It began, as so many things do, with a sleepy tweet on a sleepy Sunday.
I was just stating an opinion- not trying to stir the pot or cause a ruckus. But. What followed was perhaps a predictable nightmare swirl that comes with going viral in romancelandia, particularly if you present as male. “Mansplainer” was bandied about, intentional and unintentional misreadings abounded, I was accused of trying to kill the HEA (Happily Ever After), and I eventually just had to disengage. There was no room for actual conversation, largely because of my gender. A normal person might’ve apologized profusely and deleted the offending tweet.
But here’s the thing.
I’m right. I was then and I am now.
And not just because it was my opinion (which, don’t we get opinions about books anymore?), but because the two books I allude to did play with the HEA tropes of their moment. Yes, tropes. Word choice matters. But more on that in a minute. First, let’s talk about the books.
Nurse Morgan Sees It Through by Rubie Saunders (1971)- The fourth in Saunders’ series of nurse romances focused on the character of Nurse Marilyn Morgan, R.N., this focuses on the nursing adventures of Marilyn as she cares for the sick daughter of a Broadway star and falls in love with the new attending physician who’s assigned to the case. At the end of the book just as in the other three Marilyn and Ed are happily dating but not engaged or married. In this book, the engagement ring that typically appears at the end of a nurse romance is on the finger of Marilyn’s roommate.
Today, we would call this book a Happy For Now, but in 1971 this just wasn’t done. Category romances like the Signet Nurse Romances Saunders was writing ended with an HEA 99 times out of 100. Saunders wrote Marilyn not as a prize for some lucky doctor, but as a fully formed woman whose story couldn’t be contained in one book.
Back in the Day by Katrina Jackson (2021)- The second story in Jackson’s Bay Area Blues series, the book begins with widower Alonzo packing up his house to move in with his son after his wife dies. What follows is Alonzo telling the story of how he and Ada fell in love over a weekend- sometimes told to Amir, sometimes just to the reader- with interludes in the present that show the community that Ada and Alonzo built over their long and happy life together. It’s a brilliantly told and emotional story.
Does the fact that we know that one of the characters is dead at the beginning of the story take away from the fact that it’s a genre romance? I argue no. The narrative may not be as linear as today’s typical story, but all the elements a romance reader would expect are there.
Both of these books are 100% genre romances. The love story is central to the plot, and the central couple is happily together. But in both books, the author has taken the tropes typically associated with the HEA convention of the moment they were written in and subverted the expectations of the reader.
“But Steve, HEA/HFN is a convention, not a trope!” Sure. But be that as it may, the HEA/HFN convention frequently uses the same tropes over and over again. Maybe it’s the last minute reversal of fortune, or the change of heart, or the battle against evil being won, or whatever. How that HEA/HFN finally comes about can be any number of ways, but it often repeats across books within the genre or subgenres. And that’s fine! But it’s also possible to break from the typical tropes and structures and still have that convention. And I would argue it’s a necessary evolution of the genre as stories become more inclusive and the idea of what a “happily” means to one set of people is different than what it means to others. That was the point I was trying to make, and that’s what got lost in all the noise that followed.
I don’t suspect the people who got real mad at me will read this, and that’s alright. And smarter people than me can probably give better and more complete explanations than I did here, and that’s fine too.
TL;DR- You don’t have to agree with me.
But I was right.
I’m also writing about this latest to-do; mostly because you are right, and it has made me re-examine a good many things.
One, how my defensiveness is exclusionary: why shouldn’t people who are not exactly like me get to define what HEA means to them? This is not just “straight cis men having ~bad~ opinions on the so-called feminist, so-called ‘by women for women’ genre” but generally, anyone not straight cis and with a degree of privilege (health, whiteness or proximity to it, education, class (money and otherwise), etc.
Second, how the genre we call romance today has changed since it started being a commercially recognized thing, with pulp (what we now call categories), to the quite influential if much mocked behemoth of the 1990s to mid-2010s (or so), to the more splintered umbrella we see today. (see this post by Wendy, from 2016, for what I mean by splintered)
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I started reading older categories this year. The one that sticks out to me is a Harlequin Presents by the Charlotte Lamb. The heroine is married but in an abusive marriage and has an emotional affair with the hero! The ending shocked me but I don’t think most would hesitate to call that a romance based on who published it
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You were and are right.
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