The stigma of happy (a rant)

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
-Fyodor Doestoyevsky er, that would be Leo Tolstoy, and I don’t know what I was smoking

I’ve heard this sentiment echoed a thousand times, in a thousand ways: that somehow, happiness is simple and formulaic and less worthy, while pain and suffering is unique and harsh. You see this same assumption undergirding much of the dismissal of romance as a genre. Romance, after all, must be formulaic, because it demands a happy ending.

Other people have taken up that gauntlet. Romance is no more formulaic than mystery, which demands the mystery be solved, or sonnets, which are even more restrictive as to form, or cooking on Iron Chef, which demands that every dish contain mushrooms. All this falls on deaf ears; somehow, happy endings are easy, trite, predictable, and above all generic. All happy families are exactly alike; it’s the unhappy ones who are somehow different, and by nature of their unhappiness, subtly elevated.

I call bullshit. I not only call bullshit, I call stupid, self-indulgent, asinine bullshit. Anyone who has worked to make a relationship–any relationship, not just a romantic one–function knows that this is bull. When you and your best friend have a fight, it is much, much harder to work through the mix of anger and love than it is to simply walk away. And as anyone who has worked through one of those hard times knows, the happiness that you get from a friendship that you’ve worked for isn’t interchangeable. Happiness isn’t some easy, fungible thing that you can purchase. Happiness is hard work.

No, it’s the emo-teenager I-can-never-fix-the-pain-that-is-my-life crap that’s easy. It’s easy to wallow in misery. Anyone can do it. Everyone has. It’s hard to do something about it.

The way I write my books, I think of the problems first: the ones that drive the start of the story, the one that will nearly break my couple apart to the end. Those are easy; I have thousands of them in my head, just waiting to be written. I start writing, and it’s those problems that drive me. Make them harder; make them more impossible to solve. When I start writing, I don’t know how I’m going to bring my couple through it. I don’t know the answers.

Bringing my couple to a happy, satisfying ending is the hardest part of writing the book. When I was working on Trial by Desire, there were a lot of hard parts. The hardest, bar none, was coming to a satisfactory resolution of the external hardship that Kate and Ned faced. I thought I had a solution, but when push came to shove, I could see that it wasn’t permanent, that I would always fear a reprisal in the future. If I had that fear, so would my readers. My solution wasn’t good enough. After weeks of writing a thousand unsatisfactory scenes, that was the one time I broke down and called my editor, unable to figure out how to go on.

We did eventually get it right. (And I hope you agree!)

I wonder what world these people live in, where they think that throwing up one’s hands and saying, “Oh, well, life is just one unending bitter cup of misery, and then you have to pay taxes on your deathbed,” is somehow hard and worthy and nonformulaic.

No, guys. Getting up off your duff and finding some kind of sweetener to add to that bitter cup of woe? That’s hard. Walking away from something that doesn’t work? That’s easy. Anyone can walk away. It takes a real hero to stick around and try to make things better. It is a thousand times harder to solve problems than create them, and dismissing the triumph of victory trivializes the hard work and heroism that every happy person puts into being happy.

I am sick and tired of the notion that all happiness is alike, that it’s easy, and that it’s formulaic. There are a thousand ways to triumph and find joy over sorrow. And every single one of them will give you a different kind of happy.

20 thoughts on “The stigma of happy (a rant)

  1. Well said! I know far more miserable couples and couples hiding behind a mask of happiness than I do those who have really worked for and achieved happiness. Of course it’s hard. All the best things in life are, and I refuse to believe misery is the best this life has to offer.

  2. And yes, I did misattribute the first quote at first, which will no doubt make everyone dismiss this at an instant. Oh, that Courtney! Doesn’t know Tolstoy from Doestoyevsky.

    Which is weird because I had actually Googled it to make sure it was right–but who knows what goes on in Courtney’s mind when she first wakes up in the morning. I don’t do names.

    Ask my editor. I got my heroine’s last name (her fake one) wrong in my third book half the time. In the first draft, she went from Miss Lowood to Miss Lowell all the time. Her brother was Edmund, Edgar, and Edward, variously.

    And if I’ve met you before, I’m going to guess your name is Anna, even though it surely isn’t.

    So yes, as regards names, I am fairly stupid. Mea culpa.

  3. Excellent post. I always wonder if the people who believe that happy ending=formula feel that way because happiness is harder to believe in. It’s easy to be a cynic because there is plenty of suffering in the world. As you say, problems are a dime a dozen. It takes more courage to be a clear-eyed optimist.

  4. To speak all writerly-like:
    I think sometimes, some genres find sadness and tragedy to be a convenient way to wrench your heart apart and explore the human condition. That’s all well and good, I like a good cry as much as the next person. But to discount the use of happiness for the same effect – exploring the human condition — that’s just nearsightedness. Or stupidity. Happiness and the pursuit of it is just as valid of an aspect of human nature. And yes, there are formulaic sad endings just as there are formulaic happy endings. I won’t name names. *cough*

  5. I would agree a genuine, quality “happy” ending is sometimes harder to earn for a writer than going with the tragic, because the downbeat ending brings with it an air of “highbrow” already. Great points.

  6. I really, really like this post. Thank you, Courtney.

    I agree that it’s much easier to go to that wallowing place, in art as well as life. Portraying misery with no attempt at a satisfying resolution (there’s the kicker) is usually unappealing to me. It can be very poignant — but it can also be an attempt to emotionally manipulate the reader.

    That means positive people — and writers of positive stories — often have to dig more deeply to uncover happiness that resonates. But that’s who I like to be around, and that’s what I like to read.

    Hope this post isn’t inspired by someone being a troll to you. If so, just remember, Troll is the score Hogwarts reserves for the biggest fools.

  7. A pal of mine had this to say about the definition of Serious Literature being about the worst thing you could imagine happening: “it cheapens our actual experience–life is hard even if your kid doesn’t get cancer, and how do we deal with it? Let’s see that in books.”

    I also wish I had been at this panel (or that I could find the link): the Serious Authors were talking about how sex is awkward, complicating, and unfulfilling. Finally the romance author couldn’t take anymore and said, “When I have sex, it’s great.

  8. I love this post. In fact, I love this post in so many ways. Whoever said that romance novels are happy needs to read one. Like, say, Anna Campbell or Lisa Kleypas’ “Blue-Eyed Devil’. These are stories of surviving the odds and finding happiness. Of getting though the hard times and the outshining power of love. They are stories of hope for those of us lost in the daily grind. They remind us of the ups and downs and play out the rhythm of many of our lives. But they are not all sunshine and unicorns.

    Life is hard. We don’t need Serious Literature to remind us of that. If a reader finds relief in reading the dark stories with taxes on the deathbed, great. But if a reader finds hope in the resolution of the black moment in a HEA, just as great.

    The romance industry is negated in so many ways. As are many things like, say, women in positions of power. And mothers. And the non-linear emotional realm.

    I could keep going on and on, but I think that is enough for today. Thanks for the post, Courtney.

  9. I not only highly agree with everything said in this blog post, I also think it’s one of the most entertaining posts I’ve read today. Thank you Courtney. 🙂

  10. And this is why I love you Courtney. You speak your mind and it’s always well thought out, clear, and well thought out. And it’s always something that I’ve thought about as well.

    So, CM, Brava! Thank you for having the courage and the brilliance to write/rant about this issue.


  11. What everyone else said. Great post! Good happy endings are hard to write; easy ones (no conflict, no obstacles) make lousy books. Couples that can work out their differences and really be happy are beating the odds, in fiction and in life, and I admire that in both.

  12. That Tolstoy quote isn’t so much DEEP as the Count cluing you in on page 1 that you are reading the kind of book where the protagonist ends up throwing herself under a train.

    There’s a place for everything and “everyone ends up dead or in a convent or disfigured hideously by disease and bankrupt” has its place but that place is not the romance genre.

  13. Blame it on Disney, I know I do! 🙂

    I do tend to agree with the opening quote, all happy families do look alike to me, maybe because there’s a certain intangibility to happiness that makes it escape closer examination. It is after all exactly as you say, wallowing in self-pity is easier done, it’s the more attainable dark side.

    And, as we all know, it’s the suicidal hero/heroine that turns a simple novel into a work of “literature”. 😀

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