Point of reference: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/26/books/review/macomber-steel-james-romance.html (opens in a new tab or window)
Bravely Angélique accepts her fate, and settles in to her new life of service. But when she rejects the advances of a salacious young master, she’s fired — without a reference! Therefore no domestic work for her in England, and when she tries France, she has no better luck there. Down and out in Paris and London, knowing no one and with nothing but her pouch between her and destitution, what does this pure, delicate flower of the aristocracy do? Just what you or I would do: Practically overnight, she opens what rapidly becomes the most elegant, successful bordello in Paris (preserving her own virtue, needless to say). Then on to America, marriage to a hugely rich lawyer who dies (of plot), leaving her with a dear little boy and a fortune. Meanwhile, her wicked half brother has overspent, so has to sell Belgrave Castle, which she secretly buys … and so forth.
Would you laugh at the above? I know I will. I did.
This article had raised plenty of ire among the online romance community a week or so ago, and yes, I only mention this now because I do not want to be sucked into the heated arguments taking place at that time, especially when my opinion is clearly that in the minority: I actually love the article by Robert Gottlieb. It’s hilarious, it’s on point, and it’s exactly what I’d imagine to be written by someone who does not read romance on a regular basis. The only part which I find objectionable, and that’s even if I’m trying very hard to be offended, is the last paragraph:
This retro venture, flatly written like all Steel’s books, is just further evidence of how romance can swing any which way. Regency, psychopaths, wedding planners, ranchers, sadists, grandmas, bordellos, dukes (of course); whips, fish tacos, entails, Down syndrome, recipes, orgasms — romance can absorb them all, which suggests it’s a healthy genre, not trapped in inflexibility. 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. Are fantasies of violence and danger really more respectable than fantasies of courtship and female self-empowerment? Or to put it another way, are Jonathan’s Bolognese and Cam’s cucumber salsa any sillier than “Octopussy’s” Alfa Romeo and Bond’s unstirred martinis?
There is a “let the women have their fun” vibe that may be offensive to some, but I’m personally in love with the second sentence in the paragraph. It’s a beautiful encapsulation of disdain and awe at the genre. And there is no lie here, if I think about it. Why shouldn’t women dream, indeed?
Many comments in the article and the follow-up entry by the editor of the book review section call out Mr Gottlieb and his editor for their insulting attitude, and I can see where they are coming from. But I personally feel that this article actually does more good than bad, especially when you compare it to outright sneering articles about the genre out there.
Mr Gottlieb is not lying. Notice that he uses quotes and premises of actual plots for his punchlines. The genre supplies the rope for him to make the noose, so to speak. I’ve said this before in my review of that silly, pretentious Maya Rodale book: we cannot act outraged when people poke fun at the actual mess in our house; if we want to be seen as respectable as we claim we are, then we need to clean our house first before we sputter at people pointing out the mess. And let’s face it: the genre can be as absurd as he claims. The idiot heroines, the plot that often revolves about female stupidity and martyrdom, often hilarious exaggeration of masculine traits when it comes to the hero (we should be grateful, or disappointed if you were me, that Mr Gottlieb didn’t pick up an urban fantasy romance where the heroes are so ridiculously over the top; the poor man may end up getting a heart attack), and so forth – these are all going to seem absurd to people unfamiliar with the genre.
Put it another way: we all acknowledge Kathleen E Woodiwiss to be one of the grand doyennes of the genre, and we honor her accomplishments as well as her books. This is not a secret: one only has to go to the RWA website to know this. But how would you think a non-romance reader would react if we make him or her read one of Ms Woodiwiss’s books?
“But her books were written in the 1970s and 1980s!” you may say. “The genre has changed since then!”
One, it will be natural for a non-romance reader to gravitate to the “masters” of a genre he or she is not familiar with to dip the toes in. For example, a sci-fi novice may pick up Isaac Asimov’s books from the library to see what sci-fi is about. So, it is normal for one to do the same when it comes to romance. So, are we going to hide Ms Woodiwiss’s affiliation with the genre? Two, while the excessive and politically incorrect aspects of the genre have been removed or downplayed over the decades, many things remain, noticeably the double standards with regards to male sexuality versus female sexuality. And trust me, these double standards will stand out at once to many readers outside the genre, and I bet you that Mr Gottlieb’s article would be even more hilarious/offensive (delete where applicable) if he had gotten his hands on any of the current new adult stories or those gay romances where we have gay guys obviously playing male/female roles with little regards to actual, real life gay relationship dynamics. The romance novels he had his hands on – historical romances, more old school contemporary romances – are the most benign of the lot.
And here’s the thing: such books sell and are beloved. Maybe not by me all the time, maybe not by you too, but the sales reflect the fact that there are many readers who enjoy these things. What Mr Gottlieb find amusing or absurd resonate with these readers, and that’s always a good thing. That’s what, I feel, he is trying to say in his last paragraph of the article. I don’t even find his comparison of female empowerment to James Bond fantasies offensive, because feminism in romance novels has almost never been treated in an intelligent manner. More often than not, it is an excuse for the heroine to run wild, get herself into trouble, and then need the hero to rescue her. So in that context, yes, romance novel feminism is comparable to James Bond fantasies. But if the majority of the fans in the genre love it and other more ridiculous standard tropes of the genre, is this a bad thing?
If we say no, then why is it wrong for Mr Gottlieb to notice these tropes and find them as absurd as we often find them to be too? He’s writing for a book review column; it’s not his job to promote the genre or write lovingly about it.
Wait, you may say, the editor should have assigned the column to someone who understands romance.
Like who, I will ask back. A romance author? One of the big bloggers in the genre? Then we will get painfully self-conscious “This is awesome! Everything is awesome!” puff pieces like those in NPR that even I couldn’t stomach for more than two paragraphs before going “Meh!” and clicking on another link. Puff pieces are for romance authors and romance readers to feel good. They do little for non-romance readers.
Articles like Mr Gottlieb’s, like it or not, has flavor, color, and it will keep folks, especially non-romance readers, reading to the last paragraph. This is a good thing, in my opinion. Anything that gets a casual person to pick up a romance novel, if even it’s to laugh at it, is a good thing. I’ve had many people tell me over the years that they don’t read romance novels, but my reviews amused them enough that they sometimes picked one up out of curiosity (especially with how cheap the digital editions are these days, with all the sales and what not), and some of them end up fans of certain authors. I’d like to imagine that this article will do the same with casual readers out there. Mr Gottlieb is the right guy for this: it’s an article that will pique the interest of non-romance readers, because he is one of them, and he describes the genre in a colorful “Oh, my!” way that will intrigue them into checking some of those books out.
If he acts like the genre is all high art, then these readers will pick up a new adult story and get so disgusted that they will never give the genre another look again.
Many of us will laugh at what Mr Gottlieb has written if it wasn’t apparent that he is an outsider and, worse, he is a man. I personally feel that, instead of being outraged each time someone points out the more uncomfortable truths of the absurdities in the genre, we are better off accepting these absurdities ourselves, admit that they are what make our beloved genre so much of what it is, and tell him, “Yes, romance novels can be such silliness, but that’s why we love them! If you think they are hilarious, check out any urban fantasy with ten hot immortal guys looking for mates.” And then we add in some bait, something like, “But there are also authors like so and so who are more down to earth; if you like this mainstream fiction author, maybe you will like that so and so.” That’s probably a more effective way to get any point across other than to go the standard outrage mode of casting aspersions on Mr Gottlieb’s character and motives. Especially when he’s not lying about the more over the top tropes in the genre.
Anyway, my point is that we can celebrate the best parts as well as the absurd parts of romance, accept them, and stop behaving like romance is this perfect genre that cannot be criticized. Our honesty will attract more casual readers to the genre, and I think we can all agree that this can be a good thing indeed.