Every year, without fail, there will be a slew of lists and book recommendations from major media outlets for literary ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Find great love stories or super sexy reads for the occasion, they promise, yet we see the same cycle of nonsense from these publications.
Romance novels as a whole are overlooked or outright derided as frivolous choices or somehow unbecoming to the concept of the written word. Instead, readers are offered such passionate options as… Lolita, Jude the Obscure, or The Little Mermaid? Yikes.
"It’s not just the dismissal of romance as a genre—a market built almost exclusively on the work, desires, and instincts of women—but the implicit condemnation of what these stories stand for."
Maybe if you’re lucky, someone will give a shout out to Pride and Prejudice, or if you’re extremely unfortunate, they’ll mention Nicholas Sparks. These sites are more likely to recommend stories of crumbling marriages, self-flagellation, or literal pedophilia over a simple story about love and happiness that doesn't sneer at such concepts.
The message is clear: It’s not just the dismissal of romance as a genre—a market built almost exclusively on the work, desires, and instincts of women—but the implicit condemnation of what these stories stand for. This is most evident in the way that the romance’s greatest asset is treated as a joke: The happily-ever-after.
Romance lovers can argue day and night about what technically constitutes a romance in terms of style, tone, and so on, but one thing is clear: If it doesn’t have a happy ending then it isn’t a romance novel.
Sure, it can be a romantic tale or a story with romance elements, but readers know what they want and they come to this genre specifically to get it. Sorry, Thomas Hardy, I’m sure your fans love all those tales of ceaseless despair and child death, but perhaps they’re not best suited for romance recommendations.
One of the things romance gets dinged for the most from its critics—the majority of whom, I would happily wager, have probably never read a real romance novel in their lives—is its supposed predictability. It’s formulaic, they say. There’s nothing authentic about that. We’re all painfully familiar with this tedious rigmarole of smarm and what-about-ism.
Putting aside for a moment how sad it must be to be so utterly uninteresting and bereft of creativity that you cannot conceive of stories with happy endings, it wholly misunderstands the power and necessity of a good old-fashioned HEA.
I read romance novels for a number of reasons, but a key one is that I know what I’m getting.
I want some witty banter, a few passionate declarations, and a kiss as our central pair walk into the proverbial sunset. It doesn’t matter if it’s a contemporary, historical, paranormal, or whatever else you can find in the rich world of romance: they are united by this common goal.
I also happen to love wildly unpredictable reads, ones with tumultuous emotional arcs and the level of pure devastation that can take you hours to recover from once you’ve turned the final page. I often joke to my friends that my favorite thing in fiction is stories about awful people who are always miserable and die in horrific manners. Surprises are good, but the comfort of formula is not a flaw or a display of artistic weakness on the part of the reader or writer.
Nor does the guarantee of a happily-ever-after negate a story’s emotional core. It’s the journey, not the destination, as numerous car bumper stickers have reminded us over the decades. Life is tough and so is love. Telling stories that focus in on its joy, its rollercoaster of emotions, and the ultimate optimism that such relationships provide is a valuable tool of art.
A lot of critics and writers seem to confuse endless suffering with emotional growth. How many times have you read a book where a character is put through hell for hundreds of pages and that agony is supposed to make them stronger or worthier? Why is this the only route to growth for humans, in fiction or otherwise? Cruelty is a fact of life but it is not one that should be deified in this manner through the stories we tell. There’s just as much value, possibly even more, in offering alternative narratives centered on peace, quiet warmth, and the basic tenets of joy.
It's easy to celebrate a happily-ever-after as a respite from the world, a drop of glimmering escapism amid the darkness, but even that feels too reductive. Nowadays, it almost feels radical to admit to yourself that you’re allowed to be happy. Pop culture derides it and the world at large has never seemed more inescapably bleak. Moreover, we are still societally driven to achieve an unattainable level of perfection in our lives, the pursuit of which is hindered by systemic bigotry and political roadblocks.
Truthfully, the concept of a happily-ever-after in life may not fully exist. Society doesn't allow for it. We can, however, work towards our own happiness in small but potent ways. Consuming pop culture that makes us happy is but one of those tools that makes our existences better. Romance harnesses the tricky parts of everyday living and spins it into something relatable yet escapist.
"We dramatically shift the status quo when we allow everyone not only a seat at the table but a chance to have their own happy ending."
Romance novels can provide important alternative narratives to our preconceived notions of history, relationships, and culture. Think of the wonderful LGBTQ+ historical romances of writers like Olivia Waite and K.J. Charles, which put marginalized voices back into the narrative they were omitted from by institutions of power.
Even today, stories centered on LGBTQ+ figures are heavily reliant on well-trodden territory of misery and self-loathing, as well as the ludicrous notion that any period drama with marginalized people must focus exclusively on their unhappiness or the abuse they experience because of “historical accuracy.”
It’s vital that we understand not only the creative force of the happily-ever-after but its political clout, too. We dramatically shift the status quo when we allow everyone not only a seat at the table but a chance to have their own happy ending.
Ultimately, when things are dark and all I want to do is hit the pause button on my everyday life, it’s romance I turn to. How many other things in literature or pop culture at large offer such solid and reliable guarantees? Is it so much to ask that we just let people enjoy things, dammit?
Featured photo: Christiana Rivers / Unsplash