In 2014 I finished my very first novel and decided to take a workshop to polish it up before seeking representation. I emailed all 135,000 words of what I thought was a women’s fiction off to the editors only to be told that it was far too long for a contemporary romance. I read their return email with dismay. Romance? That genre was full of vapid heroines and muscle-bound heroes. That was not what I wrote. I told them they were wrong and they gave me my first homework assignment, to read the genre I was so ready to malign and dismiss. So, I read through the good and the bad, Regency and Contemporary, both bodice and bonnet rippers. Sure, some of them induced a bit of eye rolling, but the majority were some of the best fiction I’d ever read. The depth of the subject matter in contemporary romance in particular was surprising and that’s where I found a home for that first book and the two others I’ve written since. The genre gets a bad rap, and I fear it’s because any ‘serious’ literature tends to stay away from happy endings.
When I was a young reader I stuck to fantasy and the classics. I liked adventures that had happy endings. I can pretty much guarantee that if in those days you saw young me walking through the woods or mucking about, I was probably having an adventure in my head inspired by some story I had just read. As I became a teenager my tastes drifted into Sci-Fi and cozy mysteries. Though my tastes changed, one thing stayed the same. I read books with happy endings. They might have detectives and scientists instead of orcs and hobbits, but the heroes had to win, the villains had to lose, and the couple had to get married or at least kiss. These endings weren’t all sunshine and roses, but ends were tied and worlds were saved. I loved the books that either made me sigh in contentment or want to grab a sword and go hack up some orcs.
As an adult reader, that’s what I still look for in the books I chose to read for pleasure. I don’t want to be immersed in a novel where the main characters have terrible things happen to them or are horrible people themselves and after slogging through to the end there’s only a vague sense of completion, a morally relativistic point, or a relief for having survived it. Fiction is a place where the author spins a world out of nothingness and then chooses what happens. She is in control of everything. Why anyone chooses to write a book full of desolation without consolation, I will never know. If I get to choose then my reader is going to turn the last page of my book with that feeling one gets when walking out of a really great movie.
This is not a dig on complex, well-written fiction or modernist, post-modernist, or literary books. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is a very difficult book to get through, but to this day it is the novel with the greatest impact on me as a reader. That book altered my view of the world. There were times I had to put it down and walk away because the world it took me to was so real and terrible a place I didn’t want to be in it, but its message, the experience it was showing me, was profoundly important. The world needs books that tell a story a reader might not ever hear otherwise, an experience they might not ever understand without it, but there’s room on the shelf for happy endings too.
When I read I don’t stand beside the main characters and walk through their story, I jump into their shoes and live it with them. Getting lost in a book is my favorite way to read. As a reader, I want to know my pain is worth it, that there’s either a great truth that is about to be imparted or at the end I will turn the last page and feel something. Whether that’s the glow of a happy ending or the thrill of an amazing adventure, or a puzzle solved, it has to move me.
There is this idea amongst fiction’s literati that sentimentality and the happy, satisfying, resolved endings it produces fails to communicate the emotional complexity and moral ambiguity of real life and are therefore inferior. I say that’s nonsense. Actually, I’d go as far as calling it elitist. The idea that enjoying sentiment is strictly for the uneducated or less-enlightened is insulting.
So, my defense of happily ever after is this; sentiment doesn’t mean sappy. Characters who are complex and intricate plots can have their happily ever after and still be great fiction. My own writing may center around two characters falling in love, but there’s real life in between. Whether it’s corruption at a small private school, opiate addiction, office politics, or the usual prosaic difficulties of being on the PTA, I depict real life. I want my readers to know that real life can have happy endings. In a sometimes bleak world I want to tell the stories that inspire and move my readers. A book with a happy ending isn’t less intelligent because it embraces emotion because it doesn’t do so at the cost of reason. A good author writes emotion in measure with reason. Romance as a genre is snickered at because serious readers aren’t supposed to enjoy it and intelligent women aren’t supposed to write it which I say is utter nonsense.
Read what you like and don’t worry that it doesn’t meet some outside standard of what is ‘good’ fiction. In my mind the best books will always be those that leave you feeling better turning the last page than when you opened the cover. Whether they thrill you, charm you, or scare you, the happily ending is the final piece of the puzzle, the last word, the perfect closer. As dark as it can sometimes get in one of my books, the sun will always shine in the end.
One thought on “In Defense of Happily Ever After”
Romance writer and reader here. I love a happy ending. There is so much negativity in the world that when I read, I prefer to read a story where the journey may be difficult, but the ending leaves me in a happy state. It really is a shame the bad view romance novels get. As you said, it’s not all bare chests. There’s a lot of heart and soul, a lot of soul searching, difficult situations to overcome. While it’s certainly not for everyone, some of the naysayers need to take a look at what really goes on in your standard novel. They may be surprised.