Relationships and Romance

Breaking news: readers aren’t all looking for the same story

A recent article in the New York Times featured a round-up of upcoming romance novels. Of course, they chose to have a man write this article, despite the fact that authors and publishers of these novels are often women. My twitter feed was up in arms over the condescending way the article was written. It screamed “Oh, look how cute these stories are for these cute, harmless women.”

Along with unnecessary use of quotes in a way that seemed to mock the writing, the article showed a lack of comprehension for the genre itself, despite the author–Robert Gottlieb–having an extensive publishing background.

For one, Gottlieb designated two sub-genres: Regency and Modern Romance. The two things that separate these subgenres, in the authors opinion, is the obvious variation in setting and that Regency heroines have no goals beyond marriage while Modern Romance women want to have a career too. Forget any other driving factors women may have in their life. Forget paranormal romance or suspense novels, whose format and character motivations tend to be drastically different than the two options we’re presented with above.

“I remember being struck some years ago by her common sense about what women want, need and deserve. Unlike her leading competitors’ heroines, for whom the ultimate goal remained scoring the ideal mate, a Nora Roberts heroine was encouraged not only to score him but also to find a satisfying career path in life: It wasn’t either/or, it was both — and he’d better adjust to it!”

Based on the tone of the article, I’m surprised the author has any idea what women want at all or that he’d be able to identify it in a book. Nora Roberts books are full of rich stories of families and belonging as much as they are finding career dreams and love. I’d argue many Nora Roberts heroines don’t want romantic love as much as they want familial closeness.

At another point I found myself grasping my pearls in shock and horror when Gottlieb claimed that all romance novelists are equal in writing ability. He claimed that the uproar about E.L. James’ “less-than-sterling prose” was due to storied authors who had higher standards for literature, but that James is “no better or worse a writer than most of her compeers.”

I have so much I can say about The Fifty Shades trilogy. But it is empirically bad writing. To compare Nora Roberts’ vivid characterizations or Tessa Dare’s witty banter to James’ repetitive and unimaginative writing is an insult to the wonderful breadth and depth of writing available in the romance genre. (It’s here that I’d like to clarify that I enjoyed James’ books, but using the common knowledge that Anastasia’s inner goddess is one of the most annoying authorial creations in romance to deride the genre itself is cheap and shows a total lack of comprehension of the wide world of romance novels.)

Beyond the many minute aggravations of the article, it raised the realization for me that Gottlieb appears to have no idea that people read with different goals. His whole article seems predicated on the notion that people who read romance do so to fulfill some missing fantasy life, especially the sexual aspect. Gottlieb is obsessed with the sex scenes of the novels he’s reviewing, as if there’s nothing else of substance in the books. (Is this the time to remind everyone of the panel on how different authors write sex scenes, which didn’t include a single female novelist?) The female gender is a monolith in Gottlieb’s opinion. We all want the same things for the same reasons.

At this point in my romance-reading life, I skip over most sex scenes, expecting that I’ve read it before. Witty banter and angst-filled reunions are my favorite aspects of the genre, which is the reason the “secret baby” trope is my romance cat nip. People read for different reasons. They want different things. This leads them to different genres, and romance undeniably has more variation within it than any other type of writing.

Maybe you’re driven by plot, dialogue, rhythm, escape, etc. That’s OK. Love the books you love for the reasons you love them. Hate the books I love, and love the books I hate. Just please don’t write insulting, tongue-in-cheek New York Times articles about any of them.

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