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All the Dumb Things You Can Say About Romance Novels, In One Convenient Place

As you may have guessed from the title, I did not come away from Robert Gottlieb’s romance fiction roundup for The New York Times Book Review in high spirits. Let’s go through it, and I’ll explain why.

(Full disclosure: In addition to being a book reviewer, I’m well embedded in romance fandom, having co-hosted a monthly reading series for the genre for nearly a decade, and while it would be presumptuous of me to call many of the writers covered in Gottlieb’s review friends, I’m acquainted with a number of them closely enough that you should know about it and then make up your own mind about whether there’s any conflict of interest in what I say below.)

I actually didn’t mind the “He! She! They!” shorthand gag Gottlieb used to reduce the Julia Quinn Regency under consideration to a few tropes. Yes, it’s a bit condescending and reductive, but it’s not that much different than the way many romance novels describe themselves in their back cover copy, and if this were the actual framework of the entire article, a running gag as it were, maybe Gottlieb could make his critique work, piling clichés one atop another to humorously cascading effect. It still wouldn’t make romance fans very happy, of course, but if he picked genuinely generic books, it could be a reasonably clever approach.

So of course he abandons it quickly—but not before applying it to a Cheris Hodges contemporary romantic suspense novel. Although Gottlieb is already starting to tire of his own premise, not quoting from Hodges nearly as much as he quoted from Quinn, except when it comes to cherrypicking some phrases describing sexual pleasure he can ridicule. (And, granted, “[her] knees quivered and shook as if she were on the San Andreas Fault in the middle of an earthquake” is a bit silly, and as an editor myself, the sort of thing I might have flagged for discussion if it came up in a manuscript, though leaving the final decision in the author’s hands.)

But then there’s this gem: “Zoe and Carver are African-Americans, though except for some scattered references to racial matters, you’d never know it.” Now that’s an interesting comment to make—and, sure, as Toni Morrison’s former editor, Gottlieb isn’t exactly a complete noob when it comes to African-American culture. But declaring that Hodge’s characters don’t seem very African-American raises a question: How should African-American characters behave to sufficiently convey their African-Americanness to readers? And that, readers, is a question that leads to few if any good answers, especially not from 86-year-old white men.

Now, the New York Times may not be the only place an 86-year-old white man get away with saying a black woman’s characters don’t seem very black to him without anybody in the editorial chain chiming in about whether this literally gratuitous swipe is really necessary to the overarching theme of the essay. But it’s a place where this sort of thing is not uncommon. (Those of us with particularly long memories may think back to the time Ward Just, reviewing Stephen L. Carter’s debut novel, seemed genuinely amazed at how the black bourgeoisie comported itself.)

Moving on: For the third book, Gottlieb can’t even work up the energy to do the “He/She” bit, going straight to “They,” noting that Catherine Anderson romances have multiple plotlines, including romances featuring older couples, and “lots of comfortable details about food.” Oh, and this one is set “in Montana, where we often are in books like these, unless we’re in Wyoming or Colorado.”

Now, a critic who really wanted to dig into a body of literature might ask himself, what does it mean when a number of authors choose to set their fiction in a particular part of the United States? Is there a cultural assertion being made? An attempt to focus on people who feel left out of a “literary” canon that frequently focuses on the urban experience? Is it a convenient hook for a particular type of plot, or an avenue to write about a particular landscape? You could ask all sorts of questions, reaching back to Janet Dailey’s project of writing at least one romance for all fifty states.

Or you could just say a lot of these books are set in Montana, except when they’re set in some other state that’s kind of like Montana as far as you’re concerned. (Here, one wishes one could report that Robert Gottlieb was the New Yorker editor who commissioned Saul Steinberg’s famous “View of the World from 9th Avenue” cover, but he was still editing Toni Morrison at Knopf back then, and wouldn’t take over the magazine for nearly a decade to come.)

(And here one pauses to note that, though it may be hard to tell now and will probably be even harder by the time we’re done, I actually do have no small admiration for Robert Gottlieb, and his tenure at The New Yorker, though contentious from the start, has much to recommend it, if you ever dive into the archives.)

“A View of the World from 9th Avenue” (detail)

Anyway, from these three examples, Gottlieb moves on to a broad assertion: “The hundreds of romance novels… just published or due to appear in the next few months essentially fall into two categories.” You’ve got your Regency romances, which are all basically descended from Georgette Heyer, and you’ve got “contemporary young-woman-finding-her-way stories,” which have all been downhill since 1958, when Rona Jaffe published The Best of Everything.

Where to begin? Let’s simply note a few other categories that exist: romantic suspense, paranormal romances, inspirational romances, Amish romances (which are, I think, sufficiently distinct from inspirational romances to count as their own field), LGBTQ romances, military-themed romances (which often overlap with romantic suspense, but not always), historical romances that aren’t set in England’s Regency period…

I mention that last category because, confronted with a Joanna Shupe novel set in Gilded Age New York, Gottlieb promptly takes that square peg and jams it into the round hole he’s already made for himself, dismissing it as “Regency in all but chronology.”

And, okay, let’s concede the possibility that Shupe’s Gilded Age romance may share certain dramatic beats with other Regency romances. Is that really, however, the most salient thing one might have to say about it? Or might one ask why authors, and readers, are so drawn to a historical period spanning anywhere from nearly a decade to more than four, depending on whose definition of “Regency era” you use? Why do they find it such a relevant setting? And what might the decision to set a romance novel in late 19th-century America mean? Is there cultural significance to be gleaned from that? Are there implications for what such novels might have to say about political concerns, or about gender relations?

Or you could just say historical romances are all alike, the way all those books that are set somewhere out in flyover territory are all alike.

In fact, Gottlieb does go on to claim all historical romances are alike, in that they are “guaranteed to end up in marital (often ducal) heaven,” and that the only innovation that has been brought to the genre since the days of Heyer is “the relentless application of highly specific sex scenes featuring his ‘hardened rod’ and her orgasm.” You never would have seen such attention to orgasmic pleasure in a romance even just twenty years ago, he claims—and here, because my serious fandom is only about twelve years old, I would invite someone with greater experience in the genre to weigh in, but I seem to recall, from my reading of Michele Jaffe’s The Stargazer in 2000, that historical romance was already well-acquainted with explicit content back then.

Gottlieb just can’t let go of this sex thing, though. “No orgasm, solo or in tandem, we should note, graces the pages of the most prolific and successful romance queen of all time, Barbara Cartland… No Cartland heroine ever came into contact with a hardened rod.” Well, one might ask, what of it? What historical or cultural forces might account for that, or for a subsequent shift in subject matter? Should we, as modern readers, even care that modern writers are writing about sex in ways Barbara Cartland did not? To me, that seems about as silly as poking D.H. Lawrence in the chest and saying, “See here, Davey, what do you think you’re playing at? Thomas Hardy never had to put the word cock in any of his books, you know. Unless he was talking about a proper woodcock.” Or maybe Henry Miller: “Look, William Dean Howells was able to write perfectly fine critiques of modern society without ever mentioning fucking. Why can’t you do that?”

By all means, though, let’s titter at women writing about sexuality and its physical experience in explicit ways. It’s no longer quite acceptable for us to laugh at the idea that women can write novels at all, but at least we can get a good chuckle at the notion that they might have something to say about sex.

(I am undoubtedly being uncharitable to Gottlieb, who, as the editor of Doris Lessing and Nora Ephron, among others, surely knows a thing or two about the feminist perspective. I can only plead that Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing has made me particularly sensitive to such matters.)

Moving on: Nora Roberts’s books are “sensibly written and on the whole as plausible as genre novels can be,” which is about the nicest thing he has to say about anything covered in this entire article: “I remember being struck some years ago by her common sense about what women want, need, and deserve.” Here, one might drily remark on Gottlieb’s expertise on the subject of “what women want, need, and deserve,” but that would truly be uncharitable, so instead we’ll just note how he seems to feel it’s worth mentioning that women in contemporary romances aren’t content to be worker-drones anymore—why, some of them even own their own businesses! And they have friends!

I am not, I think, the best qualified person to analyze the phenomenon of the male writer who has decided that he is more feminist than modern romance fiction, if not the very women who write it, but I gladly offer the subject up for anyone else who cares to address it in more detail.

Instead, let’s look at “the biggest phenomenon in recent romance,” the “S&M predilections” of E.L. James and the Fifty Shades books, the first of which officially came out six years ago. “James has been derided for her less-than-sterling prose,” Gottlieb writes, “but mostly by readers — Salman Rushdie is one — who I doubt are familiar with the standard romance literature: E. L. James is no better or worse a writer than most of her compeers.”

Now here I really must object. And I qualify my remarks by noting that I was never able to actually finish even one of the Fifty Shades books, let alone the entire trilogy, let alone the spinoff. (Look, I read all three of Stieg Larsson’s shitty Girl books back to back to back, so I’ve taken my hits, believe me.) What I have read of James, though, is significantly worse than most other romance I’ve read, particularly most other contemporary romances I’ve read, and especially most other erotic romances I’ve read.

And even if my reading is particularly limited and James’s prose really is on a par with her compeers, as Ted Sturgeon famously pointed out, “Ninety percent of everything is crap.” Do you judge a body of literature by its failures, by its mediocrities, or by its successes? And if you say that Fifty Shades must be a success because look how many copies it sold, I would observe that a century before E.L. James’s rise to stardom, America’s best-selling novelist was probably Gene Stratton-Porter, and let’s not pretend just about every one of us doesn’t need to look her up on Wikipedia now.

But did James really change romance all that much, Gottlieb asks? “If this season’s crop of romances is anything to go by, there’s no general rush to the whip,” which is to say, Gottlieb has read a bunch of novels that are not erotic romances, found no kinky sex in them, and from that determined that romance has not been overrun by kinky sex—although, he concedes, “E. L. James and a few other spankers may have both stirred up a vast market and satisfied it.

Now, “a few other spankers” may or may not be as dismissive and condescending as the bit where Cheris Hodges doesn’t write her black characters black enough; I leave that for the “spanker” writers to sort out amongst themselves. But it’s not not dismissive and condescending, and it ignores the substantial gains, on both the commercial and literary fronts, that erotic romance and flat-out erotica have made in the last half-decade and, going by what I’ve seen at my monthly reading series, will continue apace for the forseeable future.

And, again, a more interesting critic might do well to ask why explicitly erotic content, depicting various forms of unconventional relationships, has gained any sort of foothold in the contemporary romance field. What audiences do such books speak most clearly to? What needs or desires do such books address? What, if anything, do such books inspire?

Instead, though, let’s just observe that, deep down, Fifty Shades is nothing more than another conventional, generic romance where “yet again we have the girl of modest circumstances winning today’s equivalent of the duke, the multimillionaire … and yet again we have the girl of empathy and generosity curing the tormented man…. Spanking apart, it’s the same old song.

Let’s skip over the one-paragraph breeze through three Debbie Macomber books, and the four-paragraph stroll through Danielle Steel’s latest, and focus on Gottlieb’s big wrap-up: Romance, a genre where you can write about anything from Regency England to whips (and chains) to young men with Down syndrome! (And here an editor at the Times really should have mentioned to Gottlieb that “fish tacos” might have unintentionally humorous connotations in a list of romance-worthy topics.) “Its readership is vast,” Gottlieb cheers, “its satisfactions apparently limitless, its profitability incontestable. And its effect? Harmless, I would imagine. Why shouldn’t women dream?

Oh, really, Mr. Gottlieb? Can women dream? Can they? Would that be all right, if women were to dream?

Okay, that was almost certainly uncharitable on my part, but come on now. You’ve just spent roughly 3,000 words, give or take a hundred here or there, on a cross-section of the genre that pretty much keeps New York book publishing in business, and the best you can come up with is that it’s “harmless”? Or, rather, that you imagine it’s harmless?

Here we encounter the familiar notion that romance, for that matter popular fiction in general, is nothing more than cultural filler. It’s not as if popular fiction has the capacity to change one’s life for the better, not like real literature. I could probably speak at length about how this is a terrible model for how cultural reception works in the real world, but, heck, I’m already closing in at 2,500 words myself, and I can see the finish line from here, so I’m just going to confine myself to the immediate rebuttals, if that’s okay.

And roll my eyes at the notion that the reading women of America have been given permission to 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?

First, let’s note the lazy parallel between “James Bond” as a male fantasy and “romance” as a female fantasy, and the implication that these are the only two types of fantasy available—that you can dream of being the Great White Hunter, so to speak, or the Happy (possibly [petit] bourgeois) Housewife. As if women were not a significant segment of the mystery/thriller readership, including the political thriller, and as if there were not a substantial crossover sector of books that incorporate romance and political thriller elements.

Second, let’s note that, at least judging by the track record of what gets reviewed in the New York Times and other outlets on a regular basis, and how it’s reviewed, historically speaking, yes, “fantasies of violence and danger” are considered “more respectable” than “fantasies of courtship and female self-empowerment.” (There’s an entire organization, VIDA, that keeps track of such things, though generally with a broader focus on a purely male/female split, along with many other observers who do so informally and can speak to the coverage of particular genres.) Now, if you want to argue against this imbalance, and Gottlieb gives at least a cursory impression that he might, maybe something more than a rhetorical question after oscillating between put-downs and damnings-with-faint-praise might be called for. Maybe.

Third, let’s note that “courtship and female self-empowerment” are positioned as fantasy objects roughly as attainable for the modern woman as a life of “violence and danger” is for the modern man. When, in fact, relationships that unfold in emotionally and physically fulfilling ways and self-empowering development on both the personal and professional level should probably be considered baseline expectations for the modern American woman, not dream lives. (And, for that matter, they should be baseline expectations for the modern American man, but that’s another topic for another day.)

Frankly, there are times when, if I knew more about the field, I would be inclined to argue that, far from harmless, the romance novel may in fact be a radical genre—that instead of mindlessly satiating women’s fantasies, it has encouraged them to dream bigger dreams and to pursue them. And that if, now, those bigger dreams include not just emotionally and economically satisfying work, not just fulfilling romantic relationships, but mind-blowing sex in the bargain, with a cure for toxic masculinity on the side, then so be it.

Really, though, I’m basically a casual fan. I can tell you what I like about the romances I read, but it would be unfair of me to claim too much expertise in the field. There are any number of romance writers and readers who can speak to the subject better than I can; I usually steer people to Sarah Wendell or Sarah MacLean, who can point to even more fantastic resources.

(Although if you want reading recommendations, that I can do, and I’m around Twitter pretty regularly. Just keep in mind that, as a male romance reader, my tastes may not be typical.)

Anyway, here we are at the end, and I should apologize: The headline says Gottlieb’s roundup had “all the dumb things you can say about romance novels,” and that wasn’t true.

He didn’t make any jokes about Fabio being on the covers.