The Nature of the HEA and the Lack thereof

It has been a very long time that I have posted here. The pandemic has definitely burned me out which has affected my reviewing and reading the past few years, but recently I am starting to get my mojo back and getting into books. My main genre has always been mainly romance because not only can I escape into an emotional journey of the protagonists reaching a HEA. But during these chaotic and uncertain times I know that I am safe in the knowledge that whatever happens to the couple or polyamorous pairings, that they would gain their Happy Ever After. This not only gives me an escapism but also a feel good buzz that the resolution of the story ends on a hopeful and positive note. And we need hope and light in an era where its just chaos and tension and oppression, 

But like clockwork there is this challenge to redefine the definition of the genre of Romance. And that means, subverting or even removing the HEA (Happy Ever After) or the HFN (Happy for now) with the latter being associated with mostly series romances with recurring couples. This tends to happen when there’s a new wave of readers and authors who get into the genre. There is a minority that advocates Romance is too predictable and needs to be shaken up or that it’s not realistic. They do not respect or understand the basic fixed tenets of conventions that this genre represents. It helps on a cynical level that this is a highly profitable genre that encompasses a wide range of subgenres from sweet cozy, to dark gritty and epic fantastical settings. It is one of the rare genres that can actually straddle so many elements but the very thing that clearly illustrates that it is a romance that, the core plot needs to focus on the journey of the protagonist meeting and over the course of the book, to fall in love and to have their HEA/HFN ending. They can have tension between them or face external and internal dangers surrounding them but they overcome those obstacles to reach that satisfying ending. They may face more issues after but the knowledge that they would be together gives the reader closure to the story that everything will be alright between them because they’re a united and committed force.. 

Also I find it very interesting that other genres like Mysteries, Science Fiction, Fantasy or Horror do not get this push back with redefining their conventions and I suspect it’s because they don’t require a HEA because for some this is seen as superficial and unrealistic. And this leads to the main reason why I am writing this post which is in part of the current issues due to this ignorant pressure to change the genre. I recently preordered a book blindly expecting it to have a HEA, But I soon grew very nervous when I was seeing social media promo posts that it’s not a ‘traditional’ HEA or Romance but the author clearly marketed it as part of the genre. I was very lucky to read an advance review of the book that clearly stated it wasn’t a romance because it didn’t have a HEA and I agreed. The author may have thought so, but they set this book up with one journey establishing it as a romance then midway subverted it into another narrative journey that actually defines as a dark psychological erotic thiller with other subgenres that is not clearly set up in the blurb or her promo. This book had a totally different tone and approach to what a  romantic journey is about because the premise and plot was tragedy and even though it had romantic elements it definitely did not fit into the conventions of what Romance is about. And the author was well aware that this subverted the conventions because they knew it didn’t fit the narrative conventions of genre Romance by describing it and marketing it as a non-traditional romance. It makes it worse when she posted a promo post by stating you have to go in blind to appreciate the twists. The sad thing is that if they only labeled it as a dark thriller with romantic elements that would have been great,  they would lay out the anticipation of a twisty thriller with romantic elements but would educate their audience into expecting a book that isn’t a romance. But also that this is not a romance or most especially misleading romance readers by saying it is a non traditional romance. By using the terms Romance, or the HEA is denoting to their audience that this book belongs in the category of this genre. 

And this is why I dislike the fact that this has to be said. I am seeing in some blurbs that a romance book has a ‘Guaranteed HEA’. This should not be happening for this genre. Mysteries without the killer being found, don’t get warning blurbs presenting to the reader that it is safe and they will be found and punished.  And it is several other genres, like Women’s fiction, Literary fiction and others that have Romantic Elements that may or may not have a positive ending but will consist of dark and tragic premises  Romance readers read widely and also read outside the genre.  There are many Romance authors who have written non romance books and many of those readers have followed them.  We are heavy consumers of books, and we are faithful to our favourite authors who may choose to switch or write alongside in other genres. An author who wants to go into a different direction and write YA, Horror or Thrillers and is afraid of losing readers because it may not have a HEA or romantic elements that isn’t a full romance they may be surprised that a lot of their romance audience will follow them. But what is wrong is mislabeling a book that is clearly not a romance. The author is going to break trust and once you break that trust it is hard to get that back. Basically it’s like the hero or heroine has cheated in a book and I hate that trope. I disliked it in the old skool books and I definitely do not like it as a trope right now. But it is also not good business sense because being an author is also presenting and selling their product to the consumer. Genre has been clearly defined since Greek Philosophers like Aristotle who created the concept that we are programmed to look into certain conventions for storytelling. Romance as a genre has been around for a very long time whose conventions are just as fixed as Mystery and Horror over the past several centuries. There is no changing that. Tropes may come and go and so do trends but you can’t subvert the conventions that make them up.  There are academic studies and scholars who have examined and explored the genre and how that reflects society and readers. It should be treated seriously like other genres and not the step-headed red child and not like an easy cash in because of the ignorant and wrong assumption that because it has a HEA it is easy to write one. Try writing a Harlequin with a set word count and a believable HEA. It won’t succeed for a lot of people who think so. 

Furthermore a  tragic ending in a love story is not a Romance. I had an ignorant comment who dismissed my concerns about the book I preordered while on twitter the other day and hilariously stated that Wuthering Heights was a tragic romance and therefore it is a romance. *Sigh* This book is the last thing that resembles a romance. It had a toxic relationship that had the emotional journey and narrative end in disaster for the characters. It is the total opposite of what the emotive directions that Romance is about. 

Other subgenres that clearly embrace and have set conventions that will embrace a tragic love story, Literary fiction, that is clearly guaranteed to end tragically and there are high brow overtones that miserable and depressing endings have more critical sway than Romance which is seen to be frivolous and unrealistic. We are constantly being told as readers and writers of this genre that because of the HEA and the focus on positive outcomes in relationships in a romance that it is not a worthy or  critically acclaimed genre. Yet, isn’t it funny that a genre that is primarily read and written by women, which is not a coincidence that we are denigrated and sneered at by patriarchal and classist ideals. This is a highly profitable genre that is produced and consumed by women which sums up why it gets treated this way. 

 It is also a genre about hope. We all aim and desire a HEA for ourselves and to ensure that our lives can have better things. It is a genre that also shows that relationships can be positive and supportive and not oppressive. But it can also help explore dark issues and fantasies safely within a fantasy setting of the reader about aspects of sexuality and idealised heroes or anti heroes and do so in a safe setting of their imagination.

Romance readers are smart and savvy. We adopted digital ebooks way before ereaders and the Kindle arrived. We are educated and well aware of how genres work, because we know our tropes and trends and what we want in books we choose. In the early 2000s before social media like TikTok and Instagram became the biggest mediums to sell a book, blogs were the places to be to discuss trends and dramas and I think there was more nuance with the comments and discussions then the latest Twitter flamewars in a 240 multiple character thread. Every decade or so the genre refreshes and there’s a new trend that introduces a new set of readers and authors that pushes the genre into new directions but that HEA is not going to disappear or change or be redefined. But anyone trying to mislead or break those conventions will not only face a backlash and in my experience over the years of seeing this same old drama being rehashed again and again that the bigger the author the bigger the backlash. Readers rely on the trust of the author as well as the publisher marketing their books to their audience correctly. 

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