Optimism in U.S. Romance

Where did the American expectation of a happy ending to romantic stories originate? Scholar Eric Selinger looks at the pressure the American market exerted on authors and publishers producing romantic stories in the 1920s and 1930s.


Is American popular romance more optimistic?

I do think that you have, in the United States, coming out of — particularly coming out of the late 19th century and coming into the 20th century — a sense that there’s a connection on some fundamental level between a certain sense of ourselves as a nation, as an optimistic “can-do” people, and a certain kind of ending that we want in our fiction, in our popular fiction. And I say this in part because if you look at British literary critics and editors and scholars in the 1920s and in the 1930s, they are aghast at what they see as the pressure on young British authors to change their stories to give them happy endings in order to reach this lucrative American market [. . .]

[. . .] British literary tradition was open to novels that were much bleaker, that were much harsher in terms of their vision of society. That were much more skeptical about marriage as an institution, about the social order as a place where love can survive. That was one of the strengths of the British literary tradition. Yet when young, and up-and-coming authors want to break that American market, they change the endings of their books.

I think the beginnings of that diversification between the American version of the romance novel and the sort of larger more capacious idea of the romantic novel in Britain—which is just a love story, could end any which way—really begins to happen there in the first couple decades of the 20th century. As you get the development of professional organizations—the RWA in the United States, the RNA in Britain—as you get fan communities, as you get magazines and conferences and all the rest of it, those initial distinctions begin to solidify. They turn into industry standards, they turn into ways of apprenticing and mentoring younger authors.

Now, that’s not to say that the happily ever after ending is a uniquely American phenomenon, it certainly isn’t. It’s not to say that the happily ever after ending is something that is only popular in the United States. It absolutely is not. Around the world we have seen local traditions with happily ever after love stories, and we’ve seen extraordinary explosive growth in the market for American and British and Australian mass-market romance novels as they enter in—in translation—as they enter into the local market. So this is something that speaks to a lot of people worldwide, but it has a very particular resonance, I think, within the United States.

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