Glee and Sympathy

I get a lot of sympathy because I write romance novels.

“You’re that romance novelist, aren’t you?” people say. “It must be awful for you with that great education, having to crank out that stuff.” They lean close and say, “They make you write those sex scenes, don’t they?” They pat me on the arm and say, “You must be so tired of making up those sappy happy endings.” And then they smile, gleeful in their superiority. Poor Jenny. Stuck writing trash. There, but for the grace of God and their higher standards, go they.

Oh, please.

I write romance novels because of my great education; it’s the best antidote I know for a graduate degree in literature. I spent years reading about miserable women like the one who pursued the life she wanted, had great sex, and then ate arsenic; or the one who pursued the life she wanted, had great sex, and then threw herself under a train; or my personal fave, the one who pursued the life she wanted, had lousy sex with a masochistic dweeb, and spent the rest of her endless life atoning by doing good works in a letter sweater. What a great literary education gets a woman is depressed.Very, very depressed. Not to mention very reluctant to have sex.

Which brings us to the sex scenes. They don’t make me write them. I love writing them. Every time I finish one, I think, “In your ear, Hawthorne.” My sex scenes–and my romance novels–are about determined women who go after what they need and get it, which is why I think they’re a feminist act. Naomi Wolf once said that men called women who liked sex “sluts,” but that was okay because “we need sluts for the revolution.” That’s what I’m doing, that’s my mission in life, I’m writing sluts for the revolution. I’m very proud.

But the most annoying comment is always that sneer at the happily-ever-after ending. An intelligent and critically acclaimed author I admire greatly wrote, “Uplifting endings and resolutely cheery world views are appropriate to television commercials but insulting elsewhere. It is not only wicked to pretend otherwise, it is futile.” I use this in my classes to show that even the very intelligent can make absolute fools of themselves in print because, obviously, it’s as unrealistic to pretend that life is all tragedy as it is to imply that life is all happy endings. I believe in happy endings, not because I’m a sap, but because I’m happy. I don’t think I’m going to be happy forever, but when I’m miserable again, I won’t think I’m going to be miserable forever, either. The important thing is that, while my life so far has not been one sweet song (there was all that literature, for one thing), it has been worth the trip: every dark moment I’ve experienced has brought with it its own reward, has made me a stronger, smarter person.

This is key because fiction is about the trip. It’s about the conflict and the struggle and the pain, and whether that trip ends in tragedy or hope depends on the story itself, not on any mandate from outside the work. Happy endings are not wicked, inauthentic endings are wicked, endings that lie to the reader to create the effect the author wants while ignoring the integrity of the story, those are the endings that will send a writer to the lowest circle of hell. And that writer will have damned himself for nothing because, as the author above said, false endings are useless. Readers will not feel catharsis just because somebody writes “and they all died horribly” any more than they will feel hope because somebody writes “and they all lived happily ever after.”

So why then does all romance fiction have optimistic endings? Because we’re not writing stories about women who slay thousands, drain the oceans, or bring peace to all mankind. We’re writing stories about women who struggle to achieve their life goals and in the process meet partners with whom they build solid foundations for the future. You know, like real life. Does that happily-ever-after happen every time for every woman? Of course not, that’s why so many romance heroines are divorced or retreating from bad relationships. Then why don’t we write about the divorce, the bad relationship? Because we listen to Tolstoy, even if he did shove Anna under that train: we write about the day that is different, the day our protagonist picks herself up and says, “As God is my witness, I will not be defeated again by a hostile world that thinks love is a sham and happy endings are wicked. I will go out there and believe, I will work and learn and grow, and I will triumph.”

I can’t begin to tell you what a powerful experience it is to write that woman’s story, how emotionally demanding and therefore satisfying it is to make that story believable to an audience whose spirit has been pickled in irony and cynicism, how gratifying it is to hear that a reader found that story and believed it and in doing so began to believe in the possibility of real happy endings again. I can only tell you how much sympathy I have for those writing the fiction of depression and hopelessness. I want to say, “It must be awful, stuck repeating that modernist stuff that lost all its relevance after the sixties.” I want to lean close and say, “They make you write those depressing scenes where nobody gets what he or she needs, don’t they?” I want to pat them on the arms and say, “You must be so tired of those trite endings where everyone is left lost and aching, regardless of the integrity of the story.” I want to, but I don’t because I know it’s rude to gleefully patronize others, especially when they’re less fortunate than I am.

After all, I’m the lucky one.

I’m the romance writer.

Written by Jennifer Crusie, this essay was originally published in Inside Borders.