Happy ever after: why writers are falling out of love with marriage

From The Guardian:

Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic Little Women begins with an adult Jo March entering the smoke-filled, man-filled offices of a New York publisher in hopes of selling a story. “If the main character’s a girl make sure she’s married by the end,” the editor decrees. “Or dead, either way.”

Alcott herself never married and thought that Jo “should have remained a literary spinster”. But after publication of the first volume of the book, covering the March sisters’ childhood, Alcott was flooded with letters from fans demanding to know whom the little women had married. In rebellion, Alcott “made a funny match” for Jo, forgoing the obvious choice of Laurie in favour of Professor Bhaer, a middle-aged German, “neither rich nor great, young nor handsome, in no respect what is called fascinating, imposing, or brilliant”.

Gerwig reworks this disappointing ending by conflating Jo’s fate with Alcott’s. In the film, we see Jo negotiating the terms of a book deal. She agrees to marrying off her heroine to get the book published but won’t sell her off cheaply, negotiating the percentage of royalties and keeping the copyright, as Alcott did. Gerwig could be charged with cakeism: she simultaneously serves up a feminist outcome while feeding the audience a romantic resolution, and this time with a hunky husband.

Romance plots “are, evidently, some of the deep, shared structures of our culture”, wrote critic Rachel Blau DuPlessis in Writing Beyond the Ending (1985). The convention of “married or dead” female characters persisted in fiction well beyond the Victorian era. But if the romance fantasy was long doled out to women as a compensation for powerlessness elsewhere, contemporary writers are increasingly turning the marriage plot on its head.

In Such a Fun Age, one of this year’s hottest debuts, Kiley Reid pokes fun at wokeness and provides a nuanced consideration of race. She also subverts expectations of the young woman’s coming-of-age novel by giving her main character, Emira, different priorities. “Emira’s dealing with a very ‘humans in late capitalism’ period of her 20s, which leaves her questioning everything,” Reid told the New York Times. “Am I holding my friends back? Should I be living in a different apartment? How do I make more money? What do I want to do?” Boy problems – refreshingly – don’t even make the shortlist. Emira’s reaction to a racist incident at an upscale supermarket is self-inquiry rather than revenge: “More than the racial bias, the night at Market Depot came back to her with a nauseating surge and a resounding declaration that hissed, You don’t have a real job.” As the interracial love subplot plays out, it’s a job with benefits, rather than a good marriage, that proves to be the holy grail.

Reid joins other present-day novelists relegating romance to the back seat. In Writers & Lovers, to be published in May, Lily King addresses subjects including grief, the creative process, and the anxieties of student debt and short-term employment. There’s a love triangle as well, but here, too, the ultimate aim is financial freedom.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG’s admittedly inexpert observation of a variety of book covers he stumbles across during his near-daily online life does not indicate that publishing marketers (a cover is, after all, one of the chief marketing/advertising tools for indie and commercial publishers) have given up on female/male romance as an advertising message.

Does “a job with benefits” match romance in its ability to attract readers? Perhaps it does. PG doesn’t claim a great deal of insight into the world of fiction written by women for (presumably) mostly women. (He acknowledges and is firmly aware that many books written by women are intended for and avidly read by an audience comprised of men, women and whatever other genders may exist in the world. He has read and enjoyed many such books and expects to do so in the future.)

4 thoughts on “Happy ever after: why writers are falling out of love with marriage”

  1. In the classic Romance plot, an important part of the HEA ending includes financial freedom (for the woman) as a result of the marriage. She marries not just for love, but also for security.

    I see the sort of emphasis you mention as just a continuation of an old theme. The sequence may be reversed (security first, then love), but the end result is the same. That works for fiction. But you can’t push it too far… if the love interest she later finds is not a true financial partner (or better) but a dependent, the romance doesn’t always work well — it pushes the wrong buttons for what humans expect from gender behavior.

    For witness, see the terrible marriage issues we’re finding nowadays, where accomplished women can’t interest many men (who don’t necessarily value financial security over love evolutionarily), and accomplished women who settle for the men they can interest don’t often seem to have very viable marriages as a rule, from either gender’s perspective.

    Women who are solving the financial security issue independently today are sometimes having trouble in their marriage expectations. I’m not saying they’re wrong to do it (I’m one myself, who got lucky) but you can’t just change what people want and expect the species behaviors to change to accommodate you easily. There are an awful lot of involuntary singles out there, and that’s not what wins in the evolution race.

  2. My first thought was to wonder how well those books sell, in comparison to HEA stories.

    And hey! I can log in and comment, now! Thanks!

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