It’s the goal in a romance novel. It’s what differentiates a romance from women’s fiction or book club books. It’s the payoff in a romantic comedy. It’s the ending of the Disney-fied fairy tales (not, though, the Hans Christian Andersen or Grimm versions). It’s what I longed for in my single days.
And yet, I think this is what causes people to scoff at the romance genre. The predictability of knowing how the book will end. The knowledge that, despite all the obstacles the couple will encounter, everything will wind up just fine in the end.
But I don’t understand what’s wrong with that. What’s wrong with wanting everything to be all right in the end? Sure, in life as in fiction, if the road were easy, it would be a boring story.
Don’t get me wrong: I love angst. I love reading it, I love writing it, and at times I love reliving it. Listening to sappy love songs and wallowing in angst and having a good cry. Because it’s a feeling, an intense, deep, feeling, and it’s satisfying to feel a feeling so strong.
Here’s where I come out to you: I’m a closet Barry Manilow fan. It started when I was a child, listening to records with my parents on hot summer nights, the breeze blowing in through the open window. Barry Manilow, Simon and Garfunkel, Led Zeppelin, the Woodstock soundtrack. And Seals and Crofts, of course; “Summer Breeze” will still take me back to those days when I was still an only child and to my child’s mind, everything was perfect.
So I was already a fan. Then, a few years ago, my mother and I took a road trip from New York to Delaware. I’d picked up a Barry CD I thought we could listen to. I was a few months pregnant with my son, and planned to indoctrinate his fetal brain with ’70s love songs. I was prepared to listen and just enjoy it from a nostalgia standpoint, but during one song my mother pointed out the lyrics. “Just listen to this,” she said. “How could you not want someone who feels this way about you?”
From “Could It Be Magic”
I could love you,
build my world around you,
Never leave you till my life is done
From “Even Now,” which brings on an ugly cry every time I hear it:
When I know it wasn’t right
And I found a better life than what we had
Even now I wakeup crying in the middle of the night
And I can’t believe it still could hurt so bad
Oh, feel the feels! Once my mother pointed it out to me, of course I got all sappy every time I listened to the album.
And now you’re all laughing at me.
Anyway, now I’m writing a second-chance love story. Naturally, my couple will eventually achieve their happily ever after. But there will be angst, as I’m writing their first time around along with the current story. I get to put them through the good times and bad.
For inspiration, I put together a playlist of sappy love songs. Listening to it the other day on a long car ride (alone–how wonderful!) I pretty much cried most of the way.
It was awesome.
But I’m extremely fortunate in that I have my happily ever after. And we’ve had a relatively easy road, considering. We’ve faced challenges along the way but we’ve faced them as a couple and have only become closer. Maybe that’s why I love reading and writing romance. I’m happy and I want everyone else to be, too. It’s not an unrealistic goal. At least it shouldn’t be. No one should have to settle for someone who doesn’t sweep her off her feet. Who doesn’t love her more than life itself.
So when someone scoffs at the genre, which happened a lot recently in coverage of the purchase of Harlequin by Harper Collins, it pisses me off. Why is this genre less important than any other? We still have to come up with multidimensional characters, who have goals, motivation and conflicts; with intriguing plot lines that keep the readers turning pages; with fresh ideas that tell the old “boy meets girl” story in new and interesting ways. We still have to tell the story in at least 50,000 words (something that stymies me on a regular basis). And if you write a sub-genre, like some of the romantic suspense stories I read and write, there are additional plots to think about. If you write historical romance, you had better do your research.
And then there are love scenes, which are so much more than a description of inserting tab A into slot B. They need to be done right, because frankly, I want to make my reader hot. I want her to finish the scene, put down the book, and attack her husband. This all takes thought, and work, and knowledge of the craft.
It’s important work. It’s an important genre. To create a world in which an unhappy person can live vicariously and maybe give her something to which she can aspire; to re-ignite the spark in an older relationship that may be in a rut; to allow someone to experience a cute meet and dark moment and happy ending over and over and over.
You can keep your angsty Oprah books involving dead children and unhappy marriages. I want my happily ever after.