Some of my readers may remember that, once upon a time, I was addicted to the reader-crack that is the Black Dagger Brotherhood.
Quitting it was a hard slog, and there were relapses, but J. R. Ward finally cured me, when she decided that killing off the heroine, after she and the hero finally declare their feelings for each other, was a ‘daring’ and ‘novel’ way to play the HEA card, and that that death was part of what makes her books–about vampires and other supernatural beings–so ‘realistic.’
That was more than fine with me–she can write whatever the hell she wants, and I can not read it.
What’s the big deal, then?
Well, my problem is with the marketing of that book as genre romance.
Here’s a clue: HEA means, literally, happily EVER after.
Not ten minutes, not ten days—not ten pages covering fifty years.
If you really want to be edgy in genre romance, you can always write a HFN (happy for now) ending, where the characters are happy and in love with each other, but there is no wedding, no babies, no ten-year-later epilogue to reassure readers that these crazy kids made it, after all. Hell, perhaps, there are still issues the characters have to resolve in the relationship.
However, in both of these endings, you’ll note the big, fat HAPPY bit. That’s the most important part.
Either way, HEA or HFN do not mean hundreds of pages of angst and tragedy, followed by a declaration of love, followed by the death of one of the main characters, plunging the surviving party/parties¹ into despair.
Despair ≠ happiness.
Mourning ≠ happiness.
Bleak survival ≠ happiness.
(One would think these assertions are self-evident, but here we are)
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When Ward’s book came out, a substantial percentage of online romance readers were as indignant as I.
Using the genre romance label on that story was a blatant market grab.
Labels matter, or they wouldn’t be used. If you are going to re-write history to have the Confederate Army win the Civil War, you would not market that as non-fiction. If you did market it as non-fiction, you would get blasted–deservedly.
But obviously, something as silly, and profitable, as genre romance, is a different animal in the eyes of unscrupulous writers and publishers. More people are doing exactly the same thing as Ward.
For example, we have a person writing what is, essentially, Romeo and Juliet motorcycle club fan fiction, wherein the author sloooooooowly kills off the heroine, then kills off the hero as well–and yet, the publisher markets the whole hot mess “a romance with a non-traditional HEA.” (Update 03/04: More detailed review by same reader, here)
The one thing in genre romance that is sacrosanct is that the main characters survive after the last word is read, to enjoy their hard-earned happiness.
For many, many genre romance readers, that hope is why we read it in the first place. Many of us are only willing to brave those hundreds of pages of angst and tribulation, and the many horrible things that can (and do) happen to people in fiction, even when they are just minding their own business, living their own small, unimportant lives, because we know they will triumph over their circumstances by finding love, and living that love, with their chosen partner/s.
When you kill off one, or more, of the parties involved–A Walk to Remember or Message in a Bottle, anyone?–you are writing romantic fiction, not genre romance.
But, Nicholas Sparks’ sales numbers notwithstanding, genre romance sells a hell of a lot more.
And that is what these greedy publishers, and these greedy authors, are going for.
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For readers like me, killing off one of the main characters, then labeling the story ‘genre romance,’ means adding another name to my “nope, I will never read anything you write, you ass” list. The reason is not, as some butthurt authors would like to proclaim, that I don’t want writers to make a profit/a living off their writing, or that I want to silence ‘original’ voices writing ‘fresh’ stories.²
The reason is that the author is lying to potential readers in order to make a quick buck off them.
And for readers who have endured personal tragedy, and are reading romance for the safety net of the HEA, ending the book that way is not only a betrayal; it’s harmful.
As the lovely kristiej said here, when authors abuse readers’ trust, they should understand that they’ll live with the consequences.
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Updated to add: not long after I finished writing and scheduling this post, what do I find but this, over at SuperLibrarian Wendy’s blog: Fractured Fairy Tales and a Turning Point of a Genre. I agree with a lot of what she says, about the many, many readers who read romance in a vacuum, or the many readers who don’t seek genre romance specifically in their reading.
I disagree that the slapping of “romance” label to the two books I address here, and others like them, stems from ignorance of any sort, on anyone’s part.
The label is there to snag genre romance readers’ dollars, and as long as you have freaking RT and other such supposedly romance focused outlets, giving the books five start reviews while calling them romance, in exchange for money, the strategy of lying to long term romance genre readers will work–once.
That second novel by the same author/same pseudonym? Yeah, don’t count on romance genre reader sales, no matter how wonderful/lyrical/beautiful the writing, or how careful/interesting the plot. Those authors who gave blurbs for these books, and who told their readers to buy them? Side-eye. The publisher? Side-eye.
You know how ‘branding’ is important, how creating a relationship with your customer base is essential for business?
Well, “liar” is now this author’s and this publisher’s brand.
Loss of trust = fewer future sales.
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¹ I literally give ZERO fucks if there are two, three, five, fifteen, people in the relationship. I give the same number of fucks to those people’s sexual orientation, gender identification, individual sexybits, kinks (or lack thereof), religious beliefs, color, language, or physical appearance. All over this overburdened planet, people in all sorts of combinations fall in love, and enter committed relationships, and build their own happiness, and if they are lucky, they live that happiness for a good long while.³
It doesn’t matter one bit what anyone else thinks of them; as long as none of the people in the relationship is there without consent, then it’s their own life and happiness that matters.
THAT is true romance, and THAT is what I want to see reflected in my reading.
² Because killing off your main characters has never been done before in the history of humanity–not by Shakespeare, not by the Ancient Greeks. Nope. It’s all fresh and new.
³ Oh I had forgotten this: What Happily Ever After can mean.