Diana. She didn’t get her HEA and she definitely deserved it. Diana was reality. I’m not looking for reality. I’m looking for escapsim.

I’ll write an HEA every time. When I pick up a romance novel, I don’t want to have to worry about whether or not they live happily. I want to be sure. I hope that never changes.

As an aside, I love your web page. I can’t identify with the reviews and the discussion about historical novels because I don’t read them. I do like the great information I’m getting from readers. It’ll help me in my own writing. Keep up the great columns.

Jill Scheppler ([email protected]):
When I pick up a romance novel, I expect to be put through the emotional wringer while getting the hero and heroine together. By the time I’ve turned to the last page. . . I expect to be rewarded with a HEA ending! I feel cheated if I don’t! Oddly enough, I’m less fond of those epilogues telling me all about the couple’s children. I can’t remember the title, but I read one last year in which the heroine (a witch) and her husband had produced either a dozen or half dozen children by the epilogue’s end. For me, that ruined the romance! I also have trouble buying the romance, and thus the HEA, between a hero and heroine when there’s a huge age difference (such as in The Ground She Walks Upon by Meagan McKinney) between them.

LLB: I think the book you’re referring to is Bewitching, which has, imho, one of the best endings I’ve ever read. True, they have lots of little ones running around, but to see the hero, who was such a stuffed shirt, being patient with his little daughter who’s floating him on a chair all over the room, well, I thought that was the funniest ending I’ve ever read!

I do agree with you about big age differences; I always worry the heroine will be left a widow and left alone for too many years.

Susan Litt ([email protected]):
I’ve greatly enjoyed reading the opposing opinions on the HEA debate. Personally, I have always felt that the ending must fit the body of the work. As long as, at the end of a book, the characters seem to be heading in the ‘right’ direction, that is acceptable. My personal pleasure certainly increases with each indication that the h/h will stay together.

I noted an interesting thread throughout this discussion that I feel requires some further thought. The idea that a hero or heroine from a previous novel is now involved in a new relationship due to the death of their loved one/spouse seems to be really unwholesome and unappealing, nay, nauseating, to numerous readers. The same response seems to be prevalent when earlier loved characters die in order to move along a story line, eg. Dailey’s Calder series.

Many readers have noted that they become emotionally invested in their characters, loving with them, enduring sorrow together, growing alongside them, learning through them. Are these characters not like our children? In our own unique way, the reader, each individual reader, gives birth to the characters and nurtures them throughout the book. As a romance novel fanatic and a parent, I want what is best for my children; this doesn’t always mean what makes me happy. It may be a case of need instead of desire taking precedence. Ergo, life in general operates on this very premise, doesn’t it? Things happen – not because we want them to, not because they make us happy, but because they need to happen. We may not always (probably not usually) understand the reasoning behind these events, but we have to deal with each new problem and get on with things.

Yeah, I’ll try to get to my point now. My apologies for the long-windedness. Life is. Death is, too. Can you really honestly believe that a person, man or woman, will only have one grand passion in his/her lifetime? Do you truly resent a person – for whom you claim to deeply care, for whom you ached and cried and laughed throughout an earlier novel – if he/she has lost their love, do you really really really want them to go through life miserable and alone? If something were to happen to myself, I would hope that my husband would find some other mate with whom he could be happy and share his life. I know he would wish the same for me. I certainly don’t like to think that such may be necessary, but reality bites, babe! Same goes for my children. Human beings do not, contrary to some opinions, have a finite amount of love to dispense to those around them. Real love should be boundless. If a spouse/lover/child is lost, the survival should not be reduced to lovelessness. One thing I can say that I may require from an author when introducing a second love to a surviving character is some sort of indication from the deceased that the new one is the right one. Corny, perhaps, but since I believe in boundless love, I also believe in love without the barriers of time and space. Does this sound like I’m contradicting myself? Probably. Am I? Quite possibly. But the idea that a reader might ‘turn out’ a child of their heart because that child, who has loved and lost, may learn to love again?! Now, I find that reaction petty and selfish.


The HEA Ending – Part I

The HEA Ending – Part II

Happily Ever After? A 2007 ATBF column