On Genre and Happy Endings

The Children’s Literature course I’m teaching this term is one of several students can choose for their first-year English credit. So many of the goals of the class are interchangeable with any first-year lit class (fiction, poetry, drama, major themes): develop a repertoire of literary terms and concepts, work on close/critical reading and writing skills. Children’s literature is, after all, much like any other kind.

But we also talk about how children’s literature is different from other kinds: not just because it’s written for a specific audience (we could say the same thing about women’s fiction or romance) but because the people who write, publish, and (largely) select it for that audience are not part of the audience. They’re adults, working with all kinds of explicit and implicit assumptions about what children are like and what they need.

One way we get at some of these issues in class is by reading selections from Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer‘s The Pleasures of Children’s Literatureincluding their argument that children’s literature constitutes a distinct literary genre and some of the  generic conventions they identify. I last taught this course in Winter 2008, when I was first getting into reading romance; reading Nodelman and Reimer now, after 5 years as “a romance reader,” I was struck by the parallels between the generic conventions of children’s literature and those of romance, and wondered how these similarities might have influenced my reading of romance.

The RWA definition of romance has two elements: a basic plot (“central love story”) and a happy (“emotionally-satisfying and optimistic”) ending. Not surprisingly, the basic plot Nodelman and Reimer identify for children’s literature is different (“a home/away/home pattern”), but they do say it has one. And texts for children typically have optimistic, hopeful endings as well.

It’s Nodelman and Reimer’s discussion of happy endings that particularly interests me here. Throughout the book, they consider the ways that adults’ assumptions about childhood limit children and serve the needs of adults, and this is reflected in their ambivalence about happy endings–quite different from the romance community’s embrace of them:

Adults tend to assume (or hope or simply like to pretend) that children are ignorant of pain and suffering. . . . Therefore they also assume (or hope) that children’s literature expresses that innocent and optimistic way of looking at things. Asked to name the defining characteristics of children’s books, most people focus on the fact that they have happy endings. . . .

The fact that texts for children express hope, and therefore typically have happy endings, raises a question about their accuracy and honesty.

The authors consider the ways that such endings might be deceptive, but their language does suggest that this “deception” is not always or entirely negative. Hopeful endings, they say, “imply a symbolic defiance of a more complete knowledge of the constrictions of reality.” That doesn’t sound so different from Cecelia Grant’s description of romance fiction as not an escape from the real world but a confrontation of it, “a tiny defiant candle held up against the dark; a middle finger brandished in the face of existential despair.” Do we want children simply to accept “the constrictions of reality”? Do we want adults to do so? Or do we want them also to imagine better, happier worlds, and do what they can to bring them into being?

The best, most interesting children’s books, Nodelman and Reimer suggest, aren’t deceptive idylls. Rather, they are “ambivalen[t] about the relative values of innocence and experience, the idyllic and the mundane.” Thinking about the kinds of books being hotly discussed in Romanceland recently, and about the very different ways readers interpret and respond to them, I wonder if they do not feature similar ironies and ambivalences (depicting, for instance, gendered power relations that many readers find both seductive and troubling).

I had a preference for books with “emotionally satisfying and optimistic endings,” endings in which poetic/moral/emotional justice is meted out, long before I read much genre romance: children’s literature; Victorian high realism; (much) detective fiction. And I’m wondering, now, how much my response to the happy endings of romance has been colored by the implicit–or explicit–moralism of such books. Most children’s literature, Nodelman and Reimer argue, is didactic: the happy ending is telling us something about the way things should be. I think this is why I have trouble enjoying romance where the ending or the relationship is really at odds with my own values–I feel that I’m being told this is the way a relationship should be, even the way all relationships should be. I’m supposed to be rooting for this ending, these people, right? I think I read romance–or at least, began by reading it that way–as if it were in part didactic.

Many people don’t read romance and its happy endings that way, perhaps because they came to it with very different perspectives.

I don’t really have a point here, just ponderings. I’d be curious to know how you understand happy endings, in romance or elsewhere. What does it take for you to be “emotionally satisfied”? (Something that depends, after all, as much on the reader as on the book, which makes it a rather problematic way to define a genre).

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22 Responses to On Genre and Happy Endings

  1. willaful says:

    I think for an ending to be truly emotionally satisfying, I have to find it plausible (not too fantastical) and appropriate. I’m pretty easy for the most part, but if there isn’t a sense of balance an ending might not work for me. There I’m talking just about romance.

    Sometimes an emotionally satisfying ending is not a happy one. The end of Alan and Naomi, say. That’s incredibly harsh for a children’s book. (Perhaps not as much by today’s standards?… I haven’t been keeping up with the field.) But it always felt like the right ending, to me. I think, looking back, I felt kind of honored to read a children’s book that didn’t feel the need to end with everything working out okay. Like I was no longer being patted on the head

  2. sonomalass says:

    The last time I taught children’s lit, I included a unit on retold traditional tales. My students were shocked at the not-so-happy origins of their favorite Disney films and intrigued by the different spin that a book like Ella Enchanted puts on the happy ending simply by empowering the heroine. Optimism really does seem to be the key, but as willaful notes, the optimism has to be plausible. That’s particularly interesting to me in historical and dystopian settings, where the world of the story plays against optimism, but the actions of the characters brings it about anyway.

    I also have a strong preference for endings that satisfy my moral worldview, hence my long preference for fantasy fiction, some detective fiction, and my return to reading romance. I seek an order in my fiction that I often don’t see in real life. Problems solved, effort rewarded, evil punished, and all that. Primarily because I read for pleasure, if not exactly escape. But a too pat ending, that seems to deny the complexity of situations and people, usually doesn’t work for me. Plausibility again.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I love teaching different versions of fairy tales. They way they are re-told and re-worked for different contexts and purposes. Also, of course, because I am mean. As one student said this term, “Are you going to ruin all fairy tales for us?” Bwahahaha!

      Like you and Willaful, plausibility is important to me. (And I think this relates to Sunita’s point below about how she feels about some super-angsty books, and Amber’s comments too). If the ending is too perfect and shiny, it does feel false and (in a different sense) too much of a fairy tale. I want the book to give me hope for my real life, too, optimism in the face of difficulty and imperfection, the sense that love can find us in the midst of a broken world and help us through.

  3. Laura Vivanco says:

    the happy ending is telling us something about the way things should be.

    In her A Natural History of the Romance Novel Pamela Regis argues something like this about romance. She argues that in every romance

    Near the beginning of the novel, the society that the heroine and hero will confront in their courtship is defined for the reader. This society is in some way flawed; it may be incomplete, superannuated, or corrupt. It always oppresses the heroine and hero. […] The scene or scenes defining the society establishes the status quo which the heroine and hero must confront in their attempt to court and marry and which, by their union, they symbolically remake. (31)

    She suggests that a common feature, though not one present in every romance, is a scene in which

    the promised wedding is depicted, or some other celebration of the new community is staged, such as a dance or a fete. The emphasis here is on inclusion, and this scene is promised in every romance, even if it is not dramatized. Society has reconstituted itself around the new couple(s) and the community comes together to celebrate this. (38)

    • willaful says:

      Before ereaders, I used to be a very bad book skimmer/read-aheader and I once read the ending of a romance and discovered that both characters wound up completely alienated from their families, which could not accept their “other side of tracks” romance. I simply could not continue the book, so I guess this community acceptance is something I do (or did) require.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I found the way Cecelia Grant’s latest book dealt with this issue (for the previous couple) really interesting. I definitely wanted some family reconciliation, but I also thought you got a glimpse of the new family/community they were making around them.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I know about this, and I can certainly think about examples of such scenes, but in a lot of books I read, I don’t see them–I wonder if this is becoming less of a focus, and how it might relate to what some people see as the “eroticization” of the genre, more of a focus on the intimate bond between the couple. Of course, it could just be what I’ve been reading lately, or maybe I need to pay more attention.

      This question of remaking society is at issue in Nodelman and Reimer’s discussion of children’s lit, too. There are different versions of the home/away/home plot: in the most conservative, the protagonist learns that “home is best” and accepts its (adult) values. Some books are more ambivalent, seeing the value of both home and away. And in some, the protagonist has to make a new home/family because the original was deficient–a new set of values is asserted (e.g. Harry Potter).

      • Laura Vivanco says:

        I can’t gauge whether the genre’s becoming more eroticised but I think that at times Regis’s elements must be present, if at all, in extremely vestigial/symbolic ways. I think she acknowledges that herself. That said, it does strike me that if the hero is a pimp/mafia don/assassin/vampire-who-feeds-on-unconsenting-humans etc then presumably he could be considered a source of the corruption in society but the romance possibly wouldn’t reconstitute that society for the better. And yes, I suppose that possibly does mean that the genre is becoming more eroticised. If authors are working on the assumption that “deep in the unevolved part of our brains, violence = passion = sex” (R Lee Smith) but also assuming that “With very few exceptions, we wouldn’t want to meet any of these men in real life, much less cohabit with them” then presumably the books are intended to be sexy rather than didactic.

        I think, though, that there’s probably always been a mixture of

        “didactic love fiction—romance that has a didactic project, is future-directed, and attempts to represent a moral way of living” (Lutz 2) and “amatory fiction” which “cannot be, generally speaking, recuperated morally” (Lutz 2) and the lines between the two types of fiction are somewhat blurred by the ubiquity of “the enemy lover” who, “Contrary to all expectation […] appears in […] didactic fiction” (Lutz 3), albeit when he is the hero of a work of didactic love fiction he is “set up as dangerous only to then be reformed in the end” (3). (That’s a slightly altered quote from my essay on Georgette Heyer)

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          Thanks for that link! I haven’t read Lutz’s book, but I did read (parts of) Ros Ballaster’s and I should have thought about the amatory/didactic contrast.

  4. Ros says:

    I think I am still caught on the idea of the undiminished heroine (and hero). I want the happy ending to be the one which not only promises the romantic HEA but also brings the rest of their world into like as a result. What that entails depends on the issues that have been demonstrated in the story – a heroine who has been constantly brought down by her family might have that resolved either by her family learning to recognise her worth, or by her being set free from them. But I want it to be resolved one way or another. I want to be assured that even where there will continue to be struggles and difficulties, the heroine and hero have got the capacity and strength to deal with those things – and will be more able to do so together than apart. I don’t think I read didactically in the way you describe – I don’t feel I’m being told ‘this is how it should be’. I think I read in a way that says ‘this is one way it can be and it is the right way for this specific couple’. One of the things I love about romance is the way it says ‘there can be many ways and each couple must uniquely find their own happy ever after’.

  5. Sunita says:

    Great post!

    I think this is why I have trouble enjoying romance where the ending or the relationship is really at odds with my own values–I feel that I’m being told this is the way a relationship should be, even the way all relationships should be. I’m supposed to be rooting for this ending, these people, right? I think I read romance–or at least, began by reading it that way–as if it were in part didactic.

    Oh this is fascinating, and so helpful. I don’t read this way. All I look for is that the ending is right *for this couple*. So I have read a lot of books where the relationship is completely unlike one I would ever want to be in, but I can still find the book satisfying because I’ve enjoyed accompanying this couple on their journey. Oftentimes I don’t personally know people like the couple so I get insight into how people different from me create their own HEAs.

    Maybe because I moved from one culture to a dramatically different one (especially where romance and marriage were concerned), romance provided not just a picture of social order, but also a socialization process for me. The closest I got to reads that echoed my experience or worldview were 19thC British novels and historical romances, but even in the latter I didn’t usually feel much familiarity or identification with the main couple, just with the (old-fashioned, relatively speaking) setting.

    I read a lot outside the romance genre, and I’m fine reading open-ended books, or books with a less than happy ending, as long as some kind of arc is resolved. I think of predictable endings as comfort reads; I read them when I want to know how the book is going to end (emotionally or plotwise). But the journey has to match the ending; in romance, for example, I find super-angsty books frequently unsatisfying because I don’t believe the couple is really going to have that HEA.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I think I kind of over-stated this point. The endings I can’t find emotionally satisfying, even if they are happy for the characters, are where there appears to me to be a real imbalance. Of power, for instance (not just hero and heroine having different kinds of power, but where one seems to have much less). Or where only one of them makes a sacrifice for the romance, and what they get as a reward does not seem commensurate with the cost. It isn’t that they need to be living a life I can imagine for myself. Although I can admire a lot about books I don’t find emotionally satisfying. That’s how I felt about Gaffney’s To Have and to Hold, for instance.

      When I’m not reading in an area where I expect a happy ending, I enjoy more ambiguous and open endings (and I find bleaker and more ambiguous endings are becoming more common in mysteries, too; perhaps it’s the Nordic influence)–though I do like to feel that something is “resolved.” These are definitely not comfort reads. I think that where some readers choose romances that challenge them and push them outside of their comfort zones, I prefer to find such reading outside of the genre.

      Your point about angst is interesting. One thing I was thinking about, though it didn’t make it into the post, is what (some/many) readers will read in a romance that they don’t want to read in other genres (rape would be one example, but also violent heroes and many other things), the way the HEA recuperates things for people. I think it depends on a lot more than the ending, of course; it’s also in how the author gets us there and handles the material. I find that really interesting and I’m not sure where my own lines are, but it can be hard to talk about without sounding like “how could you accept that in a hero/heroine?”

      • Sunita says:

        The endings I can’t find emotionally satisfying, even if they are happy for the characters, are where there appears to me to be a real imbalance. Of power, for instance (not just hero and heroine having different kinds of power, but where one seems to have much less). Or where only one of them makes a sacrifice for the romance, and what they get as a reward does not seem commensurate with the cost.

        I can see why this bothers you (and a lot of other readers), and maybe it should bother me more. But it falls in the “people I don’t understand but would like to” category for me. Because I do see relationships with what I consider to be power asymmetries in real life and they seem to work for the participants (not always, but that outcome I understand). Betty Neels’ couples are often pretty unequal on power dimensions; sure, I believe the hero loves the heroine but he has all the chips except love in a lot of her books. And yet I really enjoy her novels, and not just as fantasy-romances. Maybe I’m looking for reassurance that the relationships that seem to be strong despite power imbalances really are. 😉

    • willaful says:

      “I read a lot outside the romance genre, and I’m fine reading open-ended books, or books with a less than happy ending, as long as some kind of arc is resolved.”

      That’s a useful way to put it. I’m good with other kinds of endings outside the genre as well, as long as there’s that sense of resolution.

  6. Liz, I love this post. A large part of my church work has been the spiritual formation of children, and I have intellectually fully agreed with the scholars who say children DO engage with existential issues, and also with the darks aspects of life. As a parent of young children, I find myself challenged to practice what I preach, and not protect them from harsh realities–I avoid talking about death and violence in front of them. I have half an essay about this that you’ve inspired me to return to.

    About happy endings, when I returned to reading romance a few years ago, and then to writing it, I made the personal connection that I like HEAs for theological reasons. But, my personal faith in a spiritual happy ending is not a saccharine vision of heaven, but a more mystical surrender of self to God. Similarly, as a reader and a writer, I find I prefer endings that reflect a realistic kind of happiness, and where the characters have to pay a cost for it. I like the idea of both characters making a sacrifice, because I think the Gospel is true about this: love costs.

    I love to ask kids if the story of Adam and Eve is a happy story or a sad story–perhaps that illustrates the point I am trying to make 🙂

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Once I agreed to lead a parent discussion group at church and then they told me the topic was going to be “talking to kids about death.” Gee, thanks. I dealt with it by bringing in a big pile of picture books I collected from the library, from a variety of spiritual and secular perspectives. They were mostly really great–they managed to be both optimistic/uplifting and not saccharine or falsely consoling (I mean, I guess that depends on what you think about a book that treats an afterlife as a real possibility, but there weren’t any harps and clouds books).

      I think there is a wide-spread idea that happy endings are bad because they are fake and overly-simplistic. But good ones are not, at all, just as real hope is not easy. So, yes to everything you are saying here.

  7. Meredith says:

    My favorite endings are always bittersweet, and have been since I was an actual child: Bridge to Terabithia and Tuck Everlasting, LOTR and Tigana and The Sparrow all come to mind. Successful but with a cost; unsuccessful but with a silver lining; I find them most believable, but I don’t think that’s the whole reason, because other things are realistic yet I find them emotionally unsatisfying. I think it’s as much a question of narrative balance as anything.

    I also prefer my entirely happy endings to be a tad unpredictable, vis a vis both from the characters’ own expectations and mine, as an experienced reader of the genre. That is harder to do the more I read, of course, especially since I still want them believable. Most especially I want them to eschew the paths which I feel are considerably more traveled in fiction than in reality.

    My problem with happy endings in romance (which I still do read sometimes) is less with any particular single book than with the skewed universe which they present when taken together, the huge absences between the books of other kinds of happy endings or semi-happy endings or happy enough but not perfect endings, and other kinds of protagonists too, who get to be the heroes of their own stories. I have long wanted to start It’s Complicated Press, which would be a book for all the rest of the stories about love and sex that don’t fit the mold.

    As for open endings, I like them that resolve important issues but leave “what’s next” dangling with several intriguing and plausible possibilities… I don’t like them that just never resolve anything.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Your point about the cumulative effect of romance endings is a great one. I think there’s more variety happening, but even so, there’s a certain hegemonic effect of reading a lot of it. I wonder if my feeling that the endings are somehow didactic comes as much from that as from any ONE book. For a while I read mostly romance, but I’m branching out again and the desire for more kinds of stories is Parr of why.

  8. Miss Bates says:

    One of the most perfect of novels is William Faulkner’s LIGHT IN AUGUST. The reason, for me, is quite simple if you know the novel at all, as I assume you do. LIGHT IN AUGUST is made out of a double narrative: a comedy (in the sense of a happy ending … pretty straightforward: pregnant women wanders down deserted country road, homeless and helpless … until rescued by a stranger and succoured and married. Now isn’t that familiar to every romance reader?) and a tragedy, that of Joe Christmas (irony! irony!), which is pretty awful and modernist and bleak and “real.” But is it? Isn’t that, says Faulkner, one end framed by a positive one. Aren’t they both “real”? One, the tragic, abides in the other; in the same way that romance fiction, maligned and scorned but dominant, frames the Prufrocks? That is how and why I read romance fiction for its “requisite” happy ending: it’s the frame to everything else I read. I like to think that in the teleology of literature (have you encountered a worse pun?! 🙂 ), romance wins.

  9. Janine Ballard says:

    I have mixed feelings about happy endings. For me they are necessary, because books affect my emotions deeply, and tragic books can trigger depression for me. It’s much more rare — almost unheard of — for a happy ending novel to do the same, no matter how it may be written. Therefore a whole genre where stories always end happily is a gift, a treasure. Without it, I would have to choose between a happy emotional state and reading.

    Still, I feel that the approach to the ending is where a romance is most likely to falter. In the attempt to wrap up all the loose ends, some false note is frequently struck. And some endings try so hard to convince me of the characters’ wedded bliss (like ones where they have 6+ children) that they end up dissipating all the positive feelings I had before I read the epilogue.

    Endings don’t feel didactic to me, though, except when it comes to genre trends in aggregate. For example, when the heroines were nearly all virginal, I felt the genre was telling me that as someone with sexual experience, I wasn’t entitled to the same happiness. And because there are so few infertile or childless-by-choice couples in the genre, i felt as if I was being told I, as a childless woman, wasn’t going to be able to be happy. Ditto the relative absence of Jewish characters — what, people of my ethnic/religious background can’t be sexy or romantic?

    I think those are unintentional “lessons” that the genre imparts in trying to publish only what’s guaranteed to sell.

    Other than genre-wide trends, I don’t experience the books as didactic. Like Sunita, I love to read about the mindsets and relationships of people who are different than I am. It doesn’t bother me if the HEA takes a form I would never want for myself, if I feel it works for the couple.

    I also found Miss Bates’ comment interesting because one of my favorite novels is A.S. Byatt’s Possession, which ends kind of sadly for one couple (rather tragically for one of them) and happily (at least for now) for the other couple. It’s a perfect ending for me as well.

    In the romance genre, great endings are difficult to come by (I agree with those who say happy endings should require some work) but I’d have to say Laura Kinsale’s ending for The Dream Hunter may be my favorite in the genre.

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