By Lisabet Sarai
Let me say right off that I have nothing against happy endings, if they're right for the book. My first three novels end happily, with plenty of sexual satisfaction and the intimation of more to come, possibly even in the shape of - gasp - marriage (although non-traditional in every case). On the other hand, my fourth novel Exposure has a far more ambiguous conclusion. The heroine has lost everything she owned. She's torn between two relationships, neither of which is completely what she wants. Her future is a huge question mark.
Personally, I really liked that ending. However, I had a tough time getting that book published, and it hasn't sold all that well. Meanwhile, over the past three years I've been drawn deeper into the world of erotic romance, where a happy ending ("HEA", i.e. Happily Ever After, or at least "HFN", Happy For Now) is the single most important requirement of both readers and publishers. These days, romance can be sweet or steamy, with any mix of genders and quite a level of flexibility in numbers, but the story must conclude with the protagonists in love and together for the foreseeable future. And I'll admit, sometimes I find it difficult to deliver the sort of HEA that readers want.
Before I began writing romance, I really hadn't read any of the genre, the one major exception being Daphne DuMaurier's delicious Frenchman's Creek. The stories I've always considered the most romantic - Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The English Patient - have tragic or painful conclusions. Meanwhile, sexual relationships are so often fraught with conflict - even if it's something as simple A desires B but is married to C - that not-so-happy endings are far easier to imagine than happy ones where everyone gets what he or she wants.
So, sometimes I find I have to drag my characters, kicking and screaming, to the rosy resolution that readers seem to crave. Even worse, sometimes the constraint that all must end well limits my story ideas in the first place. I'll throw away a perfectly usable premise or set of characters because, honestly, I can't imagine a happy finish.
Some of you might be shaking your heads, thinking, "So why the heck does she keep trying to write romance? Why doesn't she go back to her first love, erotica?"
First of all, the romance publishing world offers some things that are hard to come by in erotica: a plethora of publishers, a huge pool of potential readers and many opportunities to interact with them, and yes, money. More seriously, I see signs that happy-ending-ism has infected the erotica publishing world as well. More and more calls for short story anthologies are looking for "romantic erotica". Others explicitly say that they do not want "dark themes". There are fringe publishers who will look at such work, but the mainstream erotica publishers (if one can use this term without snickering) seem to seeking fantasy-generating material, where everyone orgasms and even more sex looms on the horizon. Unhappiness, darkness, even serious ambiguity, threaten the post-climactic glow.
Obviously I'm generalizing here (and every generalization can be attacked). One could also claim that my complaints are the result of sour grapes. I recently had a story rejected, a story that I wrote specifically for a particular call from a well-known editor working with a well-known publisher. I may be wrong, but I strongly suspect that the ending of this tale was the main reason for its rejection. The story concludes with the woman leaving her husband of thirty years for a man she has just met. The ending is right for the story; I'm quite confident of that, although I wavered as to whether I was brave enough to write it. It's not a happily ever after, though, certainly not for the abandoned husband and probably not for the woman either. No matter how fulfilling her relationship with her new lover may be, she'll always have doubts and possibly regrets. Not HEA material.
In short stories, especially, I'm drawn to the unresolved. The very first short story I published, "Glass House", ends with the following:
Still, I am not thinking. I do not dare. Mechanically, I gather my clothing and make myself as presentable as I can. I turn off the light as I leave, and stiffly navigate the spiral stairs, every step reminding me of my exquisite violation.
On the sidewalk, I wonder where I should go. The city is foreign and strange. I am fragile and lost, but not, as I had imagined, empty.
There is something in my pocket: the delicate glass unicorn Lukaš gave me. The horn has broken off, but it is still a lovely thing.
I do not know what will happen next. But I sense that something will shatter.
This is the way of real relationships. We meet and couple with strangers, then say goodbye. We discover, sometimes, that even our long-time lovers have dark sides we've never seen. We desire multiple futures, with multiple people, and are forced to choose only one. Love and sexual communion are both peak experiences, to be celebrated in fiction as well as in life. However, the intricacies of desire thwarted, the bittersweet pangs of longing for what might have been, the bite of envy and the sting of rejection, are equally worthy to be chronicled in our stories.
Then I remember my deadlines and drag my imagination, kicking and screaming, back to the task of making my characters happy.