This blog post is in reference to an article published by The New York Times, which can be found here.
If the influx of nuclear war threats, rumors of treasons and bigotry against celebrities invoking their first amendment rights has kept you from the real issues, I’m here for you!
No, I jest but I don’t. In light of the recent events of the world, and it really does feel like the end of days, it’s sometimes hard to muster up the energy to worry about the way the romance genre is perceived by the rest of the world. After all, romance is about escapism and joy, and that should be damn good enough when it feels like everything is going to hell in a hand basket. But even as a writer and reader of this genre, I still have to remind myself that dismissing and undermining romance is not a surface level issue. It goes far deeper than mocking low cut bodices and making thinly veiled digs, to the very heart of feminism and women’s rights.
If you haven’t seen the controversy stirred up on Twitter, The New York Times recently released an article in their seasonal roundup section about the romance world. At first, we rejoiced. Despite the powerful impact romance has on best seller’s lists, including that of the Times, commercial fiction is often ignored or scoffed at by New York’s literary elite, and the romance world was pleased to find representation in a major newspaper.
Until we read it.
First things first, Robert Gottlieb, a once editor at the New Yorker, among other admirable titles, was not the right man to write this article. In addition to being in his late eighties, which at the risk of sounding agist, is a relevant point, it is obvious from the start that Gottlieb’s understanding of the romance genre is perfunctory, judgmental and shallow.
Gottlieb narrows down novels to three things – hero career, heroine career and the heat of the sex. And while many back cover of romance novels may read in a similar way – he’s a cop, she’s a teacher, together they have to save the school, they are done with more than a crumble of respect, and certainly don’t poke at the ever-present stereotype of the formulaic nature of romance – something that mysteries, thrillers and other ‘formulaic’ genres never seem to have to answer to.
And it is by no means the only trope that is suddenly on the stand at kangaroo court. The small town and western romances must answer to the line, “We’re in Montana, where we often are in books like these, unless we’re in Wyoming or Colorado”, a wildly simplistic look at a subgenre of romance that has withstood the test of time with the ever present cowboy hero, one of romance’s favorites.
But that’s nothing, compared to what Gottlieb does next. Listen to this:
“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.”
For a moment, let’s ignore the shade he’s throwing at self-published authors, who have risen up the ranks to become some of the most successful writers on the market – much to the chagrin of the New York publishing world, in which Gottlieb is firmly ingrained. That is, unfortunately, a topic onto itself, and I only have so much time to be salty tonight.
Back to the matter at hand. Gottlieb, intelligent man though he clearly is, has managed to take a genre whose subgenres number in the hundreds, if not thousands and reduce it to two. Two.
If I bothered, I could come up with a hundred subgenres of romance off the top of my head without breaking a sweat. Instead, he breaks it down to Regency (referencing Georgette Heyer who, having died in 1974, should not play a significant role in a 2017 Romance Roundup of the Season,) and the aggressively condescending “…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.”
Firstly, raise your hand if you’ve ever read a romance novel that was not an antiquated Regency novel or a….Christ, whatever the hell you might call that. It is safe to assume that Gottlieb refers to someone like myself, a twenty-five year old woman, out of college and on a career path, and the idea that he can speak in the slightest to my experiences is abolished the instant his jarring, judgemental tone breaks through the fracas of his misinformation.
There’s more. His emphasis on the sexy bits is proof, again, that the issue in romance is not overtly with the sexuality and eroticism, but with those– women– writing, reading and enjoying it. His passing commentary on the way food brings families together is another slight on inherently domestic tasks that have forever belonged to women, and are celebrated in romance just as much as those women who become lawyers or doctors.
He discusses ‘Ducal marital heaven’ as though Regency romance novels do not have a massive demand in the market, where an appreciation of a Happily Ever After is mocked, rather than respected for the industry driver that it has always been and continues to be.
I can’t go into every point. His discussions on Fifty Shades, and complete misunderstanding of the success of the BDSM subgenre are yet more proof of perfunctory research and preconceived notions.
If I went through every example in the article, we would be here all night. I did write a letter to the editor of the New York Times book section, which I will paste below, but I urge you to read the article and come to your own conclusions. There is one particularly jarring element, however, that requires noting. It is in the last paragraph, down at the bottom of an article I really believed had no ending.
“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?”
Oh my God. This successful, intelligent man has reduced a woman’s desire for a compatible, healthy relationship to a fantasy, a dream akin to any young boy playing 007, as though it is something to be endeared by and ultimately rejected, since the idea of woman deserving of supportive partners, respectful relationships, or mutually pleasurable sex is so impossible to conceive of that it could be nothing more than a fantasy.
That line alone is the fundamental reason we need romance novels. Because we deserve better – and to speak to an age-old myth about romance, no, that doesn’t give us unrealistic expectations. It sets a good precedent for what people – all people, but specifically women – should expect out of a relationship.
No, the romance genre isn’t perfect. We struggle with inclusivity, representation and intersectional feminism on a macro and micro level, and there’s no excuse for that. But there’s also no excuse for reducing this entire genre, with its continued success on the market and powerful feminist push to a daydream, a fantasy to scoff at.
Picking Gottlieb as the author of this article was an odd choice. With a span of writers and readers as wide as the day is long, romance is surely represented in the Times somewhere, though undoubtedly in hiding, if this is the sort of coverage they receive. But I digress. After all, the point here was to talk about how we’re still defending and, heyo, look, we’re still defending romance novels.
Because at the end of the day, it isn’t about romance novels. It’s about the fact that the Times, and so many other institutions and individuals, reduces advances women have made in their careers, their families, their relationships, their sexual agency, advances women have made in the political, social and domestic sphere over centuries, down to nothing more than a fantasy.
So yeah, I’d say that counts as a real issue.
My Letter to the Editor:
I am writing in response to Robert Gottlieb’s recent article, A Roundup of the Season’s Romance Novels.
As a multi-published author and lifelong reader of the genre, I found the tone of the article disrespectful, jarring, and at times downright condescending. Not only is the romance novel industry a multi-billion dollar genre that continues to keep publishing solvent regardless of external influence, politics or social changes, romance is the only fundamentally feminist genre on the market, and attacking or undermining the importance of new releases by established and emerging authors is, at its core, the age-old issue of sexism rearing its ugly head in art and communication yet again.
I understand and appreciate that the romance genre does not appeal to everyone. But it certainly appeals to enough of the population–especially women, who hold the purchasing power in this country by vast margins, and who continue to prove, ever since the days of Austen, that oh gee, wouldn’t it be nice to see female representation in books once in awhile. Responding to the success of that singular genre with a raised chin is not a savvy way to reach the audience of very loyal, passionate, powerful readers.
Many of the authors mentioned in Gottlieb’s list, which boiled each and every one of these books down to their most basic elements in an obvious attempt to undermine the stereotypically “formulaic” style of the genre, have fundamentally altered the publishing field. Nora Roberts has written 195 New York Times best selling books, of the 215 she has completed. Every single one of 163 books written by Danielle Steel, who incidentally is not considered a romance novelist by many within in the genre, has hit best seller status. Imagine removing these type of powerful, prolific, successful female authors from the ranks and think about the setback for both the publishing world and the feminism world.
Romance is up against a lot. Due to its very nature as a women’s genre, it faces hyper scrutiny, condemnation and patronizing terms, such as trashy books or mommy porn. In reality, romance is about women seeking professional, emotional and physical completion, sometimes sexually, sometimes not. With a genre as vast and far reaching as romance, there is something for everyone.
And while the condescending may look down upon the genre, it promotes female success, powerful female relationships, female sexual agency and high standards for intimacy and relationships. While I may be biased in my position as a reader and writer of the genre, I fail to understand how those themes might be considered lesser than or trashy as anything other than base sexism.
I beseech you to consider these things when next discussing this genre in your pages. While playing James Bond may be a fantasy for young men, looking to books that raise the bar for healthy relationships, that tell women they deserve respect, communication and support, should never have to be a fantasy. Scoffing at romance is not a new phenomenon, it has been around since the days of Austen and clearly we have a far way to go in validating our desire for a genre that represents us as unique individuals who desire, strive, fail and love. I only hope that the New York Times, an institution I follow loyally and have great respect and admiration for, can help make that push.
Thank you very much for your time,