First of all, the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded to Kazuo Ishiguro. This is not a name I was hoping for (my personal Nobel Prize wishlist is topped by Ursula K. Le Guin, Margaret Atwood and Thomas Pynchon), but it’s one I’m pretty happy with. And though most reports focussed mainly on The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro has also committed science fiction with Never Let Me Go in 2011 and fantasy with The Buried Giant in 2016, so that’s another occasional writer of speculative fiction to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Regarding other Nobel Prize for Literature winners writing SFF, I recently saw a report about a new play by Elfriede Jelinek, the Austrian writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2004. In the new play, Miss Piggy comments on Donald Trump being elected president of the US, which IMO qualifies as speculative fiction (for Miss Piggy, since Trump’s election is sadly reality). However, the report also reminded me that Jelinek’s 1995 novel Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead) is a bonafide zombie novel.
However, science fiction and fantasy are not actually the genres that are most scorned by the literary establishment or what passes for it. Romance novels get a lot more crap than SFF. And so last week, I blogged about the infuriatingly condescending romance novel column in the New York Times and also linked to some other reactions to that column.
After I wrote that post, my mind was busy with other things, mainly being mad at Star Trek Discovery (and I have more to say about that), so I didn’t follow up on the romance discussion, if only because “There’s new Star Trek on TV/a TV-like medium and it’s crap”, while not exactly unexpected, is still something that hasn’t happened since 2005. Whereas “old white dude is clueless and condescending about romance novels” is something that happens every other week or so. So I didn’t think of the romance post again, until I started getting hits from this Metafilter thread and noticed that the debate was still raging on.
For starters, the New York Times was apparently surprised by the amount of negative reaction their new romance review column got (well, if anybody on their staff had a clue about romance novels and romance readers, they wouldn’t have been surprised) and published a response by Radhika Jones, who is apparently the editorial director of the New York Times books section. And once more, Radhika Jones shows that the New York Times just doesn’t get why people were outraged at the romance novel column.
She starts off her response by listing the impressive credits of Robert Gottlieb, the man who wrote the article, as if those who criticised Mr. Gottlieb’s take on romance fiction are unable to google the man, even though plenty of responses to the article mentioned that Mr. Gottlieb is clearly highly accomplished, he just doesn’t have a clue about the current state of the romance genre. And no, reading the occasional romance novel to snicker at the sex scenes does not count.
Radhika Jones then continues by explaining that the New York Times publishes reviews by critics, not by fans. First of all, this remark is condescending, because everybody knows that there is a difference between a critic’s review in the New York Times and fan review on Goodreads. However, the other genre review columns in the New York Times are written by highly accomplished critics (N.K. Jemisin for science fiction and fantasy and Marilyn Stasio for mystery and crime fiction) who actually like the genre in question and are knowledgeable about its current state. Nor did anybody suggest that the New York Times hire a random romance fan, but that they hire a critic who actually understands the genre and manages to write about without resorting to condescension as well as sexist and racist remarks.
Finally, Radhika Jones also publishes an e-mail in which someone complains that the New York Times chose to review romance novels at all, rather than “intellectual discourse about books with some relevance to the cultural time we live in”. Yeah, because people navigating inequality and gender issues to form equal relationships based on mutual respect is so irrelevant to the culture of our time. The gist behind publishing that e-mail and the whole response in general is clear: Romance readers, be grateful for the crumbs we throw to you, especially since you’re too stupid to know better anyway.
Via the Metafilter thread, I also found some good responses to the New York Times romance column that I’d missed in my last post, such as Amanda Diehl’s great point by point rebuttal of Robert Gottlieb’s article at Book Riot.
At Melville House, Stephanie DeLuca also responds to both Robert Gottlieb’s original article and Radhika Jones’ response to those criticising the article and points out that, contrary to what Robert Gottlieb seems to think, there is no such thing as “what women want”, because women are not a monolith and neither is the romance genre. Coincidentally, it’s also telling that Melville House, an independent publisher specialising in literary fiction and not a company I would have expected to champion genre fiction, gets what the problem with Robert Gottlieb’s article is, while the New York Times doesn’t.
Romance authors Lauren Layne also offers a defence of the romance genre and wonders why non-romance readers, often men like Robert Gottlieb, still feel the need to bash romance. Lauren Layne also takes issue with Gottlieb’s assessment that romance novels may be a bit naff, but are probably “harmless”. And indeed Gottlieb’s conclusion that romance novels are harmless is one of the most criticised points about a generally awful article. Not surprisingly, because that whole paragraph is practically dripping with condecension. “Well, those stupid little women are reading stupid little books full of sex, but have no fear, menfolk, those books are mostly harmless, since they won’t tax the poor little women’s brains too much and will still leave them time to do housework and pop out babies.”
At Twitter, romance author Alyssa Cole, whose recent historical romance An Extraordinary Union is exactly the sort of romance novel you’d hope the New York Times would cover, takes issue with Robert Gottlieb’s blatantly racist dismissal of Deadly Rumors, a romantic suspense novel featuring black characters by Cheris Hodge, a writer of colour, because the characters apparently don’t behave the way Robert Gottlieb believes black people behave. Considering that Robert Gottlieb used to edit Toni Morrison, as the New York Times was only too eager to inform us, I wonder if he ever said something like this to Toni Morrison. And if he did, did she deck him?
In my last post on this subject, I already linked to a tweet by Jen, a romance blogger at The Book Queen, who compared Robert Gottlieb’s condescending column to the various strategies outlined in How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ and found that Gottlieb employed the full Russ bingo card. Now Jen has storified her Twitter rant with additional under the title “Man at the New York Times Explains Romance To Me”.
Also at Twitter, Rebekah Weatherspoon explains that what infuriates her most about articles like Robert Gottlieb’s is the blatant way in which the importance of love – not just romantic love, but also familial love, platonic love, close friendships – is dismissed as trivial, even though human beings whither and die, if they don’t get enough love. She also talks about how uplifting and happy stories are dismissed, while tragic stories are considered important. Hence, tripe like Erich Segal’s Love Story or Nicholas Sparks’ entire output is considered literature, while romance novels that end happily are dismissed as trivial.
It’s probably no surprise that between approx. 2006 and 2013, when the grimdark trend in science fiction and fantasy was at its peak, I almost completely abandoned the SFF genre for romance novels, because there at least I could get stories which valued women’s voices and experiences and didn’t just treat them as disposable victims and which offered a positive worldview. And since those years were also the height of popularity of paranormal romance and romantic urban fantasy, I could even get my SFF fix, complete with true love, women with agency and happy endings. For that matter, is it really coincidence that speculative romances experienced a surge in popularity just as science fiction and fantasy took a plunge into grimdark despair?