What is romance, and does there have to be a happily ever after?
Originally, a romance was a tale of chivalric love and adventure, in which the hero (always male) never consummated his passion (for a female).
These days, when most people discuss romance stories, they are referring to the genre of novel that burst onto the publishing scene in the 1970’s. Romance comics have an even longer history: They date from the mid-forties.
Romance Writers of America, with the help of writer Jennifer Crusie, came up with this definition of genre romance: A romance is a love story that has an emotionally satisfying, optimistic ending. In an earlier draft, Crusie had suggested “A romance is a love story that ends in emotional justice,” in much the same way that mystery novels end with a sense of moral justice.
You can read Crusie’s full post about defining genre romance here: http://jennycrusie.com/non-fiction/essays/i-know-what-it-is-when-i-read-it-defining-the-romance-genre/
Lately, two romance authors have released books that end in death rather than marriage, and reader response may lead to a redefintion of the genre.
Some readers are ready to embrace the “better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” ending in romance. In an article originally published on ravishly.com and then reprinted on the Huffington Post, Noah Berlatsky explains why she prefers the possibility of an unhappy ending: “The thing I love about romance novels is the way they insist that love and happiness are important and real and true. You can show that insistence by defiantly giving your audience the happy ending. But you can also do it by acknowledging that some stories don’t end that way, while still honoring the impulse to believe that they should.”
You can read her full article is here: http://www.ravishly.com/2015/01/14/happily-ever-after-romance-novels
Romance authors have been challenging other conventions of the genre by writing about male-male pairings and female-male-male menages, but other conventions remain. For example, love interests tend to meet very early in the narrative in order to telegraph the identity of the key couple. Also, adultery and cheating remain mostly taboo.
Here are some other romance conventions.
In a beauty and the beast story, it is never the female who is the beast.
In male female pairings, the stories are told from the female POV or from the female and male POV (in that order).
The main characters’ romantic love must be expressed sexually.
Male/female romances should end with pregnancy or the promise of children in the near future.
I’d love to read stories that subvert these conventions.
For example,how can the main couple express the sensuality and intimacy of their love if they don’t consummate their love physically? In Anne McCaffery’s classic SF novel The Ship Who Sang, the heroine is basically a human brain encased in a spaceship; the hero is her pilot. In Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing comic book series, Abigail Arcane faces the issue of consummation as well, because she loves a swamp creature who is vegetable, not animal. Both writers come up with marvelously creative and satisfying solutions to the question: If sex is not the ultimate intimacy, what other kind of payoff could there be?
And speaking of sex, can erotica be funny? Back when Sex and the City was the hot show about female friendship, Chick Lit novels explored the glamor of working in Manhattan. Now, Broad City (created and written by alums of the improv group Upright Citizen’s Brigade) offers a deliciously raunchy take. (Forget working in an art gallery, like nineties girl Charlotte: Artist Abby cleans out clogged toilets for a health club.)
As for me, I look forward to reading stories that explore the mystery, adventure, weirdness and occasionally the horror of romantic love, in all its iterations.
What about you? Would you read a book with a heroine in her 50’s — or older? Would you read a story about a recovering drug addict? Would you be stick with a hero or a heroine who committed adultery? And last but not least…does the story have to end with the promise of forever in order to work?