Mansplaining the Romance Genre

Mansplaining

Full disclosure: after I post this blog, I’m probably going to go day drink and listen to Aretha’s “Respect” on repeat. Mansplaining romance and erotica has a way of doing that to me.

Yesterday, Robert Gottlieb wrote a round-up of romance novels in the New York Times Book Review.  Frankly, it’s more like he herds an entire genre into the slaughterhouse chute of his wit. But, just like slaughterhouses, his wit is ugly, messy, and not something that ever needed to see the light of day.

Shall we ask why they got a man who doesn’t even work in the genre to do this? Wait, never mind. You know what they say. Ask a stupid question…get a thousand witty answers…

Robert Gottlieb
Robert Gottlieb, mansplainer extraordinaire. Image courtesy of The New York Review of Books.

The whole article can be summed up in this:

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? Robert Gottlieb, NYT Book Review, 9/26/17

This is a man who believes Barbara Cartland is about as steamy as romance should get. (Full disclosure, I love me the occasional BC, and this is not anything against sweet romance.)

No orgasm, solo or in tandem, we should note, graces the pages of the most prolific and successful romance queen of all time, Barbara Cartland, step-grandmother of Princess Diana and author of 723 novels, 160 of them unpublished at her death (just before her 99th birthday) in 2000. Her son is still doling these out, one a month, as “The Pink Collection,” and they are without benefit of sex. The formidable Barbara knew where her readers wanted the line drawn: No Cartland heroine ever came into contact with a hardened rod. Robert Gottlieb, NYT, 9/26/17

Barbara Cartland

You really have to read the rest for yourselves.

Ron Hogan is my new hero. He gives one of the most lucid, point-by-point take-downs of this kind of criticism I’ve ever seen. Read it here and give the man some love. Read the original bit of mansplaining (though, if you have high blood pressure, you may not want to – it’s rage stroke-worthy).

 I will always be the first to say that we do quite a bit of dumb shit to ourselves as writers in the romance/erotica genres, and often, we fully deserve the scorn, teasing, and other pokings through the bars of the cage that we get.

 However, there is a different between pointing out the trite and tropey in a genre and DENIGRATING THE GENRE IN ITS ENTIRETY!

Seriously.

For a guy who has edited Toni Morrison, Nora Ephron, and others, he comes as across as a seriously uninformed dick who delights in “mansplaining” everything that is wrong with a wildly successful genre (that earns enough money to pretty much keep the rest of the industry flourishing and off life support because there are only so many painfully precious lit fic books one can read before wanting to go to a poetry reading and sarcastically catcall the people at the mic) that is dominated by women who for the most part seem to know what they are doing and drive 90% of the innovation in book marketing and sub-genres.

Yes, that monstrosity of a (grammatically-correct!) sentence probably deserves your scorn. Let me try again.

Gottlieb needs to SIT DOWN.

(Strunk and White would be so proud of me for that bit of ruthless editing.)

Sit down!
SIT DOWN, GOTTLIEB!

I also can’t figure out why Gottlieb feels the need to write something this stupid and incendiary. There are a couple of possible reasons:

  1. Early onset dementia;
  2. He’s angling to be Paolo Coehlo’s next editor and needs to edge out the competition;
  3. He really, really wants to retire, but can’t bring himself to quit, so he’s hoping to get fired;
  4. I have no fucking clue…it’s just such a stupid move on his part.

It’s not even tied to the principle of all publicity is good publicity. As an editor and a reviewer, he can indulge in constructive criticism and gentle ribbing all he wants with authors. But to piss them off en bloc? *shrugs* just dumb.

I can’t even go near the whole thing about characters not sounding…well, let me just quote Ron Hogan here, because, like I said…I can’t even…

But then there’s this gem: “Zoe and Carver are African-Americans, though except for some scattered references to racial matters, you’d never know it.” Now that’s an interesting comment to make—and, sure, as Toni Morrison’s former editor, Gottlieb isn’t exactly a complete noob when it comes to African-American culture. But declaring that Hodge’s characters don’t seem very African-American raises a question: How should African-American characters behave to sufficiently convey their African-Americanness to readers? And that, readers, is a question that leads to few if any good answers, especially not from 86-year-old white men. Now, the New York Times may not be the only place an 86-year-old white man get away with saying a black woman’s characters don’t seem very black to him without anybody in the editorial chain chiming in about whether this literally gratuitous swipe is really necessary to the overarching theme of the essay. But it’s a place where this sort of thing is not uncommon. (Those of us with particularly long memories may think back to the time Ward Just, reviewing Stephen L. Carter’s debut novel, seemed genuinely amazed at how the black bourgeoisie comported itself.)

Ron Hogan, “All the Dumb Things You Can Say About Romance Novels in One Convenient Place,” Medium.com, 9/27/17

I’m pretty sure that he will read all the protesting comments and blog posts about this and chuckle to himself at the way all the little ladies out there are overtaxing our tiny, organ-obsessed brains to try and outwit him.

Therefore, I am issuing a challenge to Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr: TAKE DOWN GOTTLIEB. With humor. With memes. Topple him from his throne.

Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your brilliance!

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