HuffPo Books Disses Romance, Stupid-to-Solar-Power Conversion to Come

What a pity. I had higher hopes for HuffPo’s book section but wow, they were dashed against the rocky shores of sweeping generalization and people who don’t know diddly squat talking out their asses. I mean, how else am I to judge the entire offering of a diverse selection of writers discussing all things book except by judging the whole on a limited and asinine sample, right? Right! Of course!

Alan Elsner went to the library and borrowed a stack of romances. Seems because he wrote a book called “Romance Language” he is often asked if he’d written a “romance novel.” You can see where this is going.

So he borrows a stack and finds his conceptions of the genre were out of date. He then takes the time to carefully list the ways in which romance novels take the romance out of romance.

Well, I suppose it’s only fair that he make such cringe-worthy judgments, since his article takes the quality out of the HuffPo Books section.

The sad part is, aside from some painful and cruel assumptions about romances and the women who read them (hold on to your blood pressure medication), there are some points upon which I agree with Mr. Elsner. He isn’t so far off base with his first assessment – that the female protagonist is usually young, brave, and independent.

But Elsner’s assessment of the hero is monolithic and indicates that when he went a-hunting for romance, he was sadly limited in his selection. Not all heroes are ‘hunky but haughty” “prototypical alpha-males.” Considering that the hero will “find himself way out of his depth when this chit of a girl awakens feelings he’s never known,” I suspect Presents may have been a part of the reading material building this list.

And then he moves on to other commonalities of the romance novel, making sweeping pronouncements that remind me of Dr. Google diagnosing every symptom as meningitis, no matter what symptom it is. No, Mr. Elsner, most of the barriers to the happy ending are not always misunderstandings. Some are sweeping judgments pronounced by someone who ought to know better. No, wait, that would be the happy ending to something else entirely.

And avast, ye hearties, here comes the expected smacks at the genre: the protagonists “are usually exchanging fluids by around page 60. This involves detailed and highly explicit descriptions of kissing, oral sex, mutual masturbation and full penetration. Both parties experience mind-blowing orgasms, described in minute detail.” I’m not sure what to address first, the idea that sexual explication is a bad thing (which it is not) or the myth that romance protagonists knock boots by page 60. In all honestly, this many misconceptions stacked up in ignorant formation just makes me exhausted. But no, there’s more.

Elsner continues on with summaries of the evil characters who try to break up the happy couple with schemes or whatever, and the hero and heroine defeat said evil and live happily ever after, hooray.

Then, alas, my head exploded.

I have nothing against such escapist fiction in principle. And I guess that women have as much right to enjoy pornography packaged to their liking as men. But I simply don’t find these books romantic….

Oh, no. You didn’t.

When does stupid-to-solar-power conversion come out? I could use it to fuel my whole house based on those three sentences alone. 

In the romance novels I have read, love is expressed through sex and only through sex. The fact that the hero and the heroine can provide each other with tremendous orgasms becomes proof positive of their undeniable love for one another. If the sex is that good, the love must be real.

Actually, sir, there we agree. I find the books that express the emotional complexity of human relations through the congress of nookie to be tiresome and hate that so much of what is erotic narrative is presented as romance and sold as such, because it is not. One good orgasm does not a happily ever after make, despite many insistent books packaged as “romance” to the contrary. I wonder at the list of books Mr. Elsner took home with him, because that which we consider to be excellent romance avoids that sexually-ever-after cliche with determined alacrity.

Mr. Elsner’s mistake is in assuming that the books which DO rest the struggle of the relationship upon sex are romances. They’re not. Really. I’d almost want to create a recommended reading list but the overwhelming weight of judgmental asshattery is keeping me from doing so.

The true disservice that the “romance” genre does is that it sucks all the oxygen out of the room. It sets up expectations and lays down rules of what “romance” should be and what great sex is like. Publishers expect writers to follow these rules. So do readers. Anyone trying to write a real love story involving real people grappling with real dilemmas is breaking the rules of the game.

No, sir, anyone trying to write a real love story about people grappling with real dilemmas is most likely writing romance. Quality romance, at that. What you are writing, however, is ignorant whining.

But what really made my head meet the desk repeatedly was Mr. Elsner’s discussion of why he doesn’t write explicit sexual scenes in his books:

Partly, it’s because it’s so easy to write bad sex scenes and so difficult to write good ones…. But mostly, I don’t do sex because I’m more interested in love—and love takes place in the mind where it has to fight for its existence against all the other challenges presented by life.

Yes, that is certainly true. But yet it’s so easy to write articles dismissing romance novels based on a rudimentary, dismissive and woefully incomplete understanding of the genre. May I come into your house and criticize your writing based on the note you left for the paperboy?


Then I will judge the entirety of the HuffPo books section as tawdry, limited, incurious and dense based solely upon your article. Fair is fair, after all.



Ranty McRant

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    GrowlyCub says:

    I read that yesterday, thought about commenting and then decided he wasn’t worth the electrons…

    In light of the ‘bad sex’ awards I have to actually applaud him for refraining from writing sex scenes himself since men seem so incredibly bad at it.

  2. 2
    Brad Hanon says:

    I think my favorite is how he says “I guess women have the right to pornography…” (wow, that’s big of him to give his permission like that) and then goes on to say that they suck because it’s like they’re porn or something. To sum up, I guess women have the right to pornography, only no they don’t.

  3. 3
    Kwana says:

    What tha! A total annoyance and then so sad.  he says ” one engorged penis pretty similar to the next. ” Really?  Must not get out much and judging from the “stack” of books picked I guess not.  Grrrr.

    I say please enlighten us all and go write the best most romantic romance ever. Like now!

  4. 4

    Perhaps Mr Elsner’s real problem with romance novels is that he perceives a miles-wide chasm between himself and the heroes who seem to be getting all those scrumptious girls. And if he’s unable to grasp the notion of expressing emotional connection with physical touch, he might not get the point of women to begin with.

    What’s the old line? Only the brave deserve the fair.

  5. 5
    Barb Ferrer says:

    I read that yesterday, thought about commenting and then decided he wasn’t worth the electrons…

    What GrowlyCub said.

  6. 6
    Poison Ivy says:

    But if romance is not about sex, and love is not about sex, does he mean that only pornography is about sex? Is he then saying that the meeting of bodies is a priori pornographic rather than symbolic of the meeting of minds, hearts, souls, and (because of the HEA) of futures? Didn’t he learn about symbolism in college English?

    I keep thinking that the majority of down-on-romance reviewers all subscribe to a naturalistic (i.e., negative) view of the universe and they hate us because romances are idealistic (i.e., positive). Not because we include sex, but because it’s happy, life-affirming sex instead of miserable, awkward, alienation-producing sex.

    Spamword “policy74” seems…uh, symbolic.

  7. 7
    Donna Alward says:

    Oh my goodness!  All this time I thought I was writing romance, but I was mistaken! It can’t be romance if my characters don’t swap fluids by page 60!

    Some of my books have consummated sex and many do not, since the bulk of my books are with Harlequin’s Romance line which generally keeps the bedroom door shut.  I enjoy writing and reading both. 

    Clearly, he didn’t read a very big cross section if he came to the conclusion that in romance novels “love is expressed through sex and only through sex.” 

    What really bugs me though is the assertion that love is only in the mind.  That totally negates the need for chemistry.  And if he also thinks that sex is not an important part of love, well, consider my jaw dropped.  Great sex is just great sex until it’s with the one you love.  Then it’s exalted and life-altering.

    Don’t know about you, but I really like romance novels.  :-)

  8. 8
    Jess Granger says:

    I also read that article yesterday, and I also decided it wasn’t worth thinking about too much, but the pornography line bothered me enough that it stuck with me.

    Here’s the problem as I see it.  Men and women think differently.


    Articles like this are based on the assumption that women and men think the same, and we don’t.  And guys, guess what? We don’t think about sex the same as you do either.

    Surprise again!

    Men and women will experience the same story, and have totally different experiences.  This became crystal clear to me when my husband and I discussed watching Braveheart.  I didn’t want to put myself through that again.  He didn’t see what the problem was.  I asked him what he saw when he watched the movie, and he talked about bravery, honor, fighting for freedom from oppression and beating the odds.  I told him I saw babies hung from the rafters, women raped and killed, the only just man in the story betrayed by someone he trusted and then tortured and eviscerated.  He was surprised by that.  He said, “That’s not what the story is about.”

    That’s what I experience.

    To make the assumption that romance is porn, the first thing you have to do is define porn.  Is romance purely for sexual gratification?  I’ll argue no.  Are the sex scenes purely for sexual gratification?  Again, I’ll argue no.

    In my 330 page book, there are 12 pages of love scenes, and when I wrote them they had little to do with sex and everything to do with connection and trust between two people in the process of developing a lasting love.  I think that is a far cry from gratuitous.  Sex changes things.  No matter what, sex changes things, and so it is valid to address the act in character driven fiction, because the arc of the story is about how characters change.

    Biologically speaking, a man isn’t very invested in a sexual act, and by that, I mean he won’t be pregnant for nine months, go through pain and risk death because of that act.

    It hasn’t been until modern times that a man was clearly tied to his offspring at all.  Again, biologically speaking, sex has little consequence for men.

    Now this might be an unfair assumption on my part because I’m not a psychologist studying the sexual habits of men, but I believe sex in terms of how men think about it has less gravitas for the male species than for women.  Sex is fun, comforting, self-affirming, an expression of affection and love.

    I believe for women it is much more than that.  It is the ultimate expression of trust.  Again, until modern times, our bodies and our lives were on the line, as well as our social status.  We think about that act differently.  It has huge weight.  And so how a couple comes to and goes through with that act is interesting on an emotional level.

    And yes, it is pretty darn sexy, so what?

    I have yet to see porn stress monogamy, love, or consequence of sex in the way romances do, so there’s much more going on here than just getting ones proverbial rocks off.

  9. 9
    Lynz says:

    I read that yesterday, thought about commenting and then decided he wasn’t worth the electrons…

    What GrowlyCub said.

    Me too! Or three, I suppose. I have better things to do than explain to judgmental asshats why they’re idiots. (Instead, I’m going to read two pieces of random literary fiction and explain why the whole genre isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Huzzah for logic and reason!)

  10. 10

    I love how so many “book” sections of online and print pubs hire historians to comment on historical nonfiction, they have memoirists commenting on memoir, science writers reviewing books on science, but when it comes to romance, they seem to seek out people who’ve never read romance, or worse, non-romance readers who are also snarky humorists, to discuss romance. Nice.

  11. 11

    It’s a good thing most of us think it’s not worth commenting, because there have been several reports on Twitter that comments (self-described as reasoned and courteous, and I know we are always reasoned and courteous in the face of this sort of thing, hey ;) ) were not allowed to see the light of the HuffPo audience’s screens.

    So, we have not only a guy willing to diss the genre, but unwilling to let us talk to him about it.

    That’s a nice gig, when you can get it.  Then again, maybe he should just grow a pair.

  12. 12

    So, we have not only a guy willing to diss the genre, but unwilling to let us talk to him about it.

    It would hardly be sporting of you, Laura, since you could write circles around this chappie.

  13. 13

    Good thing most of you didn’t bother commenting. It wouldn’t have been worth it, because apparently they have some pretty strict moderation. My comment didn’t make it through. Why? Not sure. Not feminine and sweet enough? I’m pretty damn suspicious about the moderating standards as that post has been up for 4 days & it’s been all over Twitter, and there are only 4 comments.

    Here’s a paraphrase of what I said:

    I find it interesting that you accuse romance novelists of trying to set rules and definitions about romance when you’ve gone to so much trouble to instruct us on what “real” love involves. And what “real” romance is. Talk about sucking all the oxygen out of the room.

    This statement: “In the romance novels I have read, love is expressed through sex and only through sex.” is just an outright lie. Maybe you couldn’t see the forest for the distracting sex trees…

    I also advised Mr. Eisner to put on his grown-up glasses, try to avoid getting obsessed with the naughty bits, and try again.

    My books are full of sex and erect body parts. Sometimes the erections have to do with love and sometimes they don’t, but in most serious adult relationships love and sex are wound up together. One would hope. I find it disturbing that, for Mr. Eisner, love and romance are to be kept separate from graphic sex. Sounds to me like the old-fashioned idea of keeping the dirty parts of your life away from the respectable parts. Comparmentalization, anyone?

  14. 14
    joanneL says:

    I won’t say that Alan Elsner is a big fat fibber; oh wait, I just did.

    From the description he gave of the books I’d like to suggest that he didn’t actually get a stack of romance books from the library but rather flipped through the back cover blurbs of some romances at a book stand. He certainly didn’t read any of the latest books by Susan Elizabeth Phillips or Nora Roberts or other authors of their ilk.

    I could be wrong in that opinion (that he’s a big, fat fibber in case you missed it) but he is definitely limited by his exposure to different types of romances.

    One of the many, many reasons I HATE opinions given on romance books by people who don’t read them.

  15. 15

    Jinx, Laura! You owe me a Coke!

    Also, it’s possible I wasn’t exactly courteous… but I do believe that others were! *g*

  16. 16
    Brooks*belle says:

    I totally agree with everything he said….For BAD romance novels! Dude needs to read a little Georgette Heyer or Laura Kinsale or any writer who’s NOT Cassie Edwards.

    Gee—I think I’ll read a few cheap pot-boilers and then summarily throw out all thrillers!

  17. 17
    Lynz says:

    What’s really, really funny about the whole thing, actually, is that one of the related blog posts that shows up is a positive one from May with the most perfect quote possible:

    And to draw fast conclusions about the genre and its audience is to perpetuate the kind of stereotyping which has always made romance the “most maligned of literary texts.”


    Romances offer very different things to very different readers, therefore, and to lump the genre and its audience together is short-sighted – and problematic.

    Also also:

    …the Princeton conference taught me that to rush to conclusions about romance fiction is to flatten out a rich, varied, and continually evolving genre.

  18. 18

    Well done, Sarah!  I laughed out loud several times during this post.  And then laughed at Mr. Elsner’s original article.  It’s the old “all romance is the same” bit disguised as “all engorged penises are the same.”  Sounds like this guy hates romance AND hard-ons.

  19. 19
    SonomaLass says:

    Ha, Lynz, I noticed that too. Here’s hoping some people clicked on the related post link and got the other viewpoint as well.

  20. 20
    Chani says:

    Victoria Dahl, I love your books (have already pre-ordered your next contemporary) and your comment pretty much sums up why.

    I am sick of romance being the easy target of the book world. There are some amazing, breath-taking romance novels out there and some truly terrible ones, just like ANY OTHER GENRE. Why is this concept so difficult to grasp??

  21. 21
    GrowlyCub says:


    because then these people wouldn’t have anything to look down on to make themselves feel bigger.

  22. 22

    Wow… a man pretends to read some romance novels and then inform all us stupid women that the romance books we actually are reading isn’t really romance.

    I’m not sure what is worse… his posturing or the Huffington Post for letting him get away with such clap-trap. Where are journalistic scruples these days?

  23. 23
    MichelleR says:

    As someone who spends time on HuffPo, I can say their filters are tough. And, anything from a guest author, goes through moderation. It’s not just this guy, but anything that is more than mildly critical of any of their writers. On articles they’re just linking, a lot more is allowed, but you still have to have a feel for their filters. I also suspect that if too many comments get stuck awaiting a human to judge that they just dump ‘em.

    respect67: really?

  24. 24

    Thanks, MichelleR! Someone else also pointed out to me that moderation is much stricter in non-politcal areas of the blog. Good to know.

  25. 25
    Tessa Dare says:

    Yeah, chalk me up as another who was commenting and deleting – never even took my chances with the moderation filter.  I just vented on Twitter about how romance readers (not coincidentally, mostly women) are so readily knocked for their reading choices.  To me, it doesn’t even matter whether he read “good” romances or not.  I never see columnists shaming (predominantly male) readers for enjoying unrealistic spy thrillers or horror novels.

    So I decided I didn’t want to be a nice, quiet girl today, and I posted over there.  It was something like this, in case it gets stuck in the filter.

    I do hope we’ll be treated to a column about how the mystery genre takes all the mystery out of life by….solving every crime! What kind of unrealistic expectation does that create in the minds of readers?  And of course, with all these formulaic mystery novels, books about people dealing with “real” unsolved mysteries can’t find a home.  (And yet, somehow The Lovely Bones got published and seemed to do okay. Hm.)

    Others have already pointed out that sensuality in romance novels runs the gamut from sweet to erotic, and that many romance novels do address “real-life” issues. 

    But … so what if they don’t?  If a reader enjoys admittedly improbable stories about dukes, billionaires, and Navy SEALs, why is that different from the reader who enjoys admittedly improbable stories about dragons, aliens, spies, or curio-shop owners who manage to solve a murder a week?  Somehow it’s always romance readers who are depicted as “living in fantasy” or who become the subject of deep concern because we’re supposedly being fed these crippling, unrealistic expectations of what *real* love and sex are like.  What would those expectations be, exactly? The idea that sex can and should be enjoyable for both partners?  The idea that fidelity and lifelong commitment are possible? 

    Personally, I find it refreshing to read and write in a genre where sexuality is inextricably linked with love and commitment, because so many of the media messages I see today separate the two.  But that’s me.  No genre is for everyone.  However, it’s one thing to say this genre isn’t your cup of tea, and quite another to portray those who enjoy it as drinking the kool-aid.

  26. 26
    Teddypig says:

    Remember when Clara Bow went from silent films to talkies and people discovered she had a heavy Brooklyn accent?

    How is Alan Elsner the anti-smut crusader with issues of sexuality in his books gonna play when most readers of HuffPo probably just finished scanning the latest Gay Porn pics at

    Sounds like HuffPo failed to find appropriate commentators for their book section. Oh well, no one reads HuffPo for book reviews and they will most likely not continue to not bother. They’ll be good for a laugh though.

  27. 27
    MicheleKS says:

    That’s a nice gig, when you can get it.  Then again, maybe he should just grow a pair.

    Laura Kinsale, that was an absolutely brillant comment. But I don’t think this guy has much to begin with and to be so down on women… ugh.

    Overall, typical stuck-up snotty-shit trying to masquerade as intelligent analysis. >insert sarcasm here<

  28. 28

    I never see columnists shaming (predominantly male) readers for enjoying unrealistic spy thrillers or horror novels.

    Well, why not? Maybe one of the SBs could march down to HER local library, pick out a stack of spy thrillers—as third-rate as possible—and send up THAT genre (and its readers) in her inimitable style.

    Look, not only did Mr Elsner violate the cardinal Holmsian rule—finding facts to suit his theories, instead of the other way around—he also missed a writer’s most valuable opportunity: a REAL story, a ‘man-bites-dog’ story about how, gosh, some of this pulp isn’t half-bad. A genuinely inquisitive person, one with a broad mind looking for a fresh angle, would have asked the librarian for her all-time top five romance picks. Or at least the five most recent romance bestsellers.

    But that wasn’t Mr Elsner’s point, was it?

  29. 29
    RSH says:

    when it comes to romance, they seem to seek out people who’ve never read romance, or worse, non-romance readers who are also snarky humorists, to discuss romance.

    Well, the New York Times hired an ignorant guy who didn’t know the genre to be their science fiction book reviewer. I haven’t seen one of his clueless articles for a while, so perhaps he mercifully gave up.

    So, don’t worry too much—it’s not just romance that gets dissed.

  30. 30

    Guess what. 

    Alan Elsner has an author page on Amazon.

    Guess what.  His post is there, under Customer Discussions in the Alan Elsner forum. 

    There are no comments in reply to it.  Yet.

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