My overdue defense of the romance genre
I read the most baffling article today:
This assessment of romance novels from the New York Times.
The article (written by Robert Gottlieb) was published a couple days ago, but I'm late to the party, and didn’t see it until this morning.
I read the article with the same open-mouthed incredulity I usually experience when confronted with a critique of romance novels by someone who clearly isn’t a fan of the genre the first place.
I planned to let it go with the same dismissive eye roll I usually give these sorts of “academic” assessments.
See, I waffle between the stance that such articles “aren’t worth the breath/effort” it takes to publicly dismiss them, and the stance that romance’s defense is better left to warriors more eloquent than me: Christina Lauren. Eloisa James. Maya Rodale. And of course, Sarah Maclean, who Entertainment Weekly appropriately and wonderfully declared "gracefully furious."
But it struck me today: neither of those stances is good enough. Not even close.
My work, my career, my readers, and my colleagues deserve better than my silence.
So about this NYT article.
I should have known it was going to be rough-going when the article’s entitled, "A Roundup of the Season’s Romance Novels," and yet the first book mentioned/reviewed (the incredible The Duke and I by Julia Quinn) was first published in 2000. Source.
Never mind that there have been thousands of romance novels published since then, a dozen or so by Ms. Quinn herself. I'm not sure why Mr. Gottlieb decided to fit a seventeen year-old book into a discussion of current romance novels, but I am sure the out-of-context excerpts are a poor representation of the book.
And for a brief second, it occurred to me that maybe the article’s title was meant as a cheeky reference to “The Season,” as in the societal season, which is often a component of Regency plots.
But then I read this:
"The only new element in the genre [Regency romance] these post-Heyer days is the relentless application of highly specific sex scenes,"
And I realized that such a simplistic condescension came from someone whose experience with Regency romance is likely limited to the five mentioned in the article.
But wait. It gets worse. So much worse.
Because in what universe, is a white man the appropriate person to assess the level of racial accuracy in a novel about black characters?
"Zoe and Carver are African-Americans, though except for some scattered references to racial matters, you’d never know it."
Gosh, I hope the African American author is taking notes! Cheris Hodges, if you're listening, the white man would like your black characters to act more African American, please! Whatever that means.
Mr. Gottlieb did have some kind words for Nora Roberts:
I remember being struck some years ago by her common sense about what women want, need and deserve.
Thanks for your assessment on women's wants and needs, oh ... Robert, was it?
He doesn’t seem to hate all the books on his list, but there is a strange, almost single-minded focus on the sex scenes, and not a single reference to “happily ever after," which I think nearly any romance author or reader will tell you is the hallmark of our genre.
E.L. James's multi-million dollar accomplishment is trivialized to this:
What’s made her so astoundingly successful is the trope of spanking, give or take the odd whip and manacle.
Would the New York Times please explain why we needed this article? Why we needed an 86-year old man to weigh in on romance novels?
Why did we possibly need Mr. Gottlieb to mansplain to us the allure of Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele’s relationship?
If it was to truly to highlight the latest in romance, why not bring in an expert on the the genre?
Now, perhaps it was because Robert Gottlieb is a big name in publishing and the book world. Perhaps the NYT figured those credentials qualified him to weigh in on genre fiction.
But his experience in publishing only makes his dismissal of a billion-dollar genre with condescending assessments such as the following even more puzzling:
"Bodices no longer need to be ripped — your bosom happily meets his abs halfway.”
Wait, I'm confused. Is Mr. Gottlieb's article supposed to be a thoughtful critique, or a chauvinistic wink?
And given his publishing prestige, surely Mr. Gottlieb also knows the books are largely written by women, for women, and that he’s not the target audience.
I’m truly baffled as to why nobody, at any point along the way, suggested that Robert Gottlieb might not be the ideal reviewer of new/upcoming romance novels.
If I’ve learned anything after publishing twenty-something romances, it’s this:
It's not us romance readers (or writers) who like to squawk about our genre.
It's everyone else.
It’s random strangers, who during small talk, smirk right through my credentials to crudely ask my husband if he’s the bedroom inspiration for those scenes. Because, absolutely, guys—let’s make my accomplishments about my spouse.
It’s “friends” who ask if I’m still writing “smut.”
It’s authors of literary fiction dismissing genre fiction as “lazy, sloppy.”
It’s even DJ Tanner confessing to her “treasure trove of trashy romance novels."
And it's esteemed publications like the New York Times asking an 80-something year old man to assess a genre where the readership is 84% women, with over half of readers being between the ages of 18-44. Source. Yes, men read romance novels too. And no, men should not be precluded from reviewing them. But based on the glib, mocking nature of Mr. Gottlieb's reviews, it's difficult to believe he or the New York Times takes the genre seriously.
I’d love to ask all of the above armchair critics (because this post has gone beyond Mr. Gottlieb now), a question, with the same thoughtful, careful consideration they’ve shown my genre:
What is wrong with you?
No. Really though.
On what grounds are you qualified to come at me with an assessment of a genre of which you’ve read a handful (or zero examples) and I’ve written dozens, and read hundreds?
Where do you get off casually describing mine and my colleagues' work as trashy. Or “porn for women.” Or smut.
How can you possibly imagine yourself qualified to speak to a genre that you’re still referring to as bodice rippers, while in the same breath, referring to Fabio who literally hasn’t been relevant to a book cover in 20+ years.
Why is Game of Thrones in all its sordid glory, acceptable mainstream entertainment, while Fifty Shades of Grey is derided as “mommy porn."
I’m really asking. I don’t get it. I don’t understand.
Now to be fair to the New York Times article that started this whole firestorm, Mr. Gottlieb does seem to be attempting to defend the genre, but perhaps that’s the difference between writers/readers of the genre and everyone else:
We know it shouldn't need defending. It shouldn't need justifying.
And yet we get assessments like this:
Its [the romance genre's] readership is vast, its satisfactions apparently limitless, its profitability incontestable. And its effect? Harmless, I would imagine.
That's 34% of the US fiction market, a 1 billion dollar, female-dominated industry summed up by an adjective that’s so alarmingly passive I felt slightly nauseous reading it.
But ladies, thank goodness we have the blessing of a man who goes on to assert:
Why shouldn’t women dream? After all, guys have their James Bonds as role models.
Absolutely, Mr. Gottlieb. Because a woman reading about romantic relationships and a decent orgasm is totally on the same outrageous fantasy level as Goldfinger, right?
The romance genre deserves a hell of a lot better than a belittling, benign adjective like harmless.
And if "courtship and female self-empowerment” are still “fantasies,” as Robert Gottlieb seems to think, we have a long way to go.
And I a lot more posts like this one to write.