Sunday, October 19, 2014

Is "The Fault in Our Stars" a Romance Novel?

Pamela Regis writes with a thought about HEA endings and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. 

Here's another thought regarding definitions.  Green's novel has all of the eight elements that I have identified.  The hero dies.  The heroine has a form of cancer that is very likely to kill her long before she reaches middle age.  
 Yet the story ends with the words of the marriage vow:  "I do" written by the heroine, our first-person narrator, in response to a posthumous question (delivered via a letter) by the hero.  He has said earlier, "I fear oblivion."  But in our hands is the book, in which his beloved immortalizes him.  No oblivion for him.  
 I think this qualifies as an HEA, given the constraints of illness that the hero and heroine operate within.  The usual meaning of happily ever after implies an expanse of time that is unbounded.  Over and over again, The Fault in Our Stars insists on the limited time that we all have, not just those of us with life-threatening illness.  So the "ever after" in this HEA has been achieved, I think. 
 RNA would count it within their definition, I suspect.  RWA's definition would also count it.  The more restrictive "courtship and betrothal of one or more protagonists?"  Yep, I think so.  
 Quite aside from any marketing, branding, or other marketplace issues, it seems to me that, fomally, this is a romance novel. 
What do you think, folks?  At the very least, this would be a wonderful topic for a PCA proposal!  (Tick-tock:  only a dozen days left to submit!)


  1. This discussion is interesting. I wonder what readers would think, though. Do they read romance with an HEA because of the HEA? Anecdotal evidence suggests, I think, a strong preference for that among many readers; they explain that’s why they read the genre (even if they read other genres as well). Would romance readers call Fault in Our Stars a romance? Consider the ending "optimistic"?

    Personally, I enjoyed the book, enjoyed the romance plot elements, but did not experience it as a romance novel. Now that you've got me thinking about it, if I had to put the HEA or optimistic ending into words, it would be the swoon factor, or that feeling that when you close the book you heave a big sigh and want to hug it for a while. (Not that I ever do that, mind you. Never.)

    So that's the interesting question to me: would readers have an opinion about whether it's a romance and why? So many readers say they read romance as a happy escape during troubled times—as a way of managing the difficult emotions in their lives. Writers get those kinds of letters all the time—“your books saved me at so-and-so’s death bed….” (I do wonder if John Green has ever gotten that email about FIOS!) Would readers feel betrayed by the ending if FIOS was marketed as a romance? Instead of closing the book and basking in the sometimes-unrealistic beauty of getting rid of all the complexity that’s part of real life, you're crying your eyes out in an emotionally tortured state wondering why the world is so unfair. (Not that that reaction is without value. But it’s different from the standard HEA experience.)

    I know Pam put aside the marketplace issues for this discussion, but to me that's all part of it, which I'm sure is a reflection of the questions sociologists ask compared to literary scholars. I guess it's kind of coming from the other side and presuming the label is created by the beliefs and practices of the readers.

    Great food for thought!

    1. "Do they read romance with an HEA because of the HEA?" Yes.

      "Would romance readers call Fault in Our Stars a romance?" No.

      "Consider the ending "optimistic"?" No.

      "Would readers feel betrayed by the ending if FIOS was marketed as a romance?" Yes. And throw it against the wall and rant online about people who market their non-romances as romance.

      "would readers have an opinion about whether it's a romance and why?" Yes. Because they're not together and happy at the end. Being immortalized in a book does not count.

      Pamela Regis is obviously not a romance reader. The HEA requirement doesn't change based on the constraints within a story. It's the writer's job to shape the constraints of a story to accommodate the HEA. "This is as happy as they can be given the circumstances." No. There's a reason romance novels don't cover characters' entire life spans. Romance readers don't want to see main characters die, not even in a later book in a series.

      I don't care what RWA's definition is. I don't care if Jennifer Cruise thinks Gone with the Wind is a romance. Romance didn't start with them. If RWA had its way, erotic romance and ebooks wouldn't exist.

      Attempts by outsiders to "redefine" romance and new romance authors to "expand" the genre are extremely irritating. The HEA can't be tampered with or twisted to fit an author's vision. The HEA is romance. Readers rely on it being there. If "you're crying your eyes out in an emotionally tortured state wondering why the world is so unfair," you didn't read a romance.

  2. Yes, MaryK, I see what you are saying. Your emphatic response confirms what I was discussing above about readers, but also raises more questions, because I do think Pam (who, I assure you, has read many romance novels!) raises a really interesting point about the definitions of romance and the genre.

    I think we can think about two groups here: romance readers and ROMANCE READERS. The latter group is very savvy about genre distinctions, knows that RWA exists (and has a definition of romance), and relies on certain aspects of the genre to deliver every time. It seems to me you are in that savvy group, and though I didn’t use to, I now identify with that group myself.

    However, I think there are a lot of (lowercase) readers out there who read romance but don’t understand that it is necessarily a genre unto itself, is linked to a trade organization of writers, and has a specific definition and set of parameters associated with it. These are the people who say, “Oh, romance novels? I love Nicholas Sparks and Danielle Steel!” And at the same time, they’re devoted fans of Nora, Eloisa, and 50 Shades. They love a good story about people in love. (There’s a parallel conversation going on about Pam’s post on a listserv I’m on, and some folks are calling this distinction one of “genre romance” vs. “romantic fiction.”)

    So it’s interesting to me, as a sociologist, to think about those insider/outsider distinctions when it comes to readership. So far my coresearcher (Joanna Gregson) and I have only examined these insider/outside dynamics among writers (four and half years into our research), but there’s a great paper in here about ROMANCE READERS vs. romance readers.

    In that parallel conversation, there’s also some vehement defense of the HEA, and a similarly emphatic contention that scholars had better not try to change the definition of the genre. I don’t think that’s the intention of romance scholarship at all, and I also don’t think it would even be possible for researchers to bust their way into the genre and direct what people are writing or buying or defining or requiring of the books. I love that ROMANCE READERS will defend the HEA to the death, but I don’t think it’s is going anywhere. It’s just an interesting question to examine that boundary between what’s in, what’s out, and—to a social scientist, rather than a literary scholar—who defends that boundary to what degree.

  3. You beat me to it, Jen, in terms of noting that Pam is, indeed, a "romance reader" in some very real sense of the term. But you've also hinted at something very interesting about the peculiar status of us literary scholars / English professors who work on the genre. Depending on what we're up to--writing an essay, reading for pleasure, etc.--we might read as ROMANCE READERS or as something else. Not exactly the "romance readers" you describe, who don't really think in terms of the genre and its institutions, but perhaps more interested in the fringes and outliers and ancillary texts surrounding the genre than someone who is a ROMANCE READER would be.

    For example, I've never read FIOS, because I don't like reading books with sad or tragic endings, but as a scholar I might now take a look at it and find it interesting how the book draws on and plays with the conventions of the romance novel. Maybe I'd even like it--but I wouldn't be reading it in the same way as I would a romance novel, and I'd know going in what to expect.

    The boundaries things is interesting, because it's not just inside / outside, but also a matter of prestige or respect. Like MaryK, that is to say, I've sometimes gotten absolutely furious at a text--usually a movie--that's been marketed to me as though it had an HEA, but didn't. I feel angry, bitter, and betrayed, not just because I expected one experience and got a different one, but because there's often the implication that the ending and experience I wanted (the HEA / HFN) would have been less valuable or true or artistic than the ending and experience I got. I'm not just disappointed; I feel like I've been insulted. That's part of what I hear in MaryK's irritation, and in many of the irritated comments on the post I linked to a few days ago from the Queer Romance Month.

    That said, I sometimes find myself liking texts (in any medium) that give me something just a bit more bittersweet than I expected, IF they give me enough of the HEA to satsify. In the Korean TV dramas I watch, sometimes there will be an HEA for the characters in their next life, which isn't usually enough for me--maybe a cultural bias there--but an HEA where the couple will continue to separate and reconnect, say through time-travel or some other mystical phenomenon, works for me, as long as the reconnection element seems to predominate or "win."