Respected editor Robert Gottlieb has written 3000 words of a romance roundup for the New York Times. Let me save you some trouble and quote this bit from the end: “Its readership is vast, its satisfactions apparently limitless, its profitability incontestable. And its effect? Harmless, I would imagine. Why shouldn’t women dream?” This is the kind of approval we women can fucking do without.
Then he adds: “After all, guys have their James Bonds as role models.” Let’s chew over this allusion a bit for digestion’s sake. The Bond fantasy: a handsome, powerful, wealthy man with cutting-edge tech somehow succeeds at world-saving espionage while seducing a string of beautiful women. The romance fantasy: an ordinary woman can find a man who thinks she’s beautiful, and who offers her earnest support and reliable orgasms. Our reviewer believes these two hopes are equally fanciful and unlikely in real life. Honestly it’s a little heartbreaking, a tragedy of lowered expectations.
It is easy to be wrong about romance. It happens like clockwork every Valentine’s Day (which is when I expected to be writing a piece like this). But to be so consistently, condescendingly, creatively wrong about romance takes real talent. Every paragraph merits its own corrective essay – the estimates of the “hundreds, perhaps thousands” of romances to be published this fall, his review of the book that made it clear the characters were black but “you’d never know it” because apparently they act just like normal people, the total absence of m/m or f/f romance to complicate his stuck-in-midcentury gender readings of the genre.
But there is hope for the reviewer yet. Can I tell you what’s really happening here? In the thicket of errors, mistaken assumptions, and Wikipedia-level research, one other pattern comes to the fore: a series of small, subtle hints that Robert Gottlieb is going to end up a romance fan in spite of himself.
At first blush, I admit I bristled too hard at the patronizing tone of the review to see what Robert Gottlieb was really going through. Rage and a righteous zeal made me close-read. By the time I hit that “harmless” for the second time, I wanted only to pat him on the head and tell him, sweetie, it’s okay. You don’t have to be scared. Because you see, romance is only mostly harmless. For a genre that makes its promises upfront, it has a sneaky way of sidling up on a person and making itself indispensable. It will take careful guidance and the right book recommendations for Robert Gottlieb to find his way, but romance readers are as generous with those as a hero is with carnal pleasure. He’s half-seduced already. Though until he’s more experienced in the genre, perhaps he should hand the reviewing reins over to someone more qualified. He means well, but he’s not there yet, poor thing.
Honestly, I can’t say for sure if Robert Gottlieb will take this article to heart. But I hope so. Why shouldn’t a woman dream?