Okay, so no romance writer worth her salt ever escapes this question. I certainly get my share of well-meaning friends and family suggesting ideas for 'real' books that I might write instead of romance. It is not uncommon for people to take a step back when I tell them that I want to write romance. They struggle to find the connection between a seemingly intelligent, engaged brain with a fantasy plot about an insignificant stage of life.
Rather than repeat myself for the rest of my life, I'm preparing this post to which I shall direct all future wrinkled brows.
I define a romance as a love story with a happy ending. Sometimes there are other elements: ghosts, vampires, danger, intrigue, mystery, food, fashion or erotic experimentation. At it's heart, it's two people falling in love and living happily every after. My characters are generally heterosexual, but I've read some great same-sex romances. So long as they're living happily ever after, I'm happy.
That's what I want from any story: a feeling of happy optimism at the end. I'm extra happy if two people fall in love along the way. Oh, the shame of being so superficial! Real books, important books, aren't so unrealistic. And love? There are more important things in people's lives than love.
I'm not going to wax poetic about the virtues of love. I'm going to point out that practically everyone on the planet looks for it. As soon as a romantic relationship falls apart, we go looking for a new one. When we leave home for the first time, not many of us go looking for a new Mom or Dad, but when we break up with our boyfriend, plenty of us want a new romantic interest. The search for a loving pair bond is a universal experience.
I read once that good fiction is about universal experiences: birth, coming of age, courtship, parenting, war and death. I think there were seven stages, actually, but I can only remember five. Anyway, courtship is in there, but it gets the least respect, probably because you can manage to look like a hero in all other phases of life, but during courtship you make a fool of yourself every time.
Now, watch me appear very smart by quoting Italo Calvino. (I actually heard it first from Dustin Hoffman in Stranger Than Fiction):
"The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death." (Calvino, Iown, 259)
Those two faces hark back to the pair of masks denoting that plays come in two sizes: tragedy and comedy. Shakespeare wrote tragic love stories (Romeo and Juliette) and comedic ones (Taming of the Shrew.) Romeo and Juliette appears to be about love, but really, isn't it about war and the inevitability of death?
I'm not saying stories about the inevitability of death lack value. For many people that type of story rings very true. For me, I take comfort in the continuity of life. I've been to the pit of hell and know death is inevitable. While everyone was waiting on their Golden Heart and Rita calls, I got a call to my seventh funeral in three years. I really don't need to spend my leisure time fixating on the fact that we're all going to die.
And yet, this is why scoffers find happy endings unrealistic. The fact is, we are all going to die. However, more or less universally, humans seek immortality in reproduction. How do we reproduce and ensure a piece of ourselves cheats death? By forming a pair bond--through courtship.
Maybe trying to tell courtship stories in a heroic way makes me a fool, but it still appeals to me. Plus I love the idea of having enough money to tour the Mediterranean on a private yacht, being catered to by obsequious servants. Hey, you only live once.