Thursday, April 08, 2010

PCA Romance Panel 11: Happily Ever After: Romance Conventions In and Through Film and Fiction

Jessica "was not able to attend this final romance area panel" so she does not have notes on all the papers "but Phil kindly provided me with a copy of his paper from which to derive a summary." Phil Mathews's paper asked "Is Happily Ever After a Romance Imperative?" and Jessica has put up her summary of it. I don't want to copy and paste all of Jessica's post, so in what follows I'm taking it for granted that everyone who carries on reading this has already looked at her notes on Phil's paper.

Phil asks some interesting questions about the possible consequences of knowing that a novel is going to finish with a "happily ever after" but what I found slightly curious about his paper is that although it was written by an academic from the UK, it doesn't seem to reflect the complexity of the UK situation with regards to the "romance" genre. By that, I mean that in the UK what we have is not so much "romance" as "romantic fiction" which may, or may not, include a "happily ever after" (HEA). The RNA has recently updated its website but a previous version (cached here) contained the following description of "romantic fiction":
What is romantic fiction?

Romantic fiction is the cross-genre genre. In the UK it appears under a variety of publishers’ labels including general fiction, women’s fiction, historical, romantic comedy, chick lit, sagas – even spooky – as well as romance. These are among the UK’s most commercially successful book categories.

It embraces Jilly Cooper’s 900 pages as well as the 187 of Harlequin Mills & Boon’s category romances which are published every month; multi-generational sagas and Regency romps; deeply serious meditations on life and flippant twenty–somethings’ metropolitan shenanigans.

The engine of romantic fiction is love and relationships. The bodywork is infinitely variable.

Romantic fiction’s heritage

The first modern novel in English (‘Pamela’ by Samuel Richardson, published 1740) was essentially a romance, a highly coloured tussle between love and virtue. (Both won.) First Fanny Burney, then Jane Austen honed the genre, leading their heroines through agonising mistakes to emotional understanding and a happy ending. The Brontë sisters added social isolation, madness and tragedy; Thackeray gave us the truly amoral heroine in Becky Sharpe. The modern genre was born.
Phil would "like to argue that the Romance genre is stigmatised undeservedly because of the imperative for a happy ending" but the UK's Romantic Novelists' Association was founded "in 1960 by a roll call of notables in women’s commercial fiction" because
They wanted respect for their genre. In her inaugural address, Miss Robins said that although romantic novels, according to the libraries, gave the most pleasure to the most people, the writers almost had to apologise for what they did.
And yet,
even in the sixties, not all RNA novels ended Happy Ever After. RNA Committee member Maynah Lewis ascribed this to women’s widening horizons. Winner of the Romantic Novel of the Year in 1968 and 1972, she said, “In my first novel the heroine didn’t get her man, in my second the heroine was 64 years old, my third was a romantic suspense set behind the Iron Curtain, my fourth had no wedding bells, not even in the far distance.”
So while I think Phil raises some very interesting questions about the effects of the "imperative for a happy ending" in the romance genre, I'm not sure it's necessarily that imperative which is the cause of all of the stigma (though it may well be the cause of some of it). After all, romantic fiction is, and long has been, to quote Phil, "able to embrace the love plot, tragic or otherwise" and yet many authors of romantic fiction still felt so stigmatised that they founded the RNA.

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