Friday, June 16, 2017

The HEA and Dire Poverty

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I was on twitter last night, late in my time zone, chatting about whether one could write a Romance where the protagonists were no-kidding-around dirt poor. Is there an HEA for folks scraping by in the dangerous underbelly of existence?

HEA, in case you have wandered in looking for information on the UN’s policy on Education, is “Happily Ever After”. That, or HFN Happy For Now is required if a book is to be genre Romance. No happy ending and you may be writing a love story or Woman’s Fiction or Literary Fiction or Fairy Tales for Rabbits or perfectly lovely General Fiction, but it’s not a work of genre Romance and should not be advertised as such.
 
This isn’t talking about the poverty of a pioneer cabin, or a Western dirt-scrabble ranch, or a small farm in Wales, or about the working-class life of most people everywhere and everywhen. This is poverty with a capital P. The pure quill, the desperate grinding-poverty poor.

So I thought about poverty and genre Romance while I was reading tweets and writing tweets and I came to a couple conclusions.

A San -- or Bushman -- person. They have the oldest DNA.
They're probably like our distant ancestors.
They are quite beautiful folk, btw.
First off, one may love deeply when the next meal is problematic and the chickens have come down with mad hen disease. Happiness isn’t conditional on tea and cakes, such as those in front of me. Young San heroes and heroines in the Kalahari Desert of Southern Africa may snuggle together on the rocks, cheerful and content, filled with gratitude for the day’s berries and nuts, hoping for an unwary antelope tomorrow. The bitter and lonely trolls I meet on the net are not an advertisement for a safe, rich, comfortable life.
 
I poked around in the attic of my mind which is furnished with much oddly shaped furniture when you come right down to it and considered love and happiness and poverty and suffering and genre Romance.

Genre fiction is market defined, which is neither good nor bad. It just is. Folks don’t come to my genre looking for bleak reality. Most of them have a plentitude of conflict, worry, and sorrow stocked up. They come to Romance for the feelgoods. To get away from all that durned Reality. And if I’m taking their money I’m going to give ‘em what they’ve paid for because that’s my contract with the reader.

Which brings us round to the original question can one write a satisfying genre Romance with grindingly poor protagonists?
 
I considered Maslow. Maslow, for those of you who slept through Freshman Econ and Philosophy, spoke of a “hierarchy of needs”. What is important to humans? He made a pyramid that stacks the last two thousand years of thought on this into a single graphic, the better to jog folks awake in Econ 101 and give them something to doodle in their notebooks. I have no idea who Maslow was, btw. He may have lived on a mountain top, cowering before black bears, instead of teaching at some uni.

Anyway, see the pyramid above. Every layer rests on satisfying the substrate below. The general idea is you don’t go so much looking for love when you’re starving to death or exiting stage left, pursued by bear. Like all simplicities, Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t quite cover reality so I will quote Edna St. Vincent Millay who probably never heard of Maslow but argues on the other side anyway.

Edna
Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;

Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;

(I’ll interrupt here to point out she’s about defining the two lowest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and goes on to deny their primacy.)

Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.

It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution’s power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.

Millay’s poem speaks of the triumph of the third level of Maslow’s hierarchy.

When I’m putting together the outcome of a story, I want to check off all jo stops to count five Maslow levels. I want the HEA to plausibly suggest a safe and comfortable future. Love itself gives the male and female protagonist those upper three levels.
Yeah love!

So what about poverty and genre Romance?

Not exactly what I'm having now, but close
I decided the genre requires some absolute floor of pain and desperation for an HEA. Not tea and cakes necessarily. Okay. But not a life of starvation either. Not assured safety, but danger and damage faced by the protagonists and survived and overcome. (I’m thinking Outlander here.)
  
I think poverty also works if the protagonists are sustained by what makes poverty secondary. Medical missionaries; scientists living in an Amazonian jungle to collect disappearing languages; a free-love, Vegan, farming commune, living in yurts; (I know somebody who does this;) clear-eyed radicals living in the bowels of a dystopian future city, fighting the dystopes.

I know these books must be out there, the HEAs where the protagonists are poorer than church mice, but it’s still an upbeat, hopeful ending.

So I ask you ... I come to lay it at your feet for judgment. Can dire, grinding poverty with no prospect for better be part of a satisfying escapist genre romance?

5 comments:

  1. I know people living in grinding poverty can love intensely--I have seen it. But I think writing it as a romance would be hard because they can't really ever relax and enjoy being with each other. They are always worried about where the next meal comes from and that is more intense when it's for the loved one as well.
    I can think of books where the hero or heroine spends time being grindingly poor. Meredith Duran and Courtney Milan have each written at least one and a number of Carla Kelly's books have that. But I can't think of one where they end in grinding poverty.

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  2. It's all about the HEA.

    I think we need to add reasonable comfort and securtiy to what is required for HEA. That makes the reader worry less about the couple's happiness.

    It also validates the male's role as a provider. He's more heroic if he lays brad and safety on the table.

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  3. Christine3:02 PM

    So happy to see you blogging again more! I have selfishly missed regularly reading your posts here.

    In response to the question above, I have read some modern romances where the heroines were truly poor but they do end up in at least in a little better situation even if it's not with a billionaire.

    In an effort to diversify my romance reading I began branching out to grittier modern romances set in worlds I never imagined would fit a "romance" theme (like Motorcycle Clubs etc.) in the past couple of years. For a long time in the books I read it seemed the heroine had to be "deserving poor" ie: usually highly educated (even if only self-educated, extremely virtuous with no vices or faults and only poor because circumstance, foolish relatives, or EVIL VILLAINS placed her there.

    In these new "grittier/realistic" romances the heroes and heroines don't have degrees or fancy jobs. In the latest novella I read the heroine is living in a rusted out trailer (with her sister and her sister's three small children)and working nights in a hole in the wall biker bar. She has no car because she sold it to travel to her sister, is on probation because her ex got her unwittingly involved an attempted armed robbery and has a new jerk boyfriend who (unknown to her)just traded a night with her to the head of a motorcycle "club" for a $500 discount on a used motorcycle. By the end of the story there is a HFN where the heroine takes off with the head of the M.C. (who has committed some murder and arson for her along the way)as his companion with a gift of $2000 cash from him so she can leave if she tires of him and their time together. By hooking up with him she has definitely raised her standard of living in that he is pretty powerful and always has a certain amount of money (although he isn't living at the Ritz)and she has a degree of freedom in traveling with him (since she is no longer working hand to mouth to help feed herself and her sister's family while riding a bike to and from work) that she never had before. It certainly would never have fit into a classic romance mold and it's hard to imagine it even being published any time before the past several years particularly because the heroine(and her sister) among other things like to drink, have sex and make "bad choices" in their lives.

    I have also read a dystopian romance where the couple ends up building a home for themselves out in the wasteland away from the rest of civilization (as they know it) to avoid the rules and prejudices of that society. It's understood they are going to have a hardscrabble life and it's mentioned several times from the beginning of the story that the heroine is so thin because there simply isn't that much food despite her hunting every day. Having her supernaturally strong partner will help but they won't be living a comfortable, or even "civilized" life.

    I think part of the nature of a romance is that we want the heroine to end up in at least a slightly better situation even if she doesn't go on to marry a Duke. There is a trend now for more diverse heroes, heroines and plots in both modern and historical romance but I think most readers would doubt the happiness of the ending if there wasn't an inkling that the main couple would at least be eating regularly in the future if not enjoying a "middle class" level life.

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  4. I don't get everything done that I'd like to. One of the first things to go when I get busy is the blog. And the website.
    (jo regrets this slightly and will try to be better.)

    I like the HEA that ends genre Romance. I like to see a protagonist meeting difficulties, but I want them to win.

    Like you, I've been seeking out gritty to read ... though the MC Romance you describe might be a little more gritty than I'm prepared for.

    After thinking it over for a couple days, I've decided the HEA or HFN I want will be ... comfy in some ways. If not materially comfortable, then philosophically so

    I'm terminally Goody Two-shoes. I want my folks to be motivated by some idea or cause. I want them to keep on working for that cause. And I want them to have a future of expressing themselves beyond "Yeah! A rabbit. We'll eat tonight."

    It's never about the rabbit. It's never about Robinson Crusoe taking kegs of nails from the ship. It's about what the process of survival means.

    Maybe that's why I write genre Romance. Not just the HEA, but an HEA that has a larger meaning.

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  5. Christine4:20 PM

    Please don't take my statement about missing your posts here as a criticism or even a complaint or anything other than simple greed. If I had to choose between blog posts and a nice fresh new work of fiction from you I will always be grateful for the next trip into the world of spymasters and (spy-mistresses?)

    I think the MC books are often more gritty than I am often prepared for- but they have had the effect of shaking me of out not only my reading comfort zones a bit, but my preconceived notions of how people "should be" -even if they are just fictional people. I do doubt they will ever count among my "comfort reads" though.

    I agree 100% about "what the process of survival means" in a work. The reason I cheered at the end of the dystopian novel was not just because the couple were together, but because when they moved out on their own, despite the physical hardships and isolation, they were escaping the rules and prejudices of the survivors' "city". They were finally going to be living according to their own values and ideas of freedom and equality. It left me feeling like they really were destined for a happy ending even if they weren't living in the lap of luxury.

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