Here’s How Not to Critique Romance Novels

Romance readers wait at the annual Romance Writers of
America signing, 2011. Photo via AP Images.

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
Morrisonwas 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.

These are just not the same thing.

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.

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