If a love story does not have “an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending,” (via Romance Writers of America), or an HEA, does it fit in the romance genre?
In a word: nope.
For those who maybe don’t spend every day reading and reading about romance novels, let me clarify a few terms. HEA stands for Happily Ever After and indicates the kind of dreamy fairytale romance ending romance readers live for. It used to mean marriage and babies, but the expectation has changed along with the times, blurring the lines between HEA and HFN. HFN stands for Happy For Now, providing a resolution that implies a positive outcome, if not guaranteeing it. In my world, both HEAs and HFNs qualify as “happy endings,” but many romance readers have their preferences.
This HEA argument seems to circle back around in the romance community every couple of months. Even Book Riot posted an article called “Sometimes I Want a Romance Without the HEA” a couple of weeks ago and an open-minded discussion last year. But as the kids say, “I can’t even” anymore with this. I’m an ENTJ, a pragmatist, and a former publicist specializing in romance and I’m just not having it. I don’t have a lot of hard-and-fast rules for books, but I’m putting my foot down on this one.
If it doesn’t have a happy ending, it’s not a Romance.
Not all love stories are romances. Something can be a great love story and still not fit in the romance genre. If your love story doesn’t have a happy ending, you have literally every other genre to play in. But if you’re going to stick that “Romance” label on it in an effort to tap into the lucrative romance-loving community, it better damn well have a happy ending – or at least a hopeful one. To do otherwise is a betrayal of the unspoken author-reader contract.
A majority of readers read romance specifically for that HEA and they trust authors to give it to them. We are willing to be dragged through despairing lows of a heart-wrenching story because we know the author is not going to leave us there. You can make us cry tears of pain as long as you end with tears of joy and we will love you for it.
We want the happy ending, we need it, and we deserve it. Life is stressful and hard and we want this escape. We need to see love claim victory over everything else. We’ve invested time and money and emotional capital in a book labeled “Romance” and we deserve the happiness promised to us by that label.
Let’s say one of those readers has had a particularly bad day, week, or year — and an author who has promised them a happy ending by marketing a book as a Romance reneges on that promise… why would you want to do that to someone? If they’ve spent the only spare $8 they had this month because they loved the beautiful couple on the cover and the back cover copy sounded delicious and they just really needed something that ends well in their life (just this once) — and you deny them that? For what?
Critics will say that romance is too formulaic. That if you know how it ends, there’s no point in reading it. Sorry, but no. What are the requirements of this genre? A romantic relationship between two (or more) people that ends hopefully, if not blindingly happily. That’s all there is to it. There are millions upon millions of stories to be told within that framework. There are subgrenres and sub-subgenres. There is so much room and variety here; we just ask for these two small things.
No one asks for mysteries to not have a crime, or historicals to take place in the future, or fantasies to ditch all magical/mystical elements, or horrors to be bright and happy. Why is it okay to ask romance to remove the one thing expected of the genre, an HEA? (Spoiler: it’s not okay.) If you want a sad or tragic ending, go read something else. You have the other 66% of the fiction market to choose from. It’s okay to switch back and forth between genres to get what you need from your books. Today alone, I read part of: a book on quantum physics, a sparkly middle grade fantasy, and a book to help me get my life in better order. I didn’t expect each book to fulfill all my reading needs on its own.
Even more critics will say romance isn’t realistic, that the stories don’t reflect reality. For one, there actually are people out there who have found their One True Love in a way they would describe as a “sweeping romance” or “fairytale love story.” For two, are you actually telling me that Fiction has to accurately reflect reality? Is that really an argument you want to make? Please, allow me to direct your attention to the entire speculative fiction genre umbrella, thrillers, action/adventures, medical fiction, westerns, and basically every fiction book that has ever been published and most of the memoirs. We don’t read books to read exactly the same things that happen in our real lives. Or, at least, I don’t. Nor anyone I personally know. But you do you, I guess?
At risk of sounding fatalistic, if romances don’t require happy endings, what is even the point of having genres? A genre label exists to give the reader an idea of what to expect. You can’t just change those expectations because you want to or because you feel like reading/writing “something different.”
The happy ending in Romance is a feature, not a bug.