I heard George RR Martin on the radio the other day. Asked about the Game of Thrones body count he said something like (this is a paraphrase): “I used to read stories that had happy endings, where people did good things and nobody got raped…then I grew up.” Meanwhile, in an article on children’s fiction, author Robert Muchamore observes, “While a childish thirst for happy endings satisfies and entertains us, the real world is so complex that unambiguously happy endings hardly exist.”
This is a sentiment you see a lot. Violence and darkness are things that belong in real books, adult books. Happy endings are soft, childish, something you ought to have grown out of. If you read a story about two adults having enjoyable consensual sex you’re a loser; if one of the made-up people is raping the other, that’s a proper book. I have a friend who mainlines misery memoirs (the ones with a big-eyed child on the cover called things like Please Daddy Don’t Hurt Me) while sneering at romance–‘oh, happy ever afters, eh?’ And, you know, I am aware that romance novels are made-up stories intended to make money for author and publisher. The funny thing is, she seems to believe misery memoirs aren’t.
As if the act of reading about ghastly events makes the reader superior. As if wallowing in vicarious pain is a moral good. As if the readers don’t enjoy it.
Romance, like all genre fiction, is all about the story. And sometimes we need stories with happy endings. Sometimes we need fiction that reminds us things can come right, people can be decent, stuff can work out.
I’m not Pollyanna. If you asked a hundred people to describe me in three words, ‘relentlessly upbeat cheerfulness’ would probably not be used. But things do work out sometimes. People actually do good things; terrible things don’t always happen. Love exists, and sometimes it survives. We have to face the darkness sometimes but it is not a denial of human suffering if we also look to the light. That helps me believe there’s a point to it when I do my small, pathetic bit in the way of donating money and marching for causes and waving placards. It helps me keep going.
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
(Hogfather, Terry Pratchett)
We need happy endings. And we particularly need them in queer romance, because of the enraging tendency in much fiction to ‘gay tragedy’. The mass slaughter of queer characters in books, TV and films is a much-observed phenomenon, which I won’t tread over in detail; suffice to say, in Four Weddings and a Funeral we all knew which couple was getting the funeral. Even in an ultra gay-friendly show like Torchwood the hero’s boyfriend was toast at the end, while the het heroine and her husband made it. Queer characters die to save the het hero/es, or to make a Meaningful Life Point at them, or to be Socially Realistic, or sometimes, I think, so the author can show how post-right-on they are. (‘Hmm, I need one character to be a traitor whose betrayal destroys their apparently loving relationship in which the reader is massively invested. Shall I pick one of the seven het couples in the story for this role? No, wait, I’ve got it… ’)
Apparently queer characters getting a happy ending is political correctness gone mad to make an unrealistic point. Whereas killing them makes no point at all. No inference to be drawn from that, no sir.
Well, I’m sick of gloom. There is nothing wrong with turning to books for an endorphin hit of pleasure and hope. There is nothing morally admirable about wallowing in fictional pain and misery unless it inspires you to go out and actually change the actual world. And there is really nothing to be proud of at all in demanding a fictional landscape where women and queer people are routinely brutalised because it’s ‘realistic’. There are dragons in your book, mate, don’t tell me the imagination can’t stretch to finding a way for two people to love each other.
But even if you agree with Robert Muchamore and GRRM that happy endings are childish…well, what exactly is wrong with childishness?
When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up. – CS Lewis
I’m too old to worry about being thought childish. I’m too old not to understand that happiness is precious and fragile, and should be cherished. And I’m a damn sight too old to paint my bedroom black and wallow in vicarious pain for the purpose of entertainment. By all means choose grim dark, serial killers or misery memoirs for your holiday reading: whatever floats your boat. Just don’t tell me it’s better than my book because it has rape instead of sex or pain instead of love. Don’t sneer at my happy endings.
(It is, incidentally, a great deal easier to write a scene in which people are savagely attacked by giant rats than a convincing declaration of love. Trust me. I speak from experience.)
KJ Charles is an editor and writer. She lives in London with her husband, two kids, an out-of-control garden and an increasingly murderous cat. Her latest book is Think of England.
Throughout October, Queer Romance Month will be publishing a wide variety of articles, stories and essays from the queer-identified, the queer-writing, and the queer-supporting. Please come and join us, and be part of the celebration and the conversation.
This is an old article and I’m late to the party, but I’ve noticed that the people who tend to demand happy endings are 100% women. Men…don’t seem to care, much less demand, happy endings in my books. The couple of times I’ve killed off characters, I got angry emails from women in all caps. Guys usually think I was gutsy to do it. Mind you I didn’t do it to be gutsy, but because it made logical narrative sense. I blame it on all these trashy romance books where everyone gets a happy ending even if it doesn’t make a lick of sense. Now female readers who try other genres can’t grasp the logic that not everything will have a happy ending.
Yes yes yes.
I see enough of things not working out in my real life. I want happy endings in my fiction. Which is kickass, A-grade and amazing as well.
I don’t drink,eat or drug my troubles away…I read…romances. With all the stuff going down in the world I need a little lift.
I have to say I really hate miserable memoirs….
Great essay. Thank you.
Much as I like Game of Thrones, I couldn’t live in a steady diet of stuff that was full of pain and misery and bad things happening to innocent people. In a way the “”then I grew up and realised that the world is full of pain and misery is also indicative of being stuck in a not fully mature phase. Like those teens who’ve discovered that there is indeed plenty of pain and misery in the world and write horrible poetry about it. Then a few years later they figure out that actually the world is a great big mix of both good and bad things.
“”Well, I’m sick of gloom. There is nothing wrong with turning to books for an endorphin hit of pleasure and hope. There is nothing morally admirable about wallowing in fictional pain and misery unless it inspires you to go out and actually change the actual world.””
“”I’m too old to worry about being thought childish. I’m too old not to understand that happiness is precious and fragile, and should be cherished. And I’m a damn sight too old to paint my bedroom black and wallow in vicarious pain for the purpose of entertainment.””
I’m putting your above wonderful words in my books for quotes that I want to remember. Thank you.
This is a beautiful essay. Thank you, thank you for writing this and writing it so well.
As someone who suffers from chronic clinical depression, which is frequently exacerbated by reading more or less anything about what is going on in the world anywhere ever, I really don’t need fiction to remind me that the world is dark and ugly and full of pain. That message is everywhere. Instead, I need fiction to remind me that there is reason to hope.
A big thank-you for your post. I wish I had your eloquence when facing reproving “”friends”” who condescendingly dismiss my favourite genre. This will be the perfect rebuttal!
(I should start reading your books–I have a few in my TBR-mount.) ☺
Thank you again.
I agree completely! If I want to unhappy I can manage all by myself. I don’t need a book, TV show or a movie to help.
Great post, K J and you won’t be surprised to hear I couldn’t agree more. The conceit at the heart of this is that happiness is simple and misery is complex. I don’t think that’s true. Especially the sort of earned happiness you find in romance novels.
I couldn’t agree more. I live with depression, so to me it is braver and more difficult to keep plugging away at kindness and happiness than it ever would be to give in to the misery. In terms of romance, I am living in a happy ending – I’ve lived half my life as a happily married person. I’m proof it happens. It’s sometimes been hard work, but then good is harder work than evil. Giving in and saying ‘well, everything is awful anyway so why try’ is something of a self fulfilling prophecy.
Great post! I have been in this discussion as well. And I don’t think happy endings are “”childish””. Yes, there is plenty of pain in the world. I don’t need news – I have plenty of my own suffering to deal with. I grew up with an abusive father. I have a chronic illness that means I am in pain every day. My family are in a country where war is going on right now, I fear for their safety, and one of them had already been injured. I have had a bright and wonderful friend die from cancer, very young, and have seen how devastated his family was. And yet I have so many blessing in my life, and so many good things that happened to me over the years as well. And I have seen people who did make it, through all the trials, into happiness and long years.
Just like the authors says, books gave me, at various very dark points in my life, reminders that there are good things in this world, that they do happen. If I did not have those reminders, chances are darkness and depression would have sucked me in, never to come out. Sometimes the endings that are too perfect can put me off. But I think the good endings are true to life, and essential to remind us of all the good things out there, and to counteract all the gloom, doom and negativity from “”real”” news – because of course it’s mostly bad things get reported and emphasized, while the good news just sit quietly in the background.
Ebola, ISIS, terrorism in Canada, war and death in the Middle East, starvation, poverty, homelessness – the list goes on, and some days it seems that hope, peace and joy are unattainable in today’s world. That’s why I read romance – it reminds me that happiness and love do exist; it makes the world a bit brighter after a day bombarded by bad news and worse. It gets me through the dark times. There is so little time to relax and enjoy a book – why would you want to waste that on more violence and hate when you could enjoy a happy ending?
Ebola, ISIS, terrorism in Canada, war and death in the Mideast, starvation, poverty, homelessness – the list goes on, and some days it seems that hope, peace and joy are unattainable in today’s world. That’s why I read romance – it reminds me that happiness and love do exist; it makes the world a bit brighter after a day bombarded by bad news and worse. It gets me through the dark times. There is so little time to relax and enjoy a book – why would you want to waste that on more violence and hate when you could enjoy a happy ending?
Such a great post! This puts into words my exact feelings on romance and happy endings, especially the bit about queer people being incredibly underserved when it comes to those things. I’ve pretty much sworn off the serious literary and grim-dark portrayals of queer people, because they always seem to die or have their personality reduced to their sexuality. Bring on the queer characters in genre and romance!
Also, as someone commented above, romance novels aren’t always all fluff (although I love the fluff dearly- sometimes I just need something to cheer me up!) the only difference is that throughout all the bad stuff that happens, you know the characters are going to end up together and get their happy ending. Without that knowledge I just feel like I’m reading to make myself more depressed. And the idea that sadness and depression are somehow deeper and more meaningful than happiness is a dangerous one, especially for people struggling with depression.
What I find amusing is that so many fairy tales — especially in their original versions — are very scary. They have evil creatures and characters, bad things happen, and people and animals die — and stay dead — or are harmed, so I certainly don’t find fairy tales to be beneath my attention as an adult. The only difference is somebody in those stories gets a happy ending.
I don’t know much about George Martin’s work. I haven’t read his books, nor have I seen the show adapted from it. I’m guessing he’s still writing these stories so we don’t know whether anyone is going to end up happy or if everyone’s going to die, ala Hamlet. ;-)
The point is, however, many stories — including romances — have bad things happening in them, but in the end, someone usually ends up happy, achieving a goal, overcoming an obstacle, or getting out of a bad situation, so does that make them unfit for adult entertainment?
The notion that *only* stories in which no one does good at all and characters are abused, tortured or killed are adult is 1) wrong (see fairy tales) 2) a ridiculous statement and 3) really restricts your reading!
Under those parameters, I guess Jane Austen’s not a writer for adults … and countless other classics and modern day novels would be considered childish.
So much yes to your post. So. Much.
Forgot to say, thanks for the great blog post!
The reason fairytales are so important to tell to children, is that it helps them master their emotions (see Uses of Enchantment, Bettelheim*). They need to know that good will triumph over evil, whether it is an internal emotion or an external circumstance. I often argue as adults, we are no different. The world is so complex, with so many competing beliefs and very little tolerance. And unfortunately there is evil in the world. So I say bring on the happy endings. If Romance is straight, bi, trans, questioning, multicultural, multi religious, gives me the struggle, and the eventual triumph and happy ending, I will gladly keep reading, and may start writing:)
*FYI – Bettelheim was an ego psychologist which is a derivative of psychoanalytic theory. I want to make it clear, I think Freud’s views on homosexuality were complete rubbish and I in no way endorse them.
Great post. I love the CS Lewis quote. The opportunity to embrace a more optimistic view of life and see the glass half full instead of half empty is something to be cherished and not denied in the quest for realism. Reality doesn’t automatically mean unhappiness and gloom.
Yes! A thousand times, yes!
I don’t read or watch movies to reinforce the mundane crap of everyday life. Reading can be fun and joyous and wonderful — there’s no need to suffer to experience art for god’s sake!
I don’t think that writing a “”love story”” wherein one of the pair dies at the end elevates pablum up to literature any more than I think a happy ending somehow negates the art and beauty of a well crafted/well written book!
I am a fan of George Martin’s books, but I would never describe what happens in them as “”realistic””. I would say “”gritty””, “”gross””, “”tragic””, “”harsh””, “”shocking””, “”ultra-violent”” etc. etc. That’s all fine and good for me — why not acknowledge the “”thrill ride”” appeal of them — like a roller coaster or a haunted house?
I think the C S Lewis quote sums it up best of all. Put away the “”fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up”” and live a little!!
Of course, the flip side of this is that I tend to dismiss most Serious Literature as pablum for angst-ridden twenty-somethings. Honestly, though, I’m glad I got old enough not to give a damn what other people think about my reading choices. If I want real-life drama with a side order of pain and suffering, I’ll go to my day job in the hospital…
Wow. LOVE this. I’ve been in a position where i’ve had to hide my love romance novels. They’re trash. Why do you read that trash? They’re not trash. They’re fun. They’re beautiful. They’ve brought me to tears. And guess what, some do have violence and rape and still they find their way to a happy ending. Blue Eyed Devil is one of my favorite books of all time. But Haven’s journey is not a comfortable or happy one. I still cry when I read it. And I still swoon when Hardy tells her he hopes he can just be near her if she ever needs anything. And yes, I do read James Patterson books. I enjoy the John Corey mysteries. Why can’t we all just get along. I find myself telling the school that if my daughter wants to read fanfic, I’m good with it. Let her read what makes her happy. My son loved the Great Gatsby. LOVED it. But his preferred genre is manga. It’s all good. Your genre is not superior to mine.
Love, love, LOVE the point that dragons are realistic, but two people falling in love and staying committed, or a woman experiencing a life without sexual violence, is totes farfetched y’all. I didn’t realize George R.R. Martin’s imagination was so weak.
Thank for expressing so eloquently my own need for happy endings. It’s frustrating when people see you as superficial just because you enjoy reading romance. I try not to judge others for their literary tastes and I don’t want to judged for mine. This is, partially, why I share my thoughts on books with my online friends rather than with people in real life.