To HEA or Not to HEA

Or, Why Are You So Damn Happy?

How do you enjoy your lesfic? Do you like it extra angsty? Bitter with a hint of drama? Light with a little sexiness on the side? Or do you prefer the Sapphic sampler platter, giving the disclaimer that as long as it’s well-executed, count you in?

The reason I ask is that there is a fair amount of grumbling amongst readers that there is a disproportionate number of romances published. I certainly can’t fault anyone for preferring to read thrillers, horror, historical, or fantasy—hell, even just basic fiction that operates outside the parameters of romance. I get that.

But as I opined in a previous column here, we as a community, have difficulty categorically defining what lesfic actually is. If I wrote a crime novel where the main character (let’s call her Detective Nippy McWinters) is a lesbian, but she spends the entire book single, immersed in dead bodies, ballistics tests, and various bodily fluids (you know, in a bad way), is that really lesfic? If the same book never mentioned her sexuality, would it be?

…it’s easy to see how a fiction category based solely on sexual attraction and/or behavior would be predominantly populated with romances and erotica. But romances tend to have the infamous “happily ever after” conclusion, also known as the HEA…

Let’s look at Sarah Waters’s latest book “The Little Stranger,” which has no LGBT characters—admittedly, a departure for her. That book is still considered lesfic by many, possibly because of the author’s own sexuality, or perhaps so it can be grouped with her other works which do include lesbians.

At any rate, many would agree that what puts the les in lesfic is evidence of, no matter how esoteric or peripheral that evidence may be, well, gayness. Obviously, just having a main character in a softball league or driving a Jeep is insufficient and purely circumstantial. There should be some indication of past, present, or future same-sex entanglement—regardless of the level of emotional commitment.

So if my earlier example of Detective Nippy McWinters now included a visit from her codependent ex who looked a lot like Jennifer Connelly, but sounded like Gloria Swanson at the end of “Sunset Boulevard,” that’s clearly crossed the threshold into lesfic without really including any romantic elements—especially if that scene ends with the ex being either involuntarily committed to a mental institution, shot with a spear gun, or somehow backed over by the protagonist’s SUV.

That being said, it’s easy to see how a fiction category based solely on sexual attraction and/or behavior would be predominantly populated with romances and erotica. But romances tend to have the infamous “happily ever after” conclusion, also known as the HEA.

In full disclosure, I write stories that could be classified as romance, and I do appreciate a certain emotional payoff at the end. More plainly, I like resolution. I like it in books, movies, television, campfire stories, limericks, sea shanties, and 80s hair band power ballads.

Scarlett isn’t supposed to end up with Rhett. Ophelia isn’t meant to sing a song with a lot of hand-clapping, go get a makeover, and win Hamlet back. Sophie’s choice isn’t between cobbler and cheesecake.

Why, you ask?

Perhaps because dating back to the fairy tales of my childhood, there were always concrete conclusions. Granted, sometimes they involved someone being eaten by wolves, bargaining away a first-born child to a creepy gnome who could spin straw into gold, or witches who enjoyed a good brisket made from a plump child (it’s all about the dry rub, apparently). But even analyzing these twisted stories, there are mostly happy endings—not counting Hans Christian Andersen’s somewhat defeatist assertion that both the Little Match Girl and the Little Mermaid were better off dead. (Honestly, what was the crux of those tales exactly? No one ever said that life wouldn’t suck? Even as a tyke, I knew that was horrific, sad, and upsetting.)

I could also make the argument that in a culture as rife with prejudice, scorn, and violence as the LGBT one has been (and sadly, continues to be), happy endings are both affirming and a welcome diversion from some of our more distressing news stories. While I would never think of discouraging anyone from staying abreast of current events (partly because my inner fifth-grader enjoys using the word “abreast”), I also wouldn’t begrudge a soul looking to escape into a novel that reflects their own experiences and ideals, as well as validates them as a gay human being.

Clearly, validation is somewhat harder to glean when the main character meets a tragic end (like being involuntarily committed to a mental institution, shot with a spear gun, or somehow backed over by an SUV). And in our not too distant past, that was all fictional lesbians could hope for. They all became cautionary tales that our hedonistic lifestyles would lead to indescribable horrors like being mauled by rabid badgers, getting a pick-axe to the forehead, or coming down with a fatal case of dropsy. That doesn’t exactly scream to the readers that they’re entitled to live a fulfilling life with whomever they choose, so you can’t really blame them for wanting to read anything where the protagonist didn’t end up in a shallow grave somewhere out in the desert.

Setting my same-sex filter aside, indulge me in a brief flashback to my teen years in the age of the VCR. Back in the days when you had to actually leave your home to rent a movie, and once at the store, settle for whatever they had left on the shelves, I rented an otherwise forgettable video called “Against All Odds,” which I watched at my friend’s house with her parents.

**Spoiler alert for those of you 25 years behind on your movie watching**

After lots of sandy sex, gunplay, and scenery chewing, Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward realize they can never be together and after a heartrending look, Phil Collins begins to sing and the credits roll.

“What the hell was that?” my friend’s mother shouted. “They don’t end up together?!”

Ever the snot (yes, even then), I replied, “Well, it is implied by the title of the movie.”

She looked at me incredulously. “Well, yes. But anyone can go up against all odds and lose.”

I had no valid argument for that.

Sure, I’ve enjoyed my share of darkness, thrills, tragedy, or insurmountable obstacles. Those things are as they should be. Scarlett isn’t supposed to end up with Rhett. Ophelia isn’t meant to sing a song with a lot of hand-clapping, go get a makeover, and win Hamlet back. Sophie’s choice isn’t between cobbler and cheesecake.

These somber tales each have a message and have achieved something remarkable in their telling. They all have their place, but doesn’t the HEA as well?

Ultimately, I appreciate the happy ending for a myriad of reasons. Not only do I think that we, as citizens of the LGBT nation, deserve a little harmony and prosperity for a change, but it inherently appeals to my inner sense of fruition, and makes me, well, happy.

© COLETTE MOODY

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6 Responses to “To HEA or Not to HEA”

  1. CMHarris Says:
    April 23rd, 2010 at 11:30 am

    Hi Collette, Great article. I love the way you handled this can o’ worms! For my part, as reader, sometimes I think HEA means NOT being together. I mean Rhett and Scarlett would have probably strangled each other. And think of all the lesfic HEA’s who in seven years time have succumbed to bed death! -Michele

  2. Susan Taylor Says:
    April 23rd, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    I think this was a great look at the subject, regardless of whether it’s for lesfic or hetro romances. Do we always need a happy ending, with all the loose ends tied up neatly? I would hope not.

    For my own part as an editor and reader, rather than an author, I find I enjoy reading mystery and thrillers, action and adventure more than romances and yes, while I like there to be a romantic element, I don’t want that taking over the storyline.

    For me it should be about characters and how they get into and, obviously, out of this or that predicament.

    Thanks, Colette, and keep up the good work.

    The Hobbit!

  3. Tweets that mention Author, Colette Moody asks, "To HEA or not to HEA?" How do you enjoy your lesfic? -- Topsy.com Says:
    April 23rd, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kissed By Venus. Kissed By Venus said: Author, Colette Moody asks, "To HEA or not to HEA?" How do you enjoy your lesfic? http://kissedbyvenus.ca/?p=1691 [...]

  4. C.P.Rowlands Says:
    April 24th, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    oh trashcan, you old romantic at heart…I knew it… despite all your sucking chest wounds…frankly, I agree. I like HEA’s and am pulling for the m/c’s to make it there, even if they are backed over by a Jeep or buried in the desert…still, once in a while, someone comes along (Jill Malone?) and tosses us a curve. And J.M.Redmann did it in her first Mickey Knight book and the darned thing about broke my heart. (well, not as badly as “Death of a Dying Man” did) However, C.M. has a point…the dread Lesbian Bed Death, or Scarlett and Rhett. Still, I vote for the HEA.

  5. Do we need a Happily Ever After? « The Lesbrary Says:
    April 24th, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    [...] 24, 2010 in Uncategorized | Tags: article, Kissed by Venus Kissed by Venus has an interesting post about the over-representation of the romance genre in lesbian fiction, and about the domination of [...]

  6. bobbi d. Says:
    April 30th, 2010 at 6:59 pm

    Okay then.

    Suppose this: During the first 80 or so pages, you fall in love with the relationship of two female MCs that are deeply in love. All of a sudden, one MC is killed – doesn’t matter how, she’s simply dead – 1/3 into the book. If the surviving MC eventually gets on with her life and finds a new love at/near the end of the novel (after an appropriate amount of time) is that HEA?

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