Wednesday, March 09, 2011

My Big Snit Over Mandatory HEA or Lady Gaga's "Bad (Genre-)Romance"

“HEA?” you ask, “what the bleep is HEA?” Well, don't feel bad I didn't know either. HEA is an acronym for “happily ever after” the standard ending for fairy tales and contemporary formula romance novels – except I didn't know about the latter until recently and I've gotten myself in a lot of hot water over it.

Look! If you squeeze her shoulders
her boobs pop out!
Now, let me hasten to point out I have nothing against HEA and, in fact, quite a few of my stories end that way but it is the mandatory part that annoys me. When I start to read a book I don't want to know in advance how it turns out. Much of the adventure is wondering how on earth this will all come together. But I got into a little squabble about it recently on a discussion board for writers and, heaven's to murgatroyd, I had no idea how humorless hard-core genre romance people can be about their demands!!! I've blogged a couple of times about how confusing I find the strict rules governing “romance” in modern day literature. To me romance has always meant beautifully crafted stories which involve interesting people and all the things they must go through for love – and often it doesn't work out! Boy, was I wrong! Turns out that, according to the genre-romance standards, Romeo and Juliet, that most romantic of romances, is not a romance at all! America's greatest Colonial romance, Last of the Mohicans, isn't either and don't even get me started on the many accounts on which Wuthering Heights fails the test! I was informed in the discussion that NONE of those authors would get published by a “reputable” romance publisher today (whew, bet Shakespeare was worried) and they are NOT romances, they are “love stories”. I was also informed that Nichols Spark writes love stories, not romances, because they have depressing, sad endings.

In fact one genre-romance lover informed me if an ending is NOT HEA it is depressing. I brought up my favorite example, that most romantic of adventures, Daphne DuMaurier's Frenchman's Creek, and was promptly slapped down – it did not end HEA because she realized what a good man her husband was (after he saved the life of her lover) and went back to him. Sounded pretty happy to me – especially because he took her back.

But what bothers me the most about all of this is that the lovers of genre-romance will not even for a second consider the possibility that a book can end positively if the “H” and the “h” (even those designations kind of bug me) do not wind up together. Suppose the heroine decides she is happier and more fulfilled pursuing her dream of becoming a doctor and goes back to med school, or that she loves the H until she meets his brother (or sister) and decides to delay the engagement until she checks that out? She's happy, isn't she? Does her happiness not count?

Therein lies the message of these mandatory HEA books: A woman can only live “happily ever after” bound to an H. No other alternative can really bring her happiness.

In the course of the discussion most of the genre-romance fans claimed that they read widely among other genres so they get plenty of alternative endings. However, bookstore owners have long maintained that the majority of their customers who read within a genre rarely stray outside of it and actually get offended if they suggest a book to them that does not fit the formula. I had an experience like this some years back when I recommended a book to a co-worker who was a die-hard genre-romance fan. I told her how much I loved a book and offered to lend it to her. The ending to the book was sort of ambiguous but I loved it. My co-worker HATED it. Not just hated it, she was furious with me for suggesting she read it! She claimed it depressed her for weeks. I'm still expecting to be served with papers over that.

The genre-romance people I was talking to also could use a sense of humor, if you ask me, but we all know how skewed my humor is. Within the course of the exchange someone said “you can call yourself a romance novelist if you want to...” to which I replied that I would rather call myself a Glenn Beck fan or Charlie Sheen's therapist. Boy, did that put some bees in their bonnets!

The big retaliation is “well, romance is the MOST popular genre (so there)” which is true – just like McDonalds is the MOST popular restaurant. It probably was imprudent of me to point out that genre-romance is to literature as Big Macs are to cuisine... oh well.

So today is Ash Wednesday and Lent is now upon us. I have committed to a minimum of three meatless days a week and am considering giving up chocolate (not quite there yet). I think I'll also give up talking about genre-romance. That's infinitely more difficult than it would be to give up actually reading the stuff. Where's Lady Gaga?

Thanks for reading.

OMG! This is hilarious! Check out: Longmire Does Romance for lots more!

This post just got a nice plug from Marian Allen on her blog. Thanks, Marian!


  1. Excellent post. I had no idea that a "romance" novel had to have a HEA ending. Isn't that rather boring? Every time you read a romance, you know the ending?

    I guess that's why I don't read the genre at all. I like to be surprised by the books I read.


  2. What overwhelms me is how dogmatic and humorless the fans are about it! They claim they are persecuted -- sure, because they are humorless and dogmatic....

  3. I'm with you, Debra. Why would a reader want to know how a book is going to end. Besides, I much prefer bittersweet endings to HEA.

    And a hearty AMEN to this: "But what bothers me the most about all of this is that the lovers of genre-romance will not even for a second consider the possibility that a book can end positively if the “H” and the “h” (even those designations kind of bug me) do not wind up together."

    Great post!

  4. SNORT!!! I only just noticed the caption for the picture. Hilarious!!!

  5. And then there is the Romantic Comedy formula where the H or the h always realizes that the quirky, studious, best friend is the soulmate, instead of the shallow swimsuit model or the Porsche driving millionaire.

    The exception being when the swimsuit model or millionaire reveals themselves to be a secret nerd, or to want to use their millions to give plucky orphans and mangy dogs a forever family with the H or the h.

  6. In the first few drafts of my book, h was undecided about which of the two men in her life to end up with. Nearly every editor who read it complained. Readers, I was told, need resolution. They are apparently incapable of deciding these things for themselves. Sigh...I always though that readers were smarter than that, but what do I know? I'm only the writer.

  7. Dee, that's the kind of malarky that drives me nuts -- the publishers are master-minding a market of readers who are happy being spoon-fed drivel. This is how the ubiquitous "dumbing-down" of America came into being.

    I had a publisher tell me that in The Old Mermaid's Tale I had to get rid of either Pio (the h's first love) or Gary (her first affair) because NO one would accept her having three men in her life (actually 4 if you counted Howie, her boyfriend back home). This was ridiculous because without Pio the book would have had a very dismal ending and without Gary she never would have met -- or been too intimidated by -- Baptiste (the love of her life). Publishers have NO respect for their market -- or maybe their market really is that dumb. I'm not sure which.

  8. Thanks, R.J.!

    Carla, I wandered over to the Romance Discussion Forum at Amazon and was gob-smacked by the highly highly specific themes (called "tropes" by the aficionados) readers were asking for! The H gets the h pregnant, the h is handicapped, the H rapes the h (I thought that went out in the fifties), the h is a nurse who cares for the H, etc. The thing is, all of those are perfectly valid plot elements (well, I'm not crazy about the rape one) but if you know in advance what is going to happen, what is the point???

  9. Blaming publishers isn't exactly fair. We see the same problems with movies. The problem is that people want a guaranteed experience in their cultural consumption (if you can call trashy novels and blockbuster movies that) just like in everything else they buy. You're never going to get to write an intriguing, thought provoking story by sticking to genre, and sadly, genre is what the market demands.

  10. In all honesty, I'm not sure which came first, the public appetite for crap or the corporate-supplied abundance of crap. Did publishers respond to public demand or did they create that demand with incessant marketing? One thing I know for sure is that it would be to their advantage marketing-wise to supply the same old crap because they don't have to come up with innovative or even creative marketing materials. It's an interesting subject to consider.

  11. Marketing is an interesting issue. My book eventually made it as far as the editorial meeting several times on the strength of editor support, and then it died because they couldn’t find a marketing niche to put it in – character too old for chick lit, book too funny for women’s lit, not sexy enough for romance – it made me crazy. When I self-published, I listed it as a romantic comedy, but neither Amazon nor B&N have a separate listing for that, so it’s languishing in Fiction hell. There has got to be a better way!

  12. You come up with a better way, dernst2010, and you'll have a guaranteed business proposition for any of us considering self-pubbing! Actually, just start a research group to figure it out, and I'll be one of the first to join.

    Seriously--and that first paragraph was only half in jest--that is the key, isn't it?

    We wonder if we could be runaway successes, too--if only the powers-that-be in publishing were less conservative, more willing to take risks. While the so-called "self-publishing revolution" encourages us to personally take those risks, even enables risk taking behaviour, we're still at a loss for an effective, efficient way to get our creations before eyeballs.

    (I'm personally convinced that nothing I feel like writing would ever stand a chance at Amanda Hocking-style success, but there's always that niggling delusion!)

  13. Dee, I totally hear you. I went through a similar thing with publishers with The Old Mermaid's Tale -- they LOVED it "but..." There is no niche market because it is very romantic but doesn't fit the definition of "romance" and it is historical but not a popular time/place in history (the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway to international commerce in 1957). One marketing genius suggested I rewrite it to be set in Scotland!!! Yeah, that would work... aurgh.

    And Each Angel Burns is romantic but the H and h are "too old" to be proper romance H and h. And it revolves around a mystery but the mystery isn't a classic whodunnit.

    I'll tell you where the mystery is, in finding the right audience!!!

  14. Great post! This is precisely why publishers are becoming irrelevant and some authors are choosing to publish independently. Sometimes books just don't "fit" their strict requirements and so can't be placed as a romance. But it can't be labeled in any other genres either because it doesn't fit there!

    Btw, I love the books covers :)

  15. Love your blog, love your humor, love your attitude. :) "Lord of the Hissy-fit"--~snort~

    I self-published some short story collections because, while some found publishers, some fell through the genre cracks. So I bundled some of each together and made collections.

    As for readers, there are a lot of genre fans who don't read for actual pleasure, any more than people who eat at fast food places eat for pleasure. They read or eat to fill their time or bellies. When they're done, they're sated and mistake it for satisfaction. Those are the people who want each "experience" as nearly identical to every other as possible. It gives genre writing a bad name.

    Done grumping, now. :)

    Marian Allen

  16. Sticking to the tropes is the only way to get published in the genre. Which is too bad because a lot of good books get lost in the slush-pile.

    Even the women's fiction market is pretty well limited by the constraints of the romance genre.

    There is more reason than ever to DIY publish. But even then there is the issue of finding women who want a good story and don't care about the HEA constraints.

    I'm still looking for a way to target that market myself.

  17. It does encourage me that there are writers who are breaking the molds though. Some years back I was in an online writer's forum with several people who were struggling with their non-traditional manuscripts, one of them was a woman who had written several "horse" books which were traditionally published and did quite well. While she was working on those she wrote another novel -- a non-horse story -- and submitted it to her publisher who turned it down and told her to go write another horse story.

    She did but she continued to shop her other novel around and it was eventually picked up by Algonquin, a small, indie press. They published the book, titled Water for Elephants and Sara Gruen stopped writing more horse books. So it definitely can happen!


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