October 4, 2017

Romance readers are not in love with the New York Times


This past weekend, the New York Times Book Review ran a front-page article titled “In the Mood for Love.” It was a round-up of romance novels publishing this autumn, written by Robert Gottlieb. Gottlieb is best known as an editor, having led at Simon & Schuster, Knopf, and the New Yorker, and worked with authors including Michael Crichton and Toni Morrison.

Given his more literary credentials, some might say that he’s an odd choice to review a fiction genre known for its stories about women’s relationships and lives. And yeah — a lot of people said exactly that. In the “Reader Center”, a Times column meant to help bridge the gap between the paper’s editors and their audience, editor Radhika Jones recognizes a selection of responses the paper received from readers of the column:

Thank goodness someone undertook the thankless task of mansplaining the romance genre to me! — Cait Reynolds, Boston, in a comment

Mr. Gottlieb, maybe you should stick to writing about subjects you understand. Obviously romance writing doesn’t fall into your realm. These books are written by and for millions of women who enjoy them. — Nancy Johnson, Raleigh, N.C., in a comment

Idea: Have a writer who actually likes AND reads romance write your romance recommendation articles, @nytimes — Tina Gower, via Twitter

Next time the NYT wants to run a “roundup” of romance novels, perhaps they will enlist a writer who actually knows something about the genre. And with millions of romance fans out there, that shouldn’t be too hard. — D. Finken, Chicago, in a comment

Romance readers are mad, and rightly so. While there is nothing wrong with a man reviewing romance—Ron Hogan is a perfect example of an ally of the genre—Gottlieb reveals himself to be uneducated about romance novels, and writes about them in such a misogynistic, dismissive, and condescending manner, that I, too, got hot under the collar. And not because of his insistently excerpting the novels’ sex scenes.

Where to start? Here’s a sampling of grievances:

(Note: to be sure, there are many more than what I list below.  Amanda Diehl over at BookRiot does a great job of unpacking them all. You should read it.)

Gottlieb claims that in the hundreds of romance novels due to be published over the next few months, there are only two categories: Regency, and “contemporary-young-woman-finding-her-way stories.” Anyone who bothers to take one look at a romance department in a bookstore would see this is not the case; there are westerns, paranormal, LGBTQ, military, Amish, erotica, romantic suspense… the list goes on.

About Nora Roberts, one of the most famous American romance writers with 215 novels under her belt, Gottlieb writes, “Her books are sensibly written and on the whole as plausible as genre novels can be. I remember being struck some years ago by her common sense about what women want, need and deserve.” Wow! Misogynistic much, Gottlieb? I’d wager that what women want, need, and deserve, besides an extra 20.4 cents, is not to be spoken down to by an eighty-six-year-old man who somehow thinks he’s an authority on the subject. There is no blanket statement about what women need — we all want different things. Some want a man and a dog and kids and a yard. Some want a woman and a dog and kids and a yard. Some want to live alone forever. Some want a career, some don’t. Some want to imagine what’s it’s like to be in a relationship with a sexy vampire or brooding werewolf and aren’t looking for plausibility in their romance novel, dude.

Throughout his article, Gottlieb’s choice of words and use of italics amount to a condescending device; it reads as if he’s dismissively saying, “Aw, look at what the girls have made — how cute.”  When describing a sex scene at one point, he says, “Now that’s Romance” (no, really). Describing characters: “Maggie and Owen — both bosses.” About Barbara Cartland, a very successful romance author foundational to the genre: “Barbara knew where her readers wanted the line drawn.” He describes Debbie Macomber—an author who has sold 200 million books—as “adorable.” He calls Eloisa James sexy. When explaining that Danielle Steel is the fourth-best-selling writer of fiction in history (or better, herstory, thank you)—behind Agatha Christie, Shakespeare, and Cartland he says: “Surprise!” All of this is to say that Gottlieb writes this article—this article that is the cover story of the most famous book review section in the world—as if utterly incredulous that romance has the ability to be successful, profitable, and beloved by millions. Rude.

So yeah, the outrage that flamed on Twitter, in the blogosphere, in the comments section of the Times’ piece — it was warranted. As we’ve written before, romance has often been mocked and discredited. As Sarah Wendell writes beautifully over at Smart Bitches Trashy Novels, it’s been a decades-long struggle to get any sort of mainstream attention for romance novels. So, this is a start. But women deserve more. Gottlieb’s piece isn’t just offensive to and dismissive of romance novels; it’s offensive to and dismissive of women, and our fantasies, and our ability to be successful novelists who deserve to be recognized—and critically reviewed—with respect.

If the Times is going to act as if they respect the genre enough to give it a front page article, they should also respect it enough to assign a writer who’s knowledgeable and takes it seriously. Otherwise, it all comes off as one big joke, everyone laughing at the expense of women who dare to indulge and explore.

Gottlieb closes his article by asking, “Its readership is vast, its satisfactions apparently limitless, its profitability incontestable. And its effect? Harmless, I would imagine. Why shouldn’t women dream?” Once again, he dismisses women’s dreams, here by labeling them as non-threatening. But I would argue that the romance novels of today, and of previous generations, have given women a kind of power and strength, a recognition and ownership of their own bodies and fantasies that threatens a certain kind of man. Nasty women, indeed.



Stephanie DeLuca is the director of publicity at Melville House.