I didn’t start reading romance until just a couple years ago, and it’s not any surprise why I didn’t.
Because romance novels are made for old white women buying books with cheesy covers plucked from the grocery store checkout stand. Right?
I was reading literary fiction aimed at adults starting in middle school; I went to a rather snooty writing program for undergrad; like the rest of nerdy youth everywhere, I was primed to be a snob.
Whenever I hear romance authors talk about how they’ve been reading romance novels their whole lives, how they used to steal their mother’s and grandmother’s naughty novels and read them in secret as kids, I am so jealous! You’re telling me I could have had a whole lifetime of this irrepressible, bottomless joy?! I will never stop being mad at former me.
Now that I am a member of Romancelandia, it’s not surprising, really, that romance is shit on so much in our society. Especially as a feminist, I should have seen it before.
Oh, you mean a publishing genre (that generates mad money, by the way) that is largely produced by women, aimed at women, and that is largely fueled by actually acknowledging women’s sexuality?
Oh, you mean THAT is made fun of by society?
HAHAHA NO WAY.
Reading romance is a feminist act, no doubt about it.
But even beyond that, the romance community is the warmest, least pretentious, most open and kind community of writers and readers I have ever experienced, ever, in my entire life.
Romancelandia LOVES tropes. We KNOW that the same things happen in our books over and over. We LOVE knowing what the ending’s going to be before we even open book.
I LOVE THAT SO MUCH.
You know what literary fiction is full of? Fucking tropes, dude. You know what science fiction is full of? Tropes. You know what fantasy—anyway, you get it. Sure, there are always novels that are going to push the boundaries and do something new and interesting with language, that’s great, I love language, yay. Good for the geniuses. Maybe I will read those novels and they will blow my mind.
And then I’ll go back to a romance, because inevitably, I will need a romance.
Romance is the one community I’ve found that truly understands itself. It understands what it is, what purpose it serves, makes no excuses, and loves itself with abundant joy.
(Not to say that romance isn’t critical of itself when it needs to be, like any responsible literary genre is. But that’s another topic for another time.)
This brings me to what romance is.
A romance is a story where people falling in love is the main focus of the story and they have a happy ending.
That’s it. But that is required. A happily-ever-after (HEA) or happy-for-now (HFN) is required. People who don’t understand romance like to argue this, but believe me, it’s a hard and fast rule.
Romeo and Juliet is not a fucking romance. Any book where someone dies at the end is not a romance. Sally Rooney wants to write romance, I think, because by almost every other measure her books are straight up romances, but I didn’t finish either Conversations with Friends or Normal People with a warm and fuzzy feeling in my chest, so nope, not romance. Every year, particularly around Valentine’s Day or other dumb times when websites can expect lots of clicks, some writer who doesn’t understand romance whatsoever will make a list of the world’s best romances, and it will inevitably include some infuriating mention of like, Lolita, and JFC, do not even get me started on that.
So why? Why does romance require HEAs?
Because the world is fucking hard, that’s why.
My favorite romance writers are queer writers, authors of color, and authors who have struggled with mental health/illness and disability. All of their experiences show up in their books. I have read better, more representative descriptions of depression and anxiety in romance than any other genre I’ve read. A lot of romance writers are extremely accomplished, intelligent, diverse people who have experienced trauma.
They put that trauma into their books.
And they give it a happy ending.
Whether it’s realistic or not. Because you know what, the world gives us enough of the realistic endings. Believe me. We know that there aren’t always happy endings.
We literally can’t escape that truth.
Sometimes, the world crushes me so much that it paralyzes me.
Sometimes, so many people die in such a short period of time that is impossible to comprehend. And the way some people respond is being racist, openly cruel, to anyone who even resembles being of Asian descent. Or yelling at minimum wage workers, who are putting their lives on the line, about the inconvenience of a few things being out of stock, about the inconvenience of having to follow a few new rules.
Sometimes, the world praises health workers as heroes for months at a time during a global pandemic. And then, because people are bored and selfish, they ignore everything health workers are begging them to do, also conveniently forgetting that every time they go to a pool party or refuse to wear a mask in public, they are condemning more and more of those health workers—heroes, or so we used to think—to death.
Sometimes, angry white people are able to blaze into state capitals across the country, heavily armed, screaming and spitting into the faces of police officers, and that is okay. That is their right. And then sometimes, citizens who are traumatized by the brutal, casual murder of a black man in broad daylight, even when he begged for his life, when he begged for his mother, when he was clearly unconscious, and no one helped, they just made sure he was dead—when citizens want to protest that, when their anger is too big for their bodies because how could it not be, even though that is all they have, just their anger and heartbreak and their bodies, not an AK-47 in sight, when those people possibly get a little “unruly,” that is not okay. That is met with force and tear gas.
Sometimes, white men will follow a black man while he’s jogging and shoot him to death, just because they can.
Sometimes, a white woman will threaten a black man with his death just because he politely asked her to follow the rules. Because he cares about birds.
Not sometimes, but always, always, ever since the beginning of this country, we have slaughtered black people. We have put our own selfish wants and desires over the needs of those who are vulnerable. We turn our backs on people who need help. We put power in the hands of people who don’t deserve it, people who value fear and power and nothing else and it works, it works every time, and we are so, so ugly to each other.
I can’t stand it. I have never been able to stand it. I often don’t understand how people of color are even able to get up each day and keep living, but they do. I often don’t understand how queer and trans youth live with families who think their identities are made up or sinful, told they’re wrong over and over, how they get up and keep being their beautiful selves every day, but they do.
Sometimes, they not only get up, but they fight. They write happy endings for themselves. And it humbles me.
So no, I don’t care if the covers are cute illustrations or endless abs and oiled bare chests. Give me Fabio. Give me stick figures. Give me people falling in love, loving each other’s faults, each other’s wounds, finding hope and a way forward in this awful, unjust world. Give me people falling in love in cozy small towns or across board room tables in New York City or in drafty, old British castles. Please, rip your bodices; life is short. Give me all the orgasms, all the ways you can get ‘em. Give me the same tropes, over and over and over.
Please, please give me your happy endings.
I will always need them.
I will always be grateful for them.