Calling bullshit on “unconventional HEA”

3 Mar

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)

~ * ~

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.

~ * ~

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.

Fuck that.

As the lovely kristiej said here, when authors abuse readers’ trust, they should understand that they’ll live with the consequences.

~ * ~

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.

~ * ~

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.

25 Responses to “Calling bullshit on “unconventional HEA””

  1. Miss Bates 03/03/2016 at 9:07 AM #

    Go you!

    • azteclady 03/03/2016 at 9:11 AM #


      (Apologies for all the cursing, my dear Miss Bates; it’s not language becoming a lady, I know.)


      • Miss Bates 03/03/2016 at 5:28 PM #

        “shhh” … Miss Bates has sailor-mouth …

  2. deborahkehoe 03/03/2016 at 11:54 AM #


  3. sonomalass 03/03/2016 at 12:29 PM #

    Pretty much says it all. I read in different genres, but I expect certain elements in each one. I have quit reading books by certain authors over plot twists (usually death of a favorite character) that were just too much for me (coughElizabthGeorgecough), but this is different.

    “Non-traditional HEA” would never have, to me, conveyed the meaning “unhappy ending.” That’s how I will read it now, of course, and as you say, with a healthy dose of side-eye for all concerned.

    • azteclady 03/03/2016 at 12:39 PM #

      It’s all about knowing what you are in for, isn’t it?

      I was reading the comments on Mandi’s review on her blog, and it is so clear how harmful it would be for some readers to be slapped in the face with this ‘twist,’ when they signed on for genre romance.

      So I’m looking at the people involved in marketing this as genre romance to romance genre readers, and thinking, “all you care about is a quick buck, and in the pursuit of that, you are disregarding the real harm you will cause.”

      • willaful 03/03/2016 at 1:16 PM #

        When I first started reading romance, I needed the security of that HEA like you would not believe. Everything else in my life was one giant question mark. If I’d encountered something like this, who knows if I’d ever have read romance again…

      • azteclady 03/03/2016 at 1:23 PM #

        In my case, knowing that the ending will fit whatever genre I’m reading (HEA/HFN for romance; the crime is solved in mystery; the world/universe will be saved in science fiction, etc) has become ever more important as the world around us heads towards hell at an accelerated rate.

  4. christine rimmer 03/03/2016 at 2:12 PM #

    Thanks, azteclady. I bought this sight-unseen with that 5-star rec from RT. Now I doubt I’ll read it. I hope the word gets out before more people buy a highly touted romance–that isn’t in any way a romance. Jones is a talented and relatively new writer and was strictly indie before this (I think). She’s from the MC culture, if what I’ve read of her is true. This probably sounds naive but…is it possible she didn’t know the bottom line, didn’t understand what we romance lovers expect of a romance and didn’t know to draw the line when Penguin decided to market this as what it isn’t???

    • azteclady 03/03/2016 at 2:24 PM #

      Welcome to my humble online abode, Ms Rimmer!

      I certainly hope that more readers get the word before plunking down hard earned money–but it is my experience that many outlets will let them cancel the order or return the book, particularly if the reader addresses the issue of miss-marketing.

      As far as the author goes, I’m afraid that I am not kind enough to give her the benefit of the doubt myself. Is it possible she didn’t know? I don’t know, but I sincerely doubt it, mostly because it seems she has written other books labeled ‘romance’ that have an actual HEA.

      If Ms Jones indeed did not know that “genre romance” = HEA, then I feel for her, as a new-ish author, falling for the publisher’s greedy market grab.

      On the other hand, Joanna Wylde gave a blurb for this book; I don’t know about you, but I sincerely doubt that Ms Wylde didn’t know just how essential the HEA is to genre romance readers. Are we supposed to believe that the topic never came up?

      All these questions, and more, with murky and/or unlikely answers, are why I am now looking at all these people (author, people who blurb, publisher, reviewers for pay, etc) with a jaundiced eye.

      Is this fair to a newbie author? Honestly, I care a lot more about how unfair it is to spring this ending on the unsuspecting reader who needs the emotional safety of knowing that the characters she’ll invest herself in, triumph over life.

      • christine rimmer 03/03/2016 at 3:38 PM #

        Happy to be here. And yeah. Your points are spot on.

  5. SuperWendy 03/03/2016 at 6:33 PM #

    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.

    Now I didn’t exactly say that. I agree – there’s no way this was ignorance on the part of the publisher. Berkley has been a player in the romance game for too long to not know exactly what they were doing when they set the necessary signal cues to attract romance readers to this title. I’m not going to go so far as to say the author did. Now she has written other books that are considered romances – but who knows how much say she had (and my guess is not much if any at all) in the decisions that were made by Berkley.

    The point I was trying to make is that we have this wave of new readers coming into the genre who don’t necessarily identify strongly with all the trappings of the genre. And I see this as being a direct result of self-publishing and the strangle-hold Amazon has had on the ebook market. You have self-published authors running amok with genre labels (whether they apply or not) and these readers aren’t necessarily cloaked in standard genre language (like HEA and HFN) and know little (if anything) about genre history. FSoG made me feel like an ancient dinosaur when I started talking to readers (and librarians) about the history erotic romance and how FSoG didn’t “invent” jack-sh*t but these readers had NO CLUE about Kensington Brava or Bertrice Small or Susan Johnson etc. etc. etc.

    To be fair to RT – they do have their 5-Star Top Pick! review labeled Erotica / Erotic Fiction. Which just once again illustrates that how we define the genre is a moving target. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve explained to romance readers (and librarians for that matter) that erotica and erotic romance are not the same thing. They have different end games. Sometimes they have mutual interests, but erotica doesn’t “have” to deliver on the same promise that erotic romance does. And then you have the folks that think Jane Eyre is some great romance or Gone With the Wind or The Thorn Birds. Um, yeah – no.

    And now I’m done hijacking your comments 🙂

    • azteclady 03/03/2016 at 7:07 PM #

      It’s never a hijack, particularly when you give me so much food for thought.

      Edited to add: oh, and please accept my I apology, I misunderstood the point of your post, obviously.

      • SuperWendy 03/03/2016 at 7:13 PM #

        No apology necessary 🙂 I think my post could have been more concise (hindsight being what it is…)

      • azteclady 03/03/2016 at 7:16 PM #

        The curse of writing/blogging: once it’s out there…

  6. Jules Jones 05/03/2016 at 8:47 AM #

    Read this on my phone on the bus home last night, which is why I didn’t comment then – the curse of the tiny keyboard. But my reaction was “What the *fuck*?” I know damn well what an unconventional HEA is, because I’ve written enough of them. But even my most Happy-for-Nowish ending on anything of mine marketed as a romance left the characters better off emotionally at the end of the book than they were at the start, and in an ongoing relationship; and I would hope left the reader feeling that there might be a HEA in the characters’ future.

    If this was a deliberate ploy because someone at Berkeley thought it would be a clever idea to suck in the romance readership and their wallets, it was a good deal less clever than they thought. Berkeley’s romance line is now unreliable for someone who wants a comfort read with a satisfying HFN or HEA. I’m saying that as someone who is often in the mood for blood-on-the-floor endings, but expects something marketed as a genre romance to *be* a genre romance, and not romantic fiction. If I want blood on the floor, I’ll pick up a Reginald Hill, thank you very much.

    (And as someone who wants to submit to Berkeley, this plus the bombshell about cuts and mergers is not making me a happy bunny from an author’s point of view, never mind a reader’s POV.)

    • azteclady 05/03/2016 at 9:46 AM #

      I keep thinking about this–I guess that RWA’s “optimistic story” (or however it’s phrased) can be translated as “better off emotionally,” and that’s exactly what I want in my genre romance. I want to be happy for the characters, not mourning for/with them.

  7. Bona Caballero 05/03/2016 at 2:35 PM #

    I agree with you. A romance novel need a happy ending in which the main characters are together and alive. I hope that’s not a new trend. It would be very confusing.

    • azteclady 05/03/2016 at 3:06 PM #

      I am afraid that it is now a trend–I just saw a very positive review of the Kim Jones book on a romance blog. The fact that the protagonists die is on spoiler tags, with a “this is a heart wrenching but oh so good romance” note not on spoilers.

  8. Kat 28/03/2016 at 7:37 AM #

    Thanks for the link to Wendy’s post. She articulated most of my (ever-changing) thoughts about what I’m seeing in romance fiction lately. I’m on the fence as to whether or not I require romance genre (generally) to have a happy ending, primarily because if the change is reader-led, then in principle I’m happy for readers to redefine the genre. (But personally, I only want the HEA and will look specifically for that.)

    That said, the reality is complicated because there are factors such as publishers and Amazon categories and all sorts of other commercial things that muddy up the waters. I do think that referring specifically to the HEA implies a knowledge of the romance genre as it is now (ie guaranteed HE), so to not deliver that after implying that it will be there is a pretty douchey thing to do.

    And finally, I don’t think we will ever lose that category of readers who require a happy ending, for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that sometimes people go through shitty times in their lives and need some kind of reprieve from that in their fiction. So what I’d like to see more of in self-publishing is the coding of the HEA in blurbs and covers and branding. That, and the ability to read the ending as an ebook preview on Amazon and other ebook retailers.

    • azteclady 28/03/2016 at 8:07 AM #

      The ‘love story with a romantic ending’ thing has existed much longer than the commercially successful romance genre, and it’s always been tremendously popular. But it’s shitty to do the bait and switch on people who depend on the coding of the romance genre, to make a quick buck.


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