The first thing you need to understand about critiquing the romance genre is that its writers and readers don’t need you, have no reason to trust you, and aren’t shy about calling out people they think have gotten it wrong. This is something The New York Times—as well as other outlets considering coverage—should contemplate.
In late September, the New York Times Book Review devoted several pages and its weekly cover to a roundup of fall releases in the genre. In some respects, the piece was a coup, both in terms of the space and the fact that Robert Gottlieb—a literary luminary who has run The New Yorker, Knopf, and Simon and Schuster, as well as edited Joseph Heller and Toni Morrison—was chosen to write it. It seemed like a sign that the Times is finally interested in engaging with a genre that it has tended to ignore.
Gottlieb’s article takes a jocular tone which, when writing about a genre that has historically been ridiculed and dismissed, makes it sound like he’s sneering even when his descriptions are complimentary. The reaction among romance readers and writers online wasn’t exactly gushing. “There are so many things wrong with Mr. Gottlieb’s write up, I might run out of room on the whole entire internet accounting for them all,” wrote Sarah Wendell at Smart Bitches Trashy Books, even as she went on to talk about the ways in which it was, to some extent, bittersweet victory. There are also a number of poorly informed characterizations, like this paragraph, which separates the entire genre into two basic buckets:
The hundreds of romance novels — perhaps thousands, if you include the self-published ones that constitute their own phenomenon — just published or due to appear in the next few months essentially fall into two categories. There are the Regency romances (descended from the superb Georgette Heyer, whose first one, “Regency Buck,” appeared in 1935). And there are the contemporary young-woman-finding-her-way stories that are the successors to the working-girl novels that for decades provided comfort and (mild) titillation to millions of young women who dreamed of marrying the boss. This formula reached its apogee in 1958 with Rona Jaffe’s “The Best of Everything,” whose publishing-house heroines find either (a) business success at the price of stunted love, (b) true love and wifey bliss, (c) death. But almost 60 years have gone by since the virgins of “The Best of Everything” hit the Big Apple, and real life has had its impact not only on modern romance but — as we shall see — on modern Romance.
There are several issues with this paragraph that suggest that Gottlieb has a slippery grasp on his subject matter. First, it’s impossible to properly survey the modern romance genre without including self-publishing, home to a lot of interesting innovation because it doesn’t require going through a conservative publisher concerned about what it perceives to be mass appeal. Second, that’s not an accurate description of the sweeping field of contemporary romance, either, which draws on a dizzying array of cultural influences that have over the decades included Rebecca, Working Girl, Dynasty, the midcentury suspense writer Mary Stewart, and women’s own lives as they clawed their way into the workplace on equal terms with men.
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Gottlieb proceeds to argue that Regencies, a subgenre of historical romance set roughly around the time of Jane Austen, “have barely altered their formula” over the decades. It’s true that modern Regencies still draw heavily on the language, tropes and atmosphere laid down by Georgette Heyer, but Heyer—practically an Edwardian and a total snob—would have a stroke if she saw what writers like Rose Lerner and Cat Sebastian, who write with their eyes square on class, are doing with the subgenre of her invention. It’s just not true that, “The only new element in the genre these post-Heyer days is the relentless application of highly specific sex scenes.” Even if it were, that would be a sizable and important difference, given the rare number of places in this culture where women can freely discuss sex. Some of his reference points are writers who have been undeniably popular, like Barbara Cartland and Danielle Steele—who gets a baffling number of words—but simply aren’t at the current cutting-edge of the genre. Why not talk about writers like Alisha Rai and Santino Hassell? We’re left to assume he doesn’t know about them, which suggests he isn’t following the genre as closely as he’d have us believe.
He also claims, “E. L. James is no better or worse a writer than most of her compeers,” which is news to me, as a prolific romance reader who couldn’t make it halfway through the first Fifty Shades book.
Gottlieb writes in the tone of affable authoritative critic willing to entertain an unexpected interest, but to somebody who reads a lot in the genre, he comes off as a dilettante, failing to serve both romance fans who might be looking for an informed review of new titles and non-readers interested in educating themselves about a phenomenon with which they’re unfamiliar.
To cap it all off, comes this conclusion:
Regency, psychopaths, wedding planners, ranchers, sadists, grandmas, bordellos, dukes (of course); whips, fish tacos, entails, Down syndrome, recipes, orgasms — romance can absorb them all, which suggests it’s a healthy genre, not trapped in inflexibility. Its readership is vast, its satisfactions apparently limitless, its profitability incontestable. And its effect? Harmless, I would imagine. Why shouldn’t women dream? After all, guys have their James Bonds as role models. Are fantasies of violence and danger really more respectable than fantasies of courtship and female self-empowerment? Or to put it another way, are Jonathan’s Bolognese and Cam’s cucumber salsa any sillier than “Octopussy’s” Alfa Romeo and Bond’s unstirred martinis?
Gottlieb gets at a good point here, probing why James Bond is afforded a respect that romance isn’t. But his delivery is incredibly patronizing—“And its effect? Harmless, I would imagine. Why shouldn’t women dream?” No one was seeking permission or license from Robert Gottlieb, and his airy characterization stops far short of seriously considering what’s going on with these “fantasies of courtship and female self-empowerment,” reproducing the same dismissal as the people who treat James Bond as mainstream culture while reducing romance to Fabio and ripped bodices.
The backlash to Gottlieb’s review, much of it on Twitter, was sufficient to merit a response from the book review’s editorial director, Radhika Jones, asking, “Who Gets to Write About Romance?” The post seems to question whether romance readers who criticized Gottlieb even understand the purpose of literary criticism:
First, it’s true that romance suffers no shortage of fans — as Mr. Gottlieb writes in his article, it’s a thriving genre. But the fan’s relationship to a work of art is different from the critic’s. Our goal is not simply to recommend books or enthuse about them — though we do have two recurring features reserved for exactly those functions: our weekly book recommendations and an occasional column called “The Enthusiast.” Our goal is to assess and critique the books on offer. Mr. Gottlieb’s assessments include drawing positive attention to the “robust sex and amusing plotting” in one writer’s novel and noting another’s “preposterous” story line (though he adds that the preposterousness is what allows for the fun).
As though to suggest that romance was lucky to be graced with the presence of a real critic, she also noted that, “some readers question our decision to give these writers any real estate at all,” and included an annoyed email from somebody who complained, “I thought maybe to garner some intellectual discourse about books with some relevance to the cultural time we live in … but no,” and pleaded with the review to “spare us the bodice rippers of romances.”
Jones’s response, like the piece it defends, fundamentally misunderstands romance readers and their response to the column.
Traditional literary criticism—in storied outlets like the New York Times Book Review—has long scorned romance. At one point, all genre work was pretty well shut out, but mystery, science fiction and graphic novels have all gradually been “discovered” and given serious consideration as forms of art or at least culturally interesting phenomena on their own terms. But despite attracting a fairly substantial population of interested academics, romance—the genre form most firmly and exclusively associated with women—still hasn’t really gotten the same treatment. When noticed by mainstream media outlets, romance generally is subject to some combination of ridicule, dismissiveness or condemnation. More often than not, there is an ugly, sexist edge to even the merest mention of the genre. Journalists—though, to his credit, not Gottlieb!—persist in mentioning Fabio, who was never on as many covers as you might assume and hasn’t been a model in two decades. This is just one way that romance is treated with a lack of attention to detail that is sloppy and frankly disrespectful.
As a result of being marginalized by more mainstream outlets, romance writers and readers have developed their own critical apparatus. We do so on sites like Smart Bitches Trashy Books and Dear Author; on Goodreads reviews; in Facebook groups and, as the Times discovered to its grief, on Twitter. Arguments rage across platforms and comments sections about inclusion, about sexual consent, about how to deploy various tropes from the history of the genre in 2017. These fights are the way any literary form evolves. Maybe they don’t take place in the pages of exclusive literary magazines that position themselves as elite organs of culture, but they serve the same purpose in this particular corner of literature.
In fact, if Gottlieb were following these debates, he would know better than to drop this baffling sentence into the middle of his roundup (emphasis mine):
They: Are caught up in a spiraling thriller, danger from a psychopathic killer looming everywhere. Will she survive? More important: Will she let Carver back into her life? Go straight to Cheris Hodges’ DEADLY RUMORS (Dafina/Kensington, paper, $7.99) to find out. But, once again, the sex is great: “He licked, sucked and nibbled at her throbbing bud until she screamed his name as she came over and over again,” and her “knees quivered and shook as if she were on the San Andreas Fault in the middle of an earthquake.” Oh, yes — Zoe and Carver are African-Americans, though except for some scattered references to racial matters, you’d never know it. (Well, you would from the cover.)
The biggest conversation in romance right now is about inclusion. It’s not spanking, it’s not whether romance can be feminist in a general sense, and it’s damn sure not anything to do with Barbara Cartland. Just this week, the indie romance bookstore The Ripped Bodice released a report on diversity that makes clear how far the genre still has to go. The big question is how to make a genre that—like the rest of publishing!—has historically been structurally unwelcoming to anybody not white or straight a more open place. If Gottlieb were up on that discussion, he would understand that part of what makes romance culturally important, and even radical, is its power to mirror the basic humanity of readers who aren’t the presumed white, straight cultural default—to provide a place to visualize happy, fulfilled lives for everybody. And frankly, skipping over this discussion is like reviewing contemporary fiction without an eye to the VIDA stats, or a nonfiction investigation of modern Russia by talking a lot about Tolstoy.
And so what the Times encountered was not a bunch of pissed-off fans angry that somebody had been rude to their faves. Twitter and other forms of social media have so leveled the media landscape that the Times looked up to find another, independently evolved critical tradition wholly unbeholden to the Times on its virtual doorstep, forcefully taking issue with much of Gottlieb’s column and prepared to go line-by-line about where they disagreed. What makes somebody who writes for the Times a “real” critic, while people on Twitter who have read thoroughly and thought deeply about the genre are fans? Do they assign writers who aren’t neck-deep in new releases to write critically about mysteries?
The problem is that Gottlieb’s article doesn’t take the genre seriously and therefore isn’t particularly rigorous as a piece of criticism. In a September 29 appearance on the book review’s podcast, he said that he did enjoy romance, then continued on to explain, “Because on the one hand, it does its job, often quite well. And on the other hand, it’s preposterous. Nothing is at stake. So you can just enjoy what you can enjoy, and then forget it.” It’s a perfect example of the dismissive attitude that romance has generally faced, and helps explain why readers were so mad.
Romance is a real and valid literary tradition with its own tropes, conventions, goals and preoccupations that addresses real complexities in people’s lives. These books can be more or less radical in execution, but just like science fiction is about more than lasers that go pow, romance is about more than wanting to marry the boss.
For all that I write constantly about the sex in romance novels—because I do think their advocacy for female pleasure is one of their most culturally significant features and most radical aspects—it is possible to write a satisfying romance novel without a single sex scene. (Lately, I’ve been working my way through older regencies by authors like Edith Layton, for instance.) That’s because the genre’s true subject, and true great concern, is feelings. Not just romantic feelings, but feelings about one’s family, one’s friends, oneself. Sometimes those feelings are blown up to immense, surreal proportions; sometimes they are rendered on a smaller, more intimate scale that looks more like traditional realism. Outsiders see formula, but readers know that every relationship has its own, unique dimensions, and making one work is often the delicate, frustrating, repetitive work of picking apart a tangled child’s necklace. Perhaps more than anywhere else in our culture, these books take seriously the matter of emotional labor, and I believe that part of their appeal is that they offer both an entertaining escape from that work and a refuge that takes that work seriously.
Part of the reason these books are so cherished is the fact that a genre dedicated to feelings, to relationships, to emotional labor could be considered to have “no stakes.”
And so, to answer the Times’ question: Who gets to write about romance? Anybody, really, and more people should, because it’s a fascinating and under-appreciated corner of the culture that’s truly a lot of fun. But, as with any other genre of literature, better somebody who starts with at least a suspicion that these books are doing something more than providing a few hours worth of silly entertainment. Come to the genre with the basic respect you’d offer any other corner of the literary world; if you wouldn’t take a particular tone with Game of Thrones or Marvel or, for that matter, Franzen, don’t take it with Tessa Dare or Nora Roberts. Seriously consider getting a woman to write about the topic.
And come prepared—or prepare to get dragged by readers who are confident they know at least as much as you do, and aren’t afraid of a fight.