The Great Romance Debate: Does your romance always have to come with a happy ending?

The Great Romance Debate: Does your romance always have to come with a happy ending?

The Great Romance Debate - 2015 Library Lovers DayA transcript of Kat’s argument for the affirmative at The Great Romance Debate, hosted by Double Bay Library.

A couple of weeks ago, Woollahra Library hosted The Great Romance Debate. I was the second speaker for the affirmative, with Vassiliki Veros and Shannon Curtis, and this is a loose transcript of what I said (I improvised while speaking and updated this piece from memory).

The debate was recorded, so I will update this post with a link to the podcast if/when it’s up. In the meantime, you can find Jodi’s post here. She was the first speaker for the negative, whose team was called the Wicked Sirens and included Kate Forsyth and Madeleine Culp.

A huge thank you to Double Bay Library, and Jenn Martin, in particular, for organising the event and adjudicating the debate.

When my husband and I were newly married, he rented a DVD. ‘It’s a romance,’ he assured me. Well, the film was Sweet November, Charlize Theron’s character died, and I was not happy.

‘You told me this was a romance!’ I accused my clueless husband through blubbering tears.

‘It is a romance,’ he insisted. ‘Isn’t it better to have loved that lost, than never to have loved at all?’

I said, ‘Never, ever do that to me again.’

As you can see, I am still not over this disastrous attempt at romance.

Because as every single romance reader will tell you, there is no such thing as a romance without a happy ending. Do not listen to the Wicked Sirens. Any romance reader would know that the wicked siren is always either the nasty villain who is vanquished by true love, or the heroine who is transformed by love.

And much as I love listening to Jodi talk history — because she’s so very good at it! — in this case, it does not matter. It just doesn’t. All that matters is what is. Ambiguous future does not mean ambiguous ending. A happy for now is still a happy ending even if not a happily ever after. Serial books who evade closure anger readers. Can you imagine going through Christian Grey’s boring contractual requirements without a happy ending? Think of the irritating way that Janet Evanovich has drawn out the love triangle in the Stephanie Plum series. Every single romance series that Jodi mentioned promises a happy ending. If J. R. Ward ever breaks up any couple of the Black Dagger Brotherhood there will be an explosion of reader anger the likes of which have never been seen before!

People have tried to buck this trend. Literary authors have been trying for years to ‘educate’ romance readers, dismissing our need for emotional satisfaction by implying that we are incapable of appreciating the depths — the sorrowful nadirs of tragedy — that make up the human condition.

Let me assure you: we understand tragedy. And death. And heartbreak. And terrible, terrible prose. And it’s because of this that we insist our romances end happily.

This might be a good time to mention that I am one of those readers. The kind of reader that many authors hate. Because I’m a person who likes to read the back of the book first. And for this, we can all blame Margaret Mitchell’s classic, Gone With The Wind. When I was in high school, I picked it up, expecting to read one of the greatest romance novels ever written. I spent the weekend locked up in my room, reading, and when I got to the last page, I literally threw the book against the wall as I blubbered like a baby. The book ruined Clark Gable for me, and I read the back of the book first for the next 20 years.

And clearly, I was not alone in my hatred of the ending. How else can we explain the sequel, Scarlett, a second-chance secret baby romance that ends Rhett and Scarlett finally declaring their love for each other?

And then there’s the abundance of fan fiction devote to shipping. I’m not talking about Greek magnates. I’m talking about reader-written stories that explore the romances that might have been — Harry and Hermione, Harry and Luna, Harry and Draco! Readers want emotional justice for their favourite characters — they want them to be happy in love (and if there are some sexy times along the way, well so much the better for slash fiction!).

On a more serious note, although I personally read romance for the enjoyment and thrill and sheer joy of it — and sometimes also the fangs and tentacles — the happy ending provides a more complex function for many other women who love this genre.

For some women, a Mills and Boon is all the reading they can manage between crying babies, demanding toddlers, housework and, you know, sleep. For the love of God, let these women squeeze what joy they can out of these precious minutes!

And think of young women on the cusp of sexual awakening, who without romance books would have no choice but to learn about sex from a) a biology textbook, or b) porn, or c) the grabby boy with sweaty hands in year 11 Legal Studies. Romance books provide a positive, loving context for sex. And the woman always has a happy ending. Romance books are very popular among Catholic schoolgirls. I speak from personal experience.

Think also of women whose only escape from unhappy relationships, arranged marriages, or loneliness are romance books, where the woman always wins because she gets the love she longs for. The desire for a happy ending is powerful, subversive and drives much of the human experience.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying love stories that end tragically, or lukewarmly. It’s just an offence to call it romance. Because honestly? There is nothing less romantic than a failed love story.

I would urge to to forget about what your mother called a romance, or what old men who think they define what literature should be call romance, or what people long dead called romance, or what non-romance readers call romance.

The only books we need consider are those thats romance readers call romance. Because we are the readers who consume these stories. Publishers, authors, libraries, bookshops — they categorise to sell, to entice and to give what they think readers want. But it is the readers of romance who define the genre.

And when I tweeted and blogged about this debate, there was much confusion among the romance reading community. Because none us can understand why it is even a debate. To us, there is absolutely no question at all. Romance must have a happy ending. Anything else might be great fiction, might even be an outstanding work of literary greatness, but it will never — can never — be a romance.

Postscript: We lost the debate. But you’ll never convince me we were wrong. :-) Also, just check out the view from this library. (And yes, you can go for a swim!)

Blackburn Gardens - View from Double Bay Library by Kat Mayo
Photo: Kat Mayo


  1. Erica says:

    I don’t get the need for the library to have a debate about this. The HEA or HFN ending is a defining feature of genre romance. Otherwise, it’s a love story with a tragic or bittersweet ending or whatever. Tell the people who “won” the debate to try submitting a “romance” novel to an agent or publisher who specializes in the genre and having a less than happy ending.

  2. Kat says:

    Erica — It was all in good fun. It was a largely literary crowd — patrons of the library — I think. The mere fact that we were even able to have the debate was already ever so slightly ground-breaking. Plus it was fun, no matter who won!

    (Also, Madeleine Culp, last speaker for the negative, remixed Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights into an ode to suburban mediocrity, and it was so glorious I might have been tempted to vote for her, too. I really hope that’s on the podcast!)

    Kaetrin — You made me lol. :D

  3. azteclady says:

    Just because it’s poignant and makes you cry does not make it romantic.

    This is an eternal argument with my mother, the philosophy and literature major who thinks Casblanca’s ending epitomizes romance. She leaves with her husband so he’ll continue to ignore her in favor of the cause, so not one of the three people involved are happy. My mother sighs wistfully every time, while I want to stab whomever wrote that ending, every time.

    Cyrano de Bergerac? Same thing.

    If I’m supposed to believe that these people feel so deeply for the other, why on earth would they stay quiet about it–particularly when it means the person they supposedly love will not be happy either?



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