HEA: The “Sacred Cow” of M/M Romance

When I wrote the condom piece a few weeks ago I intended it to be one of my funny posts, but many of you saw red and didn’t actually read the post because I dared to suggest that we imagine a world without condoms. Of course I wasn’t being serious, but that post was like waving a red scarf in front of a bull, and everything after “imagine a world without condoms”  was a blur. 🙂 How do I know you didn’t read the post? Because of your comments. So today I’m messing with another controversial topic – the HEA in M/M romances

Most, if not all, M/M romance readers have said time and again on this site and elsewhere that they won’t read a romance unless there’s a happy ending. They go on to say that it’s not a romance unless it has a HEA. It doesn’t matter if the HEA in a book is artificial and manufactured, and is not consistent with the plot and characters, readers refuse to buy M/M romances unless they are guaranteed a happy ending.

We are intelligent enough to recognize when the ending of a book is playing to our desire for a specific outcome but we still want that outcome. Many of you write me to find out whether a specific book reviewed here has a HEA when the reviewer doesn’t explicitly say so in the review. I can’t count the number of emails I received from readers about The Dark Tide by Josh Lanyon when I reviewed the book a few days before it was released, enquiring whether Jake and Adrien had their HEA. I suppose these readers weren’t going to buy the last book in the series if our heroes didn’t stay together in the end, even though they had loved it so far. Is the journey no longer good enough? Must we insist on a happy ever after? Whatever happens to books that buck this trend – do they end up in a scrap heap with other unwanted books? There is pressure on authors from the publishers as well. Publishers don’t want to release a romance book unless the heroes live happily EVAH after because they know that it won’t sell.

Romance is the only genre where readers can dictate what they want in terms of how a book ends. In general fiction an author can pretty well write what he or she wants to write and the books live or die by how well the writer’s prose, dialogue and characters can engage the readers. In M/M romance or any romance for that matter, it doesn’t matter how well written the story is, or how wonderful the journey, readers refuse to buy the books unless they have this most important ingredient, the HEA. Poorly written books get a pass because they give readers the ending they want. We keep asking for fresh ideas in M/M and and not the rehashed tried and true, but how can authors be expected to take risks if they are constrained by readers in this most important area? Almost all “romance” readers demand that the heroes in their books be together at the end. Some books that end with a HFN have readers requesting a sequel. Forget another book with the same protagonists if they end up with someone else – that would never see the light of day. 🙂

There are many M/M love stories that did not provide the outcome that romance readers demand today, yet they continue to be popular and we can’t forget them.  These books were written years ago, before there were “romance” readers and therefore they didn’t have to pass the litmus test of a HEA. Some of you have said that if there’s no happy ending it’s not a romance. Well, what about well known and well loved M/M romances such as The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren and Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx? They would never have been written if they had to meet our requirement of a HEA. Those of us who have read these standard bearers know that these books are wonderfully crafted stories that are romances. However, they were written at a time when they had to meet another criterion which was set both by the industry and readers: that gay romances were not consistent with the lifestyles and mores of the day and therefore the books had to meet the litmus test of the “dead ghey.”  Do you see where I’m going with this post? Here are a few other classics that might never have been released if they were written in the 21st century, because readers would have insisted on a HEA:

Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin
A Single Man – Isherwood – protag dies
As Meat Love Salt – Maria McCann
At Swim Two Boys – Jamie McNeill
The Bitterweed Path – Hal Phillips
Vintner’s Luck – Ellizabeth Knox
Regeneration Trilogy – Pat Barker
While England Sleeps – David Leavitt
The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
and my personal favourite Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

This also happened with gay characters in non gay books. For example The Fox by DH Lawrence and the gay angels in His Dark Materials. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is another book that would never have been written if today’s M/M readers had their say!

We have evolved from demanding that gays in romances should be killed off or live unhappily ever after, because to have done otherwise would have been to advocate or promote an alternative lifestyle, and God forbid we should do that, since being gay was thought to be synonymous with an abomination. Consequently gay lovers had to end up dead or at least not be together in the end, because that would send the wrong message and we certainly don’t want that. Now we insist that gay romances must have a HEA or we won’t read them. We seem to have changed direction 180 degrees.

I’m not advocating that we abandon the desire that the protagonists in romances should live happily ever after because I, too, love HEA’s, but I think that books, including romances, should be given a chance to fall or rise on their own merits and not be judged by hard and fast rules that we have set up. Could we not leave it up to the authors to decide occasionally whether it makes sense to tie a big bow at the end of a book and have our heroes go off into the sunset forever? What do you think? Should there not be some flexibility to allow authors to write the stories they want? Are we not stifling their creativity by demanding that every M/M romance or love story have a HEA?

Have your say. Must every.single.M/M romance. have. a. HEA?

Author

I live in Canada and I love big dogs, music, movies, reading and sports – especially baseball

169 comments

  • Wave, it’s like geometry.

    All squares are rectangles (4 sides, 4 90 degree angles), but not all rectangles are squares (which have equal sides).

    All romances are love stories, but not all love stories are romances.

    Reply
  • Thanks for such an interesting post, Wave, and I’ve found the comments interesting too. I don’t really have anything to add to the actual discussion, as a lot got covered, but one thing that really fascinates me is how people read.

    I know that personally if I’m reading what I know to be a romance, I can open myself up a bit more, whereas I sometimes have to brace or protect myself if I know the ending may hurt. And I’m not always up for the latter kind of read. (For example, I want to read The Frontrunner, but can’t manage to yet pick it up. Some day.)

    Whereas I think for others, they may find the reading experience richer if the ending is uncertain.

    As a writer, I actually think that technically the ending of a romance is the toughest part of the book. Not that a reader shouldn’t feel disgruntled when it hasn’t worked for them, of course.

    Reply
    • Hi Joely

      >>I know that personally if I’m reading what I know to be a romance, I can open myself up a bit more, whereas I sometimes have to brace or protect myself if I know the ending may hurt. And I’m not always up for the latter kind of read. (For example, I want to read The Frontrunner, but can’t manage to yet pick it up. Some day.)< < I certainly get that and most romance readers are like you. I like the uncertain endings - not necessarily unhappy, but more trending to realism. However I'm in the minority. Re The Front Runner, it really is a terrific love story (note I didn't say romance because that has a different connotation) and if you can brace yourself for the ending I think you should read it. Have lots of chocolate and tissues handy. Have you ever seen the movie called "Love Story"? It was tragic but oh such a wonderful love story and most people who have seen it once have seen it at least 20 times, even knowing how it ends. Well The Front Runner is something like that.

      Reply
  • Good grief, so much going on since I visited this post! Wow.

    I write romance — gay specifically — because I want to. No one’s making me tack on HEAs for $$. I like to put my guys through hell then make them happy in the end. It gives me the warm fuzzies. That’s what I liked way before it ever occurred to me that I could make money doing it. I suspect that’s more common than not and that some people just aren’t as good at it as others. It’s still more an issue of quality, not a need to change readers’ expectations of the genre.

    As a reader myself, I am notoriously unforgiving when it comes to my reading in any genre. Just ask my family. If an ending (or any other element, really) seems out of character, illogical, or otherwise wrong, I get most vocally unhappy about it. Nobody would like me very much as a reviewer, I suspect. Again, I think there are more readers like me than NOT like me, at least judging by the blogs and such that I see. I dunno, maybe I’m wrong, since I mostly follow gay fiction not straight.

    I’m an RWA member and a member of the RRW chapter. I’m signing two of my books at the Literacy signing in July at nationals. I’m a part of PAN (published authors network) in RWA. Last year at nationals, every single one of the books I brought to the booksellers and librarians networking were picked up within minutes, and practically everyone I talked to wanted to know more about RRW and GLBT romance. Attitudes are changing, slowly but surely, toward GLBT romance and ebooks as well. I want to see my genre accepted as part of mainstream romance, and you can’t acheive that goal by ignoring RWA. You have to work toward change from within.

    Reply
    • Hi Ally

      >>Good grief, so much going on since I visited this post! Wow.< < I know. It just keeps going. 🙂 My comment about the RWA not recognising M/M or erotic books has to do with what's on their website. There's no mention of either there so I thought that M/M was like the stepchild no one wants. 🙁 Romance is obviously the biggest genre in terms of its revenue potential - one has only to check out the RWA site to see why SOME authors write Romance. Similarly, many het authors are now moving to M/M romance because it seems to be outstripping het in terms of growth. However, Ally, no one would ever suggest that you write M/M romance for anything but love. 🙂 When I wrote this post my question was whether Romance with a capital 'R' always had to have a HEA/HFN, even when the story did not lead to that conclusion - I felt that the hastily contrived HEAs (many of them in shorter books) were a disservice to the readers. However the readers don't seem to mind regardless of whether the endings make sense, so my question was answered. Obviously there are a few readers who don't mind a lack of a happy ending in their M/M stories but clearly they are in the minority, and the way that "romance" is currently defined would eliminate these books from being called a romance. I like a "hopeful" ending myself but I'm flexible and will take a more realistic one many times if it makes more sense. I guess it's a lucky thing that readers don't all want the same thing so there's room for authors who write every type of story. One of the things I love about these posts is that everyone has a chance to have their say and sometimes they change minds. >>Attitudes are changing, slowly but surely, toward GLBT romance and ebooks as well. I want to see my genre accepted as part of mainstream romance, and you can’t acheive that goal by ignoring RWA. You have to work toward change from within< < I agree with you there Ally but it seems that RWA is the one that's ignoring M/M (at least on their website), not the other way around. We have to stop meeting like this. I promise that I'll come up with something innocuous for my next post. I promise. 🙂

      Reply
        • Damn!! I was hoping that you wouldn’t drop by on another day when I was losing again, for the umpteenth time. There shbould be a law that I should win at least one out of every three Fridays. Why do you always have to come up with unassailable arguments against my well thought out posts? (I swear they are not rants.) 🙂

          Reply
  • Hi Wave,

    Thank you for this very interesting topic. I love your site, and I check it daily in order for me to go shopping for books. 🙂

    I would like to chime in with my very humble opinion on this sacred cow.

    As a reader, I believe in the HEA and those are the kind of books I like to read!
    I scour online publishers, Amazon, Fictionwise, ARE, B&N, etc, for such books. I spend my money on what I love and HEA= Romance is where I spend the most of it when it comes to reading material. I read review sites in order to get an idea of the flow of a book and yes if it’s HEA or HFN. And yes, if possible I always go to the end of the book to see how it ends. GUILTY! I also want to know the ending of movies too, but that’s another topic. 🙂

    I see that some of my favorite authors and soon to be favorites have responded to your very interesting topic. A shout out to Ally, ML, Josh, Heidi, etc.

    Now back to my response. 🙂
    In college I was required to read certain books in order to pass my classes, but in my RL I read whatever I want to! From a few of the comments here, it seems to be implied by a few that liking to read HEA books makes a reader simplistic because they don’t want to go on this journey with certain authors writings. Then fine I’m simple, naive, have my head in the clouds, etc, etc, but give me what I pay for. I happen to like quality books that have HEA! If the author knows what they’re doing the HEA will never feel forced or out of place. I don’t really care how an author gets me there, but let’s go on that HEA journey together. I will never dictate to an author how to write their book and I expect that same respect in choosing my reading material. An author doesn’t want to write a “romance” book that ends in HEA, that’s fine, let me know, and I’ll go elsewhere for what I want. There are so many wonderful authors to choose from, I’ll just have to survive without reading that author’s book.

    We all know that people will die, change their minds, etc, etc. I saw firsthand on 9/11 what hatred for a fellow human being can do. Should that experience color my world and make me not want my HEA? I think not! At least in the USA, why does the latest news on Sandra Bullock and her soon to be ex grab our attention so much?

    To me HEA = Commitment. I want to believe that this couple, or group of people, whether het, gay, alien, etc, made a COMMITMENT to each other and will stick together through thick and thin. Isn’t this part of a very famous vow some of us might have heard of where a couple, etc, commit to be together through the good times and bad, in sickness and health, until death do they part? Isn’t this what a huge amount of the world’s population is fighting for? How about that gay couple in Africa that almost spent 14 years in prison for announcing their engagement? Only after an International outcry were they pardoned, and now have to be in hiding in fear for their lives. Did they grow up on Harlequin’s or is there a basic need in human beings to commit to one another against all odds?

    As mentioned by so many others before, please keep the truth in advertising. I read just about anything from books on quantum physics, to People’s magazine. My favorite to read is the sacred HEA. You may get my money the first time by misleading me, but you will never get it the second time! HEA books will always be popular because it touches something fundamental in the majority of us where we would like to believe that no matter what we face or hear about in our daily lives, there’s someone out there who’s keeping their word to one another until death do they part.

    Regards,
    Beth NYC

    Reply
    • Hi Beth
      Thank you for commenting. You made a number of excellent points about the Romance genre and the majority of readers’ expectations.

      >>As mentioned by so many others before, please keep the truth in advertising< < We talked about the marketing aspects of publishing many times in the comments, and I think that authors who want to write stories with alternative endings are getting the message loud and clear. There is a market for these stories just like there is a market for romance, but truth in advertising is the key. As I mentioned to Ally two comments down from this one, it's a lucky thing that readers are such a diverse group which means that M/M can pretty well give us whatever we want, we just have to read the fine print.

      Reply
  • Late to the party.

    Like Erastes, I don’t believe in happily ever after. ALL relationships end, whether voluntarily or not. In life, there are no happy endings, only headstones and widow(er)hood. With stories, we can stop before it gets to that point.

    My position, as it was explained to me:
    Romance=HEA or HFN.
    Love story=ends any way you like

    It’s like theatrical definitions. If a play ends with a wedding, it’s a comedy, whether or not there is any humor in it.

    This is where we have trouble over in Science Fiction Romance. SF likes to keep the ending open. Romance likes it all tied off.

    When writing GLBT stuff, I demand a happy ending. I’m tired of “dead queer in the third reel.”

    For me, it comes down to “Define happy.”
    If an ending is satisfying and the characters are together (for whatever value of “together” you use), I consider it happy.

    Reply
    • Hi Angel

      >>My position, as it was explained to me:
      Romance=HEA or HFN.
      Love story=ends any way you like< < My mistake was thinking that the two were synonymous - i.e. that a love story was a romance and I found out how wrong I was. I have to research all of these tropes more thoroughly so that I don't get tripped up by some of the definitions. If I get my butt kicked often enough I'll learn faster. 🙂 We all love happy endings but I'm more realistic (not pessimistic) than most readers and don't necessarily need a HEA/HFN to consider a book a romance. But that's just me. 🙂 I don't seek out sad endings because I have 'comfort reads' like most people that I curl up with when I'm feeling sad, and most of them are love stories or romances and sometimes for me they are interchangeable. Thanks for commenting Angel.

      Reply

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