Romance Bashing: The New York Times Edition

The New York Times now has a review round-up column for new romance novels, just as it already has one for crime fiction and one for science fiction and fantasy. This is a good thing. However, while the SFF column is written by N.K. Jemisin, a genuine SFF writer and double Hugo winner, and the crime fiction column is written by Marilyn Stasio, a dedicated crime fiction fan and prolific reviewer, i.e. people who know what they’re talking about, the romance column is not penned by someone who has any discernible connection to the romance genre.

The column is here, by the way. And it’s awful. Any cliché and any stupid remark about romance novels and their readers that you can think of, you’ll find it in this column. Old books such as Julia Quinn’s The Duke and I (published in 2000) used as examples to explain the modern romance genre? Check. Obligatory references to Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steel, Nora Roberts and Fifty Shades of Grey? Check. Believing that romances come in only two flavours, regency and boss/secretary contemporaries? Check. Attempting to psychoanalyse romance readers trying to discern what women want and why they read “those books”? Check. General focus on heterosexual romances and heterosexual women? Check. Stupid comment that the race of the central couple in an African American romance has no real bearing on the plot? Check. Reflexively mentioning her father and her day job, when talking about a female romance writer (Eloisa James in this case)? Check. Wasting several paragraphs to sum up a novel that is not a romance in the current definition of the genre? Check. Selectively quoting sex scenes out of context to make them sound silly? Check. Being shocked, oh so shocked, that romance novels contain sex these days? Check.

The author finally ends his article with this little gem:

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.

Geez, isn’t it nice that women are allowed to dream now? How great that men now give women permission to dream? And isn’t it telling that dude who wrote this article considers novels in which women find respectful and supportive partners, who care about their sexual satisfaction, too, as much a fantasy as novels in which James Bond travels the globe, saves the world, has sex with incredibly attractive and implausibly named women and deals with sea monsters, shark attacks, gilded girls and equally extremely implausible things?

And come on, even before you get to the byline and the bio blurb, it’s obvious that the author of the article has to be a man. Because there’s no way anybody but a man – very likely a white cishet man – can be this clueless and at the same time this condescending.

Spoiler: Yes, the author is a man. His name is Robert Gottlieb, he is white, straight and 86 years old. Robert Gottlieb was editor-in-chief at Simon and Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker. He is considered one of the best editors of the 20th century and has penned biographies, memoirs, essay collections and a book about collectible handbags. So in short, Mr. Gottlieb is certainly a gentleman of many accomplishments. However, nothing in his biography suggests that he has ever had anything to do with the romance genre, at least not in the past fifty years or so. And frankly, it shows. Because the column shows that regardless of his many accomplishments, Robert Gottlieb does not have a clue about the romance genre.

In short, this New York Times article is a prime patronising example of “Old white dude mansplains romance”.

So while it’s great that the New York Times finally acknowledges the romance genre, they really could have done much better in their choice of columnist and chosen someone who actually has a clue about the genre (e.g. Eloisa James a.k.a. Mary Bly or Jennifer Crusie or Courtney Milan or Sarah Wendell or… well, the list is endless). As for Mr. Gottlieb, I’m sure the New York Times could have found something for him to write about that’s more within his field of experience.

An article that stupid and condescending of course attracts rebuttals.

At Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, Sarah Wendell is thrilled that the New York Times is finally featuring romance novels – at least, until she read the article and saw what a condescending and mansplaining mess it was. Sarah Wendell also talks to publicists working at romance imprints, who are happy to see their authors featured, but also understandably disappointed about the condescending tone of the article.

Sarah Wendell also links to a great Twitter thread by Jen, a book blogger reviewing at The Book Queen’s Place.

Jen matches Robert Gottlieb’s article against the strategies laid out by Joanna Russ in How to Suppress Women’s Writing and finds that Gottlieb goes for the full bingo card and uses every single one of them.

I also like this rebuttal by Ron Hogan at Medium, who states that Gottlieb’s column collects all the dumb things you can say about romance in a single place and coincidentally also proves that there are men who get the romance genre.

Meanwhile, at the Seattle Review of Books, Olivia Waite discerns some early symptoms of impending romance fandom in Robert Gottlieb’s article. Almost as if he doesn’t want to admit it to himself yet – which is probably why he has to snicker like a 12-year-old boy about the sex scenes – but is well on the way to getting hooked on the genre.

We can but hope, at least if the New York Times plans to continue to let Robert Gottlieb review romance novels.

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