Robert Gottlieb is obviously smitten

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.

  1. He’s quoting the sex scenes at length and with evident relish. This is Stage One of Reluctant Fandom, though admittedly some people never mature past this phase. A great many readers discover romance in our teens – the sex is a key source of fascination, to the point where decades later we can still cite the page numbers where the good bits happen.
  2. He’s most drawn to the romances he can personally identify with. This is how it gets you. I’m not entirely sure Robert Gottlieb is aware this is happening – but he waxes enthusiastic over a midcentury romance set at a publishing house, a book by the daughter of a respected literary poet, and a cozy Christmas romance with an older hero and heroine (admittedly exciting to hear about in this youth-obsessed genre). In this last, he takes a break from quoting sex scenes and starts sharing lines about the food, aka Reluctant Fandom Stage Two. His description of a set of Debbie Macomber books also has that breathless-summary quality of someone who just has to tell you all the crazysauce things that happened in this book he just read. Later he does the same with a new Danielle Steel historical. At this point someone really oughta send him Sherry Thomas’ Delicious, or Prince of Midnight by Laura Kinsale.
  3. He likes Tessa Dare. He starts quoting the heroine’s best lines from The Duchess Deal. He’s so close to getting hooked. I’m on the edge of my seat. Just a little farther, dear, the water’s fine…
  4. But hark, what sound perfumes the languid evening air? It is the siren call of sequelbait, and Robert Gottlieb is helpess to resist: “I’m absolutely certain that lawyer Connie is going to end up with Jonathan of the Bolognese.” Folks, he’s totally going to read the next book in this series.
  5. He’s taking romance moral lessons to heart: “A lick and a nibble are all to the good, but complete honesty is essential. All truths must be told, especially by the man.” We should perhaps expect a bit of irony from someone who used to run the New Yorker, but the fact that he’s already distilling the books into practical moral lessons means he’s farther down the road of internalizing them than he might perhaps care to admit.

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?