In Defense of the HEA
You could say I have a bit of a bone to pick. Which might explain why this is really long.
Damon Suede called romance "The literature of hope." Some folks might say that that's an inflated description for dinky little love stories; those folks don't know what they're talking about. I'm not saying that to be rude so much as to express that they are working from a fundamental misunderstanding of the genre, one that is usually based in some mixture of sexism, superiority and an unfamiliarity with the texts in question.
When you strip away the bullshit, we're talking about the most popular, most $-generating fiction genre in publishing. Why is it popular and profitable? Because, as in any other consumer market in existence, consumers are drawn to the most efficient and successful product available to meet their specific needs. To discuss romance as if it is a profoundly important part of not only a complex, highly-profitable industry but a form of art that speaks to countless people is not inflated; it's accurate. And to call that dinky or little is to insult not only the books, but the readers who invest in them.
The real question is where and how HEAs fit into that.
Look, I think we can all agree that real life sucks. Seriously. If you're not angry or sad or bewildered by many, many things at this moment in time, it's because you're not paying attention. And it's entirely too easy to get lost in that swampland. It's like the Swamps of Sadness, you guys, only we're all Artax.
This reference will go over the heads of some of my readers, but if you haven't seen The NeverEnding Story, you should skip out early on work to watch it. By the way, as a helpful tip, Bastien's shouting "Moonchild." You'll know what I'm talking about when you get there; no one can ever understand that line as he delivers it, which is a shame, because it unlocks, like, 95% of the father's character. Bastien's mother was a hippie, but that's no excuse for poor articulation.
The point is, there seems to be some debate about whether or not HEAs are a fundamental part of romance. The majority of readers seem to say yes; a small minority, some writers, and a few smug assholes seem to think no. (Note that I'm not saying you're a smug asshole if you find HEAs unnecessary--it's a valid point of view. I'm just saying that a few of the folks on that side are particularly given to arguing in a way that makes you want to kick them in the shins).
The arguments against HEAs seem to center around three points. 1) They're formulaic and predictable. 2) They're unrealistic, and therefore problematic. 3) They're for wussies who can't bear to face the unsettling reality that is the modern relationship, which is intangible and frequently flawed and Real Life Doesn't Work Like That, You Weakling, Real Women Like Ambiguous Endings. (This is the smug asshole rendition of #2, really).
I will address these one at a time.
1) HEAs are formulaic and predictable. Yes, absolutely they are formulaic and predictable--in some ways. This is a legitimate concern if you're looking for something truly avant-garde, I'll admit, although I'll point out that this is equally true of any genre. Let me make an (imperfect) analogy. Consider the mystery genre. We know we're going to find out who it was, specifically, that has 'dun it.' The killer is virtually always revealed. The detective/P.I./cozy British grandma solving crimes out of her kitchen will always figure out the identity and motive of the killer/femme fatale/vegetable stealer. This is formula, and it is predictable. But we read mysteries because it is, like with romance, the journey that matters. It's the how, not the if. So yeah, we know they'll get together, but the how is where the tension comes from. And if the how is predictable, the HEA isn't the problem. It's the author.
2) HEAs are unrealistic, and therefore problematic. I'll agree, that when we live in a time when the divorce rate is super high, you can't just tack on a handy marriage proposal and expect that readers will assume that everything turns out hunky-dory. Obviously this is garbage thinking. Marriage is not a gateway to forever bliss and a resolution of one entanglement does not mean that new ones will not form. So I can understand why some readers find it questionable to say that two characters can live happily ever after in a realistic book. But a glance at the structure of a romance novel proves that longevity is often a pretty realistic thing, especially compared to real life.
So there's a thing called the black or dark moment. This is basically synonymous with the climax, but fiction writers are inherently dramatic, so some of us get a little precious with names. The black moment/climax is the scene where it seems like all hope is lost. The point of the black moment/climax is to force characters to make the last big decision--change or lose everything.
In romance, this is the scene where you're sure they're going to break up. Their differences are irreconcilable. Love is doomed. Press the back of your hand to your forehead and swoon your grief to the stars. But the thing is, we all know the black moment isn't likely to actually be The End Of Our Heroes/Heroines/Whoever Floats Your Boat. Why? Ha, if you said the HEA, you're wrong! I tricked you! It's because of communication. In romance, the black moment most frequently resolves with communication. Also forgiveness. And self-sacrifice for a partner. AKA love succeeds in a romance novel because people practice good relationship skills. This is what inevitably removes a lack of realism from being a worthwhile critique of HEAs.
People can learn. A romance is, at its core, about people learning how to be with each other and get their needs met while meeting the needs of the other person. The resolution of the black moment is a perfect example of this new, good, conflict-management behavior, and we're seeing the success that becomes possible when this communicative, giving behavior is employed. HEAs aren't unrealistic in this context, because we aren't seeing a lack of future problems so much as proof that our trust in these characters' ability to handle those problems isn't misplaced. We know this because the characters just modeled it for us in resolving the black moment. We watched them clean up their mess, ergo future messes will not be a problem.
So unless the characters are shitty d-bags who treat each other like crap until some god-like creature magically resolves the whole situation for them, you've actually got a pretty good argument for why HEAs are fairly believable. Remember, if half of all marriages result in divorce, that means half of them don't. And when characters resolve stuff maturely, you've got strong evidence that you're looking at one of the success stories. (Also, if a god-like creature is running around fixing shitty characters' problems to ensure happy endings, again, it isn't the HEA that's the problem. It's the author.)
3) HEAs are for wussies who can't bear to face the unsettling reality that is the modern relationship, which is intangible and frequently flawed and Real Life Doesn't Work Like That, You Weakling, Real Women Like Ambiguous Endings. If you're throwing this one at me, please know that my reply in #2 will address all major issues of #3 except for your smug assholery, and for that you get dismissed from the conversation until you can present a logical argument that doesn't rely on ad hominem attacks.
Why is the HEA so satisfying? Why are people so willing to throw down about this and demand that an entire genre conform? I mean, it's just a couple of made-up people boning and spitting some purple prose at each other. It's not such a big deal if we skip that part, right?
Well, in a word, yes. In a bunch of words: yes, it fucking is a big deal. And here's why.
Part of the satisfaction of the HEA lies in basic story structure. For the purposes of this part of the argument, I have math, which automatically validates my perspective! Well, I have a graph thingy. I don't know if that counts as math. I had to take geometry twice, guys. Proofs. Ugh.
This is known as the plot graph or camel's back, or, as it is known to writers who didn't spend way too much money on an MFA, as that "That upside-down check-mark thingy." It's meant to help writers understand the way that plot--specifically the chain of cause-and-effect events that make up plot--creates tension and movement on the page.
How it works is this: your character is out living the good life when something happens that starts the whole catastrophe rolling (this is the Inciting Incident, if you're fancy). Voila! Your character is forced to make a decision about how to handle this problem. What they choose reveals who your character is, and--crucially--sets in place the next catastrophe. Each decision a character makes creates a future conflict because of the way other characters (and the world at large) then react. If your heroine's wastrel brother shows up asking for money yet again, what your heroine decides to do tells us who she is and what she values. If she says yes, she's nice and she wants to help her family, even if it costs her the funds she was going to use to start her own sex-supply store. (I would love, just once, to read about a heroine who tells an asshole to get lost b/c she has to go sell orgasm-aid devices to other women. That sounds amazing.)
The point is that her decision to help sets another problem into place--if she says yes, the d-bag brother uses the money to gamble, and gets himself into trouble with a loan shark, and now the heroine has to bail him out. Or, she says no to the d-bag brother and he ends up dead because he couldn't pay off the loan shark, and she has to deal with the guy coming after her to get the money.
Plot = character + decisions + the resulting, escalating problems. The process repeats, and each time the decisions are more difficult to make and problems get more difficult to resolve, until finally you get to the big bad, where it's win it all or go home crying. In romance, it's that black moment again, when they either work things out or break up, so that last decision is basically DO I DO WHAT IS NECESSARY TO BE HAPPY WITH THE CHOSEN FELLA/LADY/WHOEVER FLOATS YOUR BOAT? If the character has learned and grown over the course of the story, that last decision is answered with a resounding "yes!" and that resolves the last problem standing between our lovers. That's how you HEA.
Why am I being pedantic? Why won't I shut up? What has it got to do with why people are so vociferous about their HEAs? Because of that tiny little moment where the heroine tells the d-bag brother to get lost and then he dies b/c he's stupid. When a character makes a choice and a good or bad thing happens in response, you're not only setting up the path to an HEA, you're setting up a commentary on human behavior that can be extended beyond the page.
The HEA is the reward that the author dangles in front of the characters as a way of getting them to be good. This is a moralizing thing that shows up in all fiction, actually. We have been trained, ever since we first started reading board books with our parents as toddlers, to view good behavior as a thing that earns good endings. This is a deeply internalized thing; we, as readers, as authors, as human beings, like the idea that being good gets you good stuff, and that being bad gets you stuck in a trash compactor. It makes us feel safe. "Yup," we say, "here is my world and it is structured and if I just Live Right, it will remain so and I can go about my business and nothing bad will happen to me." HEAs prove that people who get their shit together and love one another are entitled to love and happiness. A lack of an HEA contradicts this. It says that you can be good and do all the right things and still get fucked over.
Saying "Yeah, but it's realistic," isn't a useful rebuttal in that situation. Not only did we take care of that in point #2 above, it definitely doesn't help with the larger emotional implications of the HEA. It makes it worse, actually, because now you're saying that no matter what I do, the world might piss on me. And maybe there's a perfect afterlife where a divine being punishes the guy who just cut me off in traffic, but I'm angry now.
Let me be clear: rejecting this idea and clinging to the HEA and order in general does not mean you are weak or stupid. It doesn't mean you're delusional. It means you like the idea of a world where the good guys get the good shit and the bad guys pay for it. That's not a bad premise. And romance readers aren't blind ninnies. They simply want, desperately, to believe that doing the right thing isn't a futile enterprise.
This is how we get back to Damon Suede's fabulous quote: Romance is the literature of hope. Hope requires feeding. Hope requires HEAs, because HEAs reaffirm not only the idea that relationships can be successful, but that the world itself, as a whole, can be successful. Good behavior, good communication, and the ability to clean up your mess = good life. It's the same theme you'll find in fantasy, mystery, horror, comedy, etc. (anything but literature, I would argue, because literature exists to fuck with you. It's the paper equivalent of the tilt-a-whirl.) The heroes are good, ergo they win. Good wins. It's not a romance thing, exactly. It's a people-cling-to-stories-for-happiness thing. It's just that romance is uniquely drawn in a way that makes it an excellent delivery system. When you mess with the HEA, you're not only messing with our best source for that high, you're threatening a deeply-needed source of reassurance that our efforts and sacrifices in life will not go uncounted.
So leave us our happy endings, okay? I spent an hour watching CNN yesterday, and I fucking need to read some purple prose about reunion boning.
And now, just to undermine my own argument, I'll tell you that I'm one of only, like, five people who really liked the ending to JR Ward's Lover Unbound. Insert mad laughter here.