One of the most – cough – discussed posts we’ve had on Queer Romance Month recently has been about the happy ever after in queer romance. What the post, and the responses to the post, highlighted for me was just how complex and emotive this issue is. And while that would probably make any normal person STFU, I’d kind of like to talk about it. So the next two QRM-inspired posts for AAR are going to be about the HEA: in this one I’m going to ponder what HEA means in the context of queer romances, and in the companion post next week, KJ Charles is going to talk about why the HEA is valuable and necessary on its own terms.
Before I get into it, however, I would like to clarify that I have no issues with the way in which the romance genre is currently understood and defined. Romance as a concept is a very broad and nebulous thing, but, if we take genre to be, in essence, a publishing construct that tells us what we’re getting, then I am fairly comfortable with the idea that a genre romance is, unchangeably, and at its heart a “central love story with a happy ending”. Romance often comes under attack for being described in a way that seems to imply a formulaic structure, but actually most genres work that way. Thrillers are defined by there being a threat that is confronted and overcome. Horror, by contrast, is defined by there being a threat that is confronted and not overcome. Mysteries are defined by there being a mystery that is posed and solved.
Usefully, I think you can make a strong analogy between the revelation at the end of a mystery and the Happy Ever After at the end of a romance. And, yes, you could write a story in which a mystery was a raised and was never resolved (The Name of the Rose, The New York Trilogy and even The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time all spring to mind) but it wouldn’t really be genre mystery, it would be literary fiction using the modes of mystery storytelling. Just as many romance readers read romances to feel good, many mystery readers read mysteries to play along at home, and not finding out whether you got the answer right would be deeply frustrating.
To me, the history of the mystery novel provides an interesting counterpoint to the current discussion about the position of queer romance within romance, especially as it relates to the HEA. For much of the early twentieth century, the mystery novel (or the detective novel if you prefer) was dominated by a tradition that had its roots in likes of Murder in the Rue Morgue, Mystery of the Yellow Room and The Moonstone and traced its lineage through Sherlock Holmes to Poirot and Miss Marple. The revelation in what you might call the British Country House Mystery was a distinctly amateur and a distinctly upper class affair. It’s a quirky educated man gathering all the suspects together in the Chinese Drawing Room of Waverly Manor and declaring with absolute authority: “So, you see, it is only possible for the killer to be the victim’s sister, Lady Penelope Stoatthrottler.”
When the genre migrated to America the old forms no longer really fit. The USA has a notable shortage of manor houses, mysterious bequests and posh twits with too much time on their hands. What it does have, however, are mean streets down which must walk a man who is himself not mean. The American detective story gave us a new breed of hero who embodied a new set of values. Whereas the classic British detective story is all about the world being restored to its natural and hierarchical order, the hardboiled detective story is all about a lonely individual’s attempt to make sense of a fundamentally lawless world. While the setting changed and the characters changed, the basic structure of the narrative didn’t: there was still a mystery (or a crime), there was still an investigation, and there was still a revelation. The important thing is that the style adapted to suit a new subject and a new audience, but in a way that left the heart of the genre intact.
To bring this back to romance, I would argue that opening the romance genre up to queer stories is analogous to opening the detective genre to American stories. All the key features remain the same but they may wind up looking very different in their new context. Insofar as a happy ending is a definitional part of genre romance, it is a definitional part of queer genre romance, but a happy ending in a queer relationship cannot be defined solely by reference to heteronormative conventions. As part of the discussion over on QRM, Kaetrin essentially defined the HEA as: “Together and alive