Friday, October 17, 2014

Noted with Interest: "Optimistic Ending"?

--Eric Selinger

A recent post by novelist Edmond Manning at the Queer Romance Month site, "Make Room for Happily Never After," sparked a lot of comments about the genre designation appropriate for love stories without an HEA / HFN ending.  (Addendum: this follow-up post by Alexis Hall at All About Romance is well worth reading, and I'll post about that one later.)

I'm not going to try and summarize the debate that played out in the comments section and on Twitter.  My interest is in the ways that the RWA definition of the romance genre was deployed in the post and what followed.  Specifically, I'm beginning to wonder whether the way that the RWA describes the romance novel's ending isn't, itself, somewhat problematic, although I'm not sure whether that's because it's disingenuous or just plain fuzzy.

As readers of this blog probably know, the RWA definition of the romance genre reads like this:
Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.  
A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel. 
An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love. 
The first sentence of this definition does not explicitly state that the ending of the novel will feature the protagonists together and in love with each other.  However, the second, ancillary sentence, which spells out what an "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending" means, does say that "the lovers" will end the novel in possession of "unconditional love," and we might well assume that this means "love for each other" rather than, say, "love for and being loved by somebody else down the line, with lots of romantic memories of the transformative experience that made it all possible."

I've often thought that the interestingly fuzzy thing about this definition was the notion that a love that comes to you as a "reward" can really be described as "unconditional." In the Queer Romance post, however, it was the bit about an "emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending" that came into play.  One comment agreeing with and defending the post observed that "Not even the modern definition specifies a HEA. An (and I’m quoting the RWA) 'emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending' leaves the door wide open." Another concurred, saying that "you could argue that an ending could be happy even if it involves a couple separating but valuing their time together. This doesn’t actually contravene the standard RWA definition which requires only that a genre romance centralise a love story and that its ending be optimistic."

Needless to say, not all of those who left comments felt this way.  "If *I* read a book that self-identified as genre romance with an ending that had the central 'couple separating but valuing their time together,'" one observed, "I would throw that book at the wall, rant on Twitter, Amazon, Goodreads and any other outlet I could find that this book was NOT a romance novel. I’d never trust that author again."  It's worth noting that this comment went on to insist on the "context" of that phrase about an "optimistic ending" in the RWA's definition.  "I don’t believe that “optimistic” is intended to mean optimistic about the fate of one or more of the characters," the reply continues.  "I’ve always read it to mean that the reader is meant to leave the book feeling optimistic about the fate of the central love story. If that’s not part of the definition, than I give up."

As it happens, there's one more bit of context we can bring to the table here.  In her short essay "I Know What It Is When I Read It: Defining the Romance Genre," Jennifer Crusie, who was on the definition-writing committee, gives us a sketch of the discussions that went into the final wording. Obviously this is just her account, and it's not coming down from Sinai.  But I do find it helpful.

What the RWA was after, Crusie writes, was "something short and punchy that described the genre in all its glory, something that would be easy to remember, something the press couldn’t make fun of."  Much of the discussion seems to have revolved around how to describe the ending of a romance novel.  Here are the key quotes:
  • There were those who insisted that the definition must stipulate a happy ending, and those who pointed out that a lot of great romances didn’t have happy endings, and that it would be a bad idea to frame a romance definition that excluded the book most people cite as the greatest romance of the twentieth century, Gone With the Wind . Oh, we had a high old time debating this one. 
  • ...we go back to the happy ending definition, right? Well, no, because some of the best romances don’t have happy endings, they’re bittersweet.Those who write romances about protagonists who have experienced tragedy during their struggles shouldn’t have to tack on Disney endings to qualify as serious romance novelists. It was at this point in the discussion that people began saying, “Well, when I say ‘happy ending,’ I mean . . .” and it became clear we were going to have to define “happy ending” in the definition. 
  • The discussions on this one pretty much boiled down to “endings that make the reader feel good at the end of the book.” No endings where the protagonists sacrifice for one another and end up noble and alone, no downers with the hero and the heroine wordlessly staring at a cockroach scuttling across the cracked linoleum of their tenement, and definitely no finales with dead protagonists unless they’re ghosts having a terrific time in the afterlife. 
  • I knew we had it when Gone with the Wind and Pride and Prejudice made the cut, and Madame Bovary and Message in a Bottle didn’t.
The stuff in here about Gone with the Wind is particularly fascinating, since it's clearly not a romance if the protagonists have to be together and committed to each other, even informally, at the end.

I also wonder whether the need to write a definition that "the press couldn't make fun of" also played into avoiding "happy ending" terminology; after all, the truly happy ending is often poignant and tremendously complex, tonally speaking.  I think here of what J. R. R. Tolkien says of the happy turn in Fairy Stories:  "It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief."

For my money, it makes a lot of sense to have a separate term to distinguish a love-story-that-ends-happily-for-the-relationship from some other kind of love story, whether that other kind is one that ends optimistically for one or more protagonists, but they're not together (as in the Crusie / Mayer collaboration Wild Ride) or one which ends tragically, or just glumly, or whatever.  I generally go with "romance novel" for the first, the successful courtship narrative, with "romance" or "love story" or "romantic fiction" as the broader, more general term.

If you use other terms, or have suggestions, let me know.  And if you want to know why it's important to have separate terms, take a look at the comments on that post above. Some women there said it better than I ever could.

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