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.