The edges of the cultural map

Sarah Weinman forwarded us this fascinating (if brief) discussion between Dwight Garner, senior editor of the New York Times Book Review and a romance author going only by Jen.

Jen starts out by asking, in response to the brief book review recaps by Garner:

Interesting that every single book reviewed elsewhere has also been reviewed by the Times (the Diana book’s gotten two full reviews, plus a feature piece on Ms. Brown).

Can you give us some insights into how reviewers make their choices? Do you all get a supersecret list of which books/authors/imprints are important enough to merit a mention? Have reviewers noticed that it’s the same tiny handful of authors who get written up everywhere, while there are authors — and, in the Times’ case, entire genres — that never get mentioned at all?

Garner provides a link to Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus’ explanation of the process. When Jen points out it still doesn’t answer her question about why certain books are selected as worthy and brings up romance as a genre that has been completely neglected in The Book Review, Garner responds thusly:

Reviewing romance novels: whew. We don’t have room to review so very many things we’d like to; is reviewing romances really the best use of our space? Can’t the readers who love them find news of them elsewhere?

Who does do a good job of reviewing them, anyway? Who is the Lionel Trilling of romance critics? Maybe we should hire that person, whoever he or she is.”

Jen’s reply is eminently worth reading, but alas, not easily quotable. Go go go; read read read. And Garner’s responding comment is wonderfully civil, even as it doesn’t necessarily provide any further food for thought.

For once, I’m not going to jump all over this and be shrill, partly because Garner’s courteous (if dismissive) tone is making me feel contemplative. His rather off-hand contempt is clear, but I feel like engaging in a dialogue instead of yelling. (Not that yelling isn’t good, dirty fun on occasion. I love a good blog rumble as much—if not just a touch more—than anybody.)

Ignoring, for the moment, the comment about the Lionel Trilling of romance (and really, even if they DID find one who qualified, do you honestly think, Garner’s assurances aside, they’d hire her? Psh), here’s my take on why The Book Review and other major newspaper literature reviews won’t cover romance novels while allowing certain bestsellers and genre roundups between their hallowed pages—and no, it’s not going to be the usual “Blame the patriarchy!” spiel:

1. It’s all about the benjamins, baby.

2. It’s also all about being a cultural gatekeeper. Baby.

*cue lamé-clad jiggy dancers*

There are certain works of popular fiction that The Book Review can’t afford to not cover if they want to maintain even an illusion of being fresh, relevant—and profitable. If a book is going to make a huge enough crater on the landscape, then by golly by gum The Book Review is going to track its blazing progress across the sky—together with all the other newspapers, because they can’t afford to miss it, either. They may not have kind things to say about the impact, but they have to at least cover it.

Similarly, once mysteries and science fiction moved far away enough from the intellectual ghetto that their readers weren’t afraid of being clobbered left and right by cultural assumptions as soon as they admitted their love for those genres, I think The Book Review realized that they needed to throw some sort of sop to them. But also? I think at one point, the new(ish) generation of editors looked at each other and had conversations like these:

“You read SF?

“Um. Yeah, I do.”

“…so, did you read way too many Ray Bradbury stories as a kid?”

“Yes. Also, please don’t tell anyone about my unspeakable love of everything Heinlein. What is UP with him and his ‘sex will save the world, and if that don’t work, fascism will’ schtick, anyway?”

And realized that really, being an SF or mystery reader isn’t the end of the world.

This sort of thing hasn’t happened with romance novels yet, and they likely won’t for a good long time. I have the impression that The Book Review drew a sort of line in their cultural map with the round-ups for SF and mystery. “We’ll go this far but no further.” They have a reputation to maintain, for god’s sake. Can you imagine the uproar should they decide to cover romances? Doing so would be lending a sort of tacit approval to the genre. It would say to all their readers that not only are there books well worth reading within the genre, there are books actually worth the time and energy that go into reviewing them. The Book Review isn’t nearly ready for that sort of step yet. It has too much invested in its prestige, of being one of the vanguards of high culture.

This is why Garner’s arguments about lack of space vs. popularity of genre don’t really hold water; why they are, in fact, prety goddamn ridiculous and half-hearted. While romance novels as a whole outsell other genres as a whole, individual mid-list romance titles perform about as well as mid-list anything else. If they were truly interested in elevating the undeservedly obscure, I don’t see why they couldn’t do exactly the same for romance novels as they did for SF and mystery.

The line on the map has been drawn, and The Book Review are keeping quite firmly to their side of the divide. In the end, it really does boil down to the crack Garner made about the Lionel Trilling of romance and its implication that no such creature could possibly exist. Romance, as far as they’re concerned, lies at the empty blue expanses at the furthest reaches of the map, with “Take Caution: Here Lie Gyrl Cooties and Manne-Titty” scrawled in an elegant hand and a drawing of Fabio underneath the dread warning. And what’s more, The Book Review is certainly not interested in exploring and risk being touched by The Bewitched Viking’s ever-extended finger. I can’t say as I’d blame them on that score….

I leave you dear readers with this—I figured, since I mangled it for Hoff’s sake, I can do no less for The Book Review:

No! I am not Lionel Trilling, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant reviewer, one that will do
To swell the Internets, start a flamewar or two,
Advise the readers; cause their eyeballs to twitch;
Insolent, but glad to be of use,
Impolitic, incautious, and a bit explosive
Full of high sentence, and low humored abuse;
At times, indeed, almost corrosive,
Almost, at times, the bitch.

Comments are Closed

  1. Little Miss Spy says:

    Wow. I think that it is good that you are not being shrill and yelly, but I certainly wouldn’t hold it against you if you were in this situation! Its horrid! Thanks for covering it

  2. Rosemary says:

    I’d like to thank Jen for so eloquently and politely pointing out that they are being elitist douchebags without actually using that particular phrase.

  3. Najida says:

    I’m finding that many arts have had to fight for respect.  Once upon a time ballet dancers where considered low class—- Now, few arts are more high brow.  Some arts continue to have bad reps or be plagued with total misconceptions.

    Heck, same can be said for some professions (funny, but I’m realizing that for me—-profession one, semi-profession two and hobby are all fighting for understanding and overcoming stupidity).

    I don’t have the answer, other than the universal one…..that educating the public comes one person at a time.  In small steps.  Jen did the right thing, and she probably cracked the wall.  Someone else will add another crack, a hole and then one day, it’ll break.  Having Nora Roberts getting a bobble head doesn’t hurt 🙂

    Maybe simply reading the books in public (after demanding better covers 😉 ) passing them on to friends, asking to do book reviews for local newspapers etc.  Or in my case, adding site links and reviews to my website (OK, I’m working on it).

    Hell, I don’t know.  I’m still battling my own wars.  Just guess this one is added to the list.

  4. Chris S. says:

    “…afraid of being clobbered left and right by cultural assumptions…”

    Well said!  And all too accurate.  It’s easier to dismiss the genre out of hand than read enough to learn to change your mind.

  5. camilla says:

    Pretty sure Jen is Jennifer Weiner of Snark Spot.

  6. katie says:

    I think my favorite part of Jen’s comments was not her pointing out that the TBR staff are elitest douchebags per se, but that everybody already knows they are elitest douchebags, they know they are elitest douchbags, and now we just want to know why. Well played.

    I was thinking about why and how SF managed to slip into mainstream reviews, and I think it had more to do with writers like Wells, Vonnegut and Tolkein than Bradbury and Heinlein. When schools start requiring students to read a particular book as a prime example of a literary device, ignoring it becomes pretty difficult. Especially if all those students read it and actually enjoy it. I think that somewhere along the way, someone decided that “Literature” (please note the capital L) had managed to infiltrate SF, and so it became deserving of coveted print space.

    I don’t believe that the same has happened with Romance yet. I know that we here can make the argument that it certainly has, but what matters is if someone outside of the romance community can make it too.

    Alright, now Katie. Time to stop rambling.

  7. Jepad says:

    I’ll admit that I don’t follow the NYTimes book review.  The few times I’ve skimmed it, I’ve been singularly unimpressed by what they seem to view as Great Literature.  Dysfunctional characters living out dysfunctional lives is hardly worth my time.  (Incidentally, this might also explain by deep disdain for Fitzgerald).  But does the NYTimes book review often pick up mysteries and SF?  Or are these a once in a blue moon event and only if the author has a huge following?

    Do they review the latest Elizabeth Peters, for example?

    If romance is seemingly the ONLY genre that they ignore, then I suspect their reluctance is that they can’t get past the idea that romance has moved on from the era of Barbara Cartland and bodice rippers.

    I admit that a huge amount of romance is about as deep as a puddle (MJD).  But there are some excellent novels out there which tackle “issues” beyond how much hot sweaty sex two people can have in a 24 hour period. 

    I suppose the other question I had would be what romance authors do you think deserve a spot on the NYT book review?

  8. Jess says:

    You know, it’s rather telling that people dismiss a genre as uninteresting or beneath them. You see it all the way down to fan fiction. “You like X? What are you, a freak!” Goodness, it’s a plague in any fandom, and it makes sense if part of that comes from the elitist attitude we see everyday when it comes to reading (or any media, really). I may not like mysteries, but hey, if it makes someone happy, good for them.

    Romance is no better or worse than any other genre. I read SFF and romance, so I’m pretty much at the low end of the totem pole for some people. I don’t understand what makes Robin Cook any better than Nora Roberts. Both are good in their genres. I’m not a Cook fan, but my godmom is. Which is fine, it limits our conversation topics when it comes to books, but it makes her happy to read them.

    I’ll be honest and say I dislike most classics. I just don’t find Shakespeare or Austen all that inspiring. It doesn’t mean I’m an uneducated brute. If everyone liked the same authors, we wouldn’t have a need for bookstores. It seems silly to snub the romance genre. Most of my bookshelf is full of it. Actually, I’d say of the five shelves, 3 are wholly romance, with the other being a mixture of SFF, reference books, baby name books, and some DVDs. And those are the ones I keep.

    I like the sharp wit that I can find in almost all of the romance books on my shelf. I like the stories, the ones that touched me enough to keep them. I’m not ashamed of it, but I’m angry at people who do make romance readers feel ashamed, like it’s some dirty secret. It’s not. Anything that gets people to read for fun/entertainment is good in my opinion. Reviewers that just pooh-pooh the books as fluff with no substance really do a disservice to the readers. People know what they like, and considering how many people, women especially, that read romance, it’s not something that’s gonna fade out of style.

    Which is why I think this site so awesome. It gives a chance to comment about the reviewed books, and to find fellow fans. To say “Hey, look. Other people like Author Y. Cool!” Also to find new things about books you’ve already things. Things you didn’t notice.

    It’s a shame that romance is treated like that dirty little secret. People who think that their preferred genre is the end-all-be-all are losing out on a lot of opportunities to visit some amazing worlds. Actually, I kind of pity them.

  9. dillene says:

    I don’t follow romance closely enough to know this, so I’ll ask:  is there a book (or books) that crosses over from being pure romance into Litrachah?  I guess I’m looking for an author or a title that is the equivalent of something Vonnegut or Tolkien wrote. 

    Better yet, consider comics and graphic novels- people used to dismiss them and then Alan Moore wrote “Watchmen” and Neil Gaiman wrote “Sandman”.  Are there books in Romancelandia that have the same depth and scope as those works?  That’s the sort of thing that would bring romance into the mainstream.

  10. darlynne says:

    In Chicago this weekend, I noticed with pleasure that the Tribune book section continues to provide reviews of romance novels. Although not the


    august Book Review, the Chicago Tribune is a large, well-respected newspaper … unless you’re a Sun-Times’ reader, but that’s a different fist fight.

    Also, Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews have always included romance novels in their publications; a starred review from either or both can mean a great deal to writer and bookseller.

    All of which indicates that at least someone out there recognizes books that sell while others continue to sniff in disdain. Sadly, even if a legitimate romance-reviewing Lionel Trilling were produced—and who better than the SBs?—can’t you just hear the “I knew Lionel Trilling and you, Madam, are no Lionel Trilling” comments now?

  11. Todd says:

    One factor may be that most romance novels are paperback – that seems to be a factor in the elitist discrimination. The Washington Post will sometimes review romances, but only ones that come out in hardcover. And, yes, there’s the “ew … gurls” factor as well.

  12. Candy says:

    I was thinking about why and how SF managed to slip into mainstream reviews, and I think it had more to do with writers like Wells, Vonnegut and Tolkein than Bradbury and Heinlein.

    You have a point, too, about how becoming enshrined in the canon can help the cause along considerably—though Austen has been there lo these many years, and things still look pretty dim for romance. I would just like to say, however, that Wells (I’m assuming you’re referring to H.G., and feel free to correct me if I have ahold of the wrong end of the stick) is old enough to have that alluring patina of age to his work and be considered a Classic rather than SF, and Vonnegut is more likely to be shelved in Literature or Fiction than the SF/F sections (or at least, that’s the case here in Portland). Tolkien is an interesting case, however. When did Tolkien start becoming Literary? Was it always so? Or was it when kids who read him and loved him as a kid came of age and decided to make his works targets of their studies?

    Dysfunctional characters living out dysfunctional lives is hardly worth my time.

    Am not going to argue with your definition of Great Literature there, because the overwhelming bulk does tend to focus on dysfunction—but then, so does a lot of genre fiction. Dysfunction is a so much more fun to read and write. Want angst and people who are fucked in the head to varying degrees? Let Romance be your guide. The difference, I think, is that romance allows the characters to escape the dysfunction by the end of the book, whereas there’s no such guarantee in any other genres, with the possible exception of YA. And this isn’t necessarily a good thing, because far too many romances take the easy—shit, the lazy—way out instead of the best, or the most convincing, or the most true.

    (I just feel this urge to stick up for literary fiction every time it’s bashed around in genre circles, just as I feel the urge to defend genre fiction when lit snobs try to take it down some pegs.)

    But does the NYTimes book review often pick up mysteries and SF?

    I check them only VERY sporadically, but from what I understand and what I’ve seen, they don’t give space for the big, detailed reviews to genre fiction novels very often. They do, however, have capsule round-ups for SF and mystery, and apparently there’s an occasional horror novel column. No such thing for romances.

    I suppose the other question I had would be what romance authors do you think deserve a spot on the NYT book review?

    I think Jennifer Crusie actually had one of her books reviewed in the NYT—or was it the Washington Post? At any rate, in my memory of that review (and it’s been years since I’ve read it), the person who read it Didn’t Quite Get It; a lot of the interesting background stuff and subversiveness and subtext that Crusie normally packs into her novels was either missed or ignored, and the usual accusations that are levelled against most genre fiction (lack of subtlety, inelegant writing style, predictability, etc.) were levelled against the book. Not that that sort of review doesn’t have its own value, but it’d r0xx0r my b0xx0rs to see a reviewer who Loves and Gets Genre Fiction doing those reviews.

    And honestly? I think part of the problem is that the NYT TBR is staffed by older people. I’m not necessarily talking about chronological age, either. The NYT TBR gives the impression of being staffed by people who think old, y’know? But then, I imagine younger, scrappy types may not even think of applying for jobs there, so we may have a problem with self-selection, too.

    Which doesn’t really answer your question, does it?

    OK, so a short list of romance or romance-ish authors who would be interesting additions to the NYT TBR:

    Laura Kinsale (c’mon, y’all knew this was coming)
    Jennifer Crusie
    Patricia Gaffney
    Shana Abé
    Judith Ivory
    Loretta Chase—despite the disappointingly slight Not Quite a Lady
    Nora Roberts—because that woman is a motherfucking force of nature, and if they can dedicate some inches to Stephen King or John Grisham, then dammitall, Roberts should be covered, too

    There are probably several others that I’m either forgetting or am completely unaware of.

    I don’t follow romance closely enough to know this, so I’ll ask:  is there a book (or books) that crosses over from being pure romance into Litrachah?

    See the list above; many of those authors wrote books that in my opinion can compete with the best that SF/F and mystery has to offer.

    It’s hard for me to evaluate lit fic in comparison to so-called genre fiction because it’s such a different beastie; almost like trying to compare poetry to prose, y’know? I do agree with Sara Donati/Rosina Lippi that lit fic is in and of itself another genre and not a transcendence, but I have the damndest time trying to say that Laura Kinsale is comparable to, for example, Barry Unsworth, whereas my brain doesn’t have that same problem with, say, Kinsale vs. Dan Simmons, or even Tim Powers or James Morrow (who veers right to the very edge of the SF/lit fic divide, though in my opinion most of his works are satirical in the mode of Gulliver’s Travels).

    One factor may be that most romance novels are paperback – that seems to be a factor in the elitist discrimination.

    There’s a great deal more prestige associated with authors who are published in hardcover first, that’s true; perhaps because hardcovers represent a significantly larger investment on the part of the publisher, and there’s the assumption that the publishers will pick only the cream of the crop—or at least the most sensational of the crop—for this honor. 

    Sadly, even if a legitimate romance-reviewing Lionel Trilling were produced—and who better than the SBs?—can’t you just hear the “I knew Lionel Trilling and you, Madam, are no Lionel Trilling” comments now?

    Hee! Well, yes. Also, I was absolutely serious about not being—and not really wanting to be—the Lionel Trilling of romances. (Can’t speak for Sarah, of course. She’s likely more Trilling-esque than I am, since she goes off half-cocked less frequently than I do.) I’m not nearly serious enough a scholar, for one thing, and I’m much, much better at starting discussions and pushing them along interesting paths than actually saying things of substance about the genre. Now, if Robin or EvilAuntiePeril wanted to take a crack at it, I’d say they’d be much more suited to the job than anyone else I’ve encountered so far.

  13. Katie says:

    #1: OMG… I said something compelling enough that Candy commented on it! I think I need to sit down for a minute…

    I see your point on the Wells, although I was going more on how the bookstore shelves him than when he was published. And I guess it would be the opposite with Vonnegut… if you read through many of his obits, he’s credited as an SF writer, but you’re right that he’s more likely to be found in the fiction section. And maybe that’s the point. Their work transcends genre classification, and maybe that led to more mainstream credibility.

    For romance, I would put Diana Gabaldon in that category for a more modern writer. I’ve seen Outlander shelved in both sections. And I totally agree that Jane Austen is the Godfather (mother?) of the romance, but if you were to dare say that to my Austen scholar/ college professor aunt, she would bite your head off (and she’s a big lady… I bet she could do it). She argues Austen is a social commentator, blah blah blah. I guess what it comes down to is that SFF and mystery are pretty low genres (in the elitest douchbag opinion) but romance is even lower. That means its going to take a lot more genre-bending writers to break the stereotypes.

    Not to mention the covers. Good Lord, the covers.

  14. Laura says:

    “But does the NYTimes book review often pick up mysteries and SF?  Or are these a once in a blue moon event and only if the author has a huge following?

    Do they review the latest Elizabeth Peters, for example? “

    As Todd pointed out, newspapers like the NYT and the Washington Post generally avoid reviewing paperbacks, and what I’ve seen of reviews of mysteries in the NYT bears that out. For example, I’ve seen the latest hardcover releases by PD James, Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, Ian Rankin, Patricia Cornwell and (I think) Elizabeth George all get lengthy reviews in the NYT. The day the NYT reviews a mass-market cozy, though, will be the day I eat my hat.

  15. I think the NYT makes a valid point in that, do they need to review romance?  Aren’t those of us who are interested in romance interested enough that we frequent websites like here, and AAR, to find the latest thoughtful reviews?

    I read NYT book reviews for information on books I’m not automatically exposed to.  Through the NYT reviews I found Six Frigates by Ian Toll and Keturah and Lord Death by Martine Leavitt, both of which I enjoyed immensely for very different reasons.  But the latest Nora Roberts or Loretta Chase or even Meljean Brooks?  I’m going to hear plenty about it from the usual suspects.

    Maybe it would be a good way to expose more of the non-romance public to romance novels, but when there’s limited column inches, I’m not sure it’s worth it for the NYT.

  16. If Dwight Garner had a little more imagination and cojonical fortitude, he would get The Smart Bitches to review romance for him.
    I’m serious and totally not sucking up.
    I never read romance before I started working for Ellora’s Cave. (Full disclosure: I’m now their VP of Media Relations) I was a newspaper editor, and I ran book reviews, literary contests, etc. I was a snotty Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood groupie. (BTW: Don’t forget it wasn’t just Kilgore Trout—Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing both wrote SF too,which could have some bearing on why it gets reviewed in NYTBR)
    I never took romance seriously. Because, let’s face it, there’s so much bad shit out there wearing the banner of romance. As with any other genre, you have to really follow romance to understand it.
    Y’all Smart Bitches really follow it, really understand it, have an intelligent pov on it and are pee-your-pants funny. If I had read you guys when I was a newspaper editor, it totally would have changed my snotty pov on romance.

  17. Jess says:

    Aren’t those of us who are interested in romance interested enough that we frequent websites like here, and AAR, to find the latest thoughtful reviews?

    But that doesn’t account for the people who don’t know about the review sites like this or AAR. Not everyone is online, or savvy enough to know what to look for. I know my godmom can barely work AOL, and even then I have to help at times. So by not giving it some attention even, say, three times a year where they have a checklist of favorites and must reads, it’s back to the dirty little secret idea. It’s not the amount of acknowledgment, it’s the effort. At least for me.

    I say this as someone who looked at the NYT reviews once or twice and decided I liked my opinion more. I do the same thing with the local (AJC) reviews.

  18. Sarah Frantz says:

    I’m going to repeat a lot of what Candy said.  As an honest-to-God Austen critic, published and everything, I think romance as a genre should reclaim her.  In fact, I argue exactly that here.  She is nothing if not a romance writer, especially for Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion.  And she has as many layers and meanings and pithy and pertinent social commentary as Jenny Crusie or La Nora or Suzanne Brockmann.  And she’s read to death in high schools and college—it’s just that no one reads her as a romance author.

    As for ground-breaking, genre-elevating authors:  Suzanne Brockmann, Laura Kinsale, Jenny Crusie, SEP at her best, La Nora (books like Birthright are just brilliant, rich texts ripe for academic analysis), Joey Hill (what I wouldn’t give to review The Vampire Queen’s Servant for a publication like the NYT!!!!  Bwahahahaha!), and even, dinosaurs help us all, J.R. Ward.

  19. Romance that I was forced to read as a teen:  Shakespeare, the Bronte sisters, Austin…but where, oh, where is the modern romance?  Seriously, history is littered with romance as a serious genre in literature.  Do we think that we are beyond romance?  Are dramas of the heart no longer thought of as serious fare?  Or is it just American romance?  Come to think of it, why did no one force me to read Gone With the Wind? 

    So many questions.

    my word = hard36

  20. Romance, as a genre, i.e. both the defining parameter of monogamous HEA and the quantity published making it a force to be reckoned with, is fairly young. 

    Step back 80 years and sci-fi was not SF, but pulp, quite the overwhelming majority of it.  The books published then satisfied the hunger in a generation (or two) of young men for novelty and adventure and scantily glad girls under the constant threat of tentacle sex. (Think of THAT what what in the butt) But most of it weren’t exactly quality ware.  And they didn’t age too well. 

    My theory is that romance is at a similar point on the trajectory, a few decades past the pulp era—probably not a whole lot of us want to loveingly re-read the boss-secretary romances of the 70s or 80s—but not at a point where it has moved quite beyond satisfying mass hunger in a cafeteria manner yet.  And when I say cafeteria manner, I mean where you occasionally come across really really good, fantastic, soul-enrapturing stuff but mostly you just eat and leave.

    Unfortunately, romance writers who can compete in every aspect with the top literary writers (and Candy made a good list) are still few and far in between.  Notice also on that list three authors have a problem with dropping off the face of the earth once in a while and one no longer writes romance at all.

    SF didn’t have the respect until it moved from mere adventure and space opera into the realm of ideas.  I don’t know what’s gonna be a similar turning point for romance.  It could be a general and noticeable rise in the literary quality of the genre’s output.  Or it could be when women finally take over the world and everyone has to take what we like seriously.  🙂

    Personally, I say, screw the NYT, and I say it with all the love and adoration of someone who squee-ed when her picture appeared in that august rag (for purposes unrelated to present discussion).  What’s the point of telling a snob that you think he’s being snobbish?  He knows it and likes it that way.

    Let him keep his ivory tower.  I’ll do my own thing and set fire to his tower when I have a spare minute.  🙂


    P.S. The Bitches have been on fire lately.  Woo.

  21. Sarah Frantz says:

    Sherry, I think you’re absolutely right about your theory of the stage of romance as a genre (and it’s a fascinating idea), but as to your comment on “the defining parameter of monogamous HEA,” I have to disagree with you as to that being new.  That’s what Richardson’s Pamela and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion and Bronte’s Jane Eyre and the other Bronte’s Wuthering Heights is all about.  And all/most of Shakespeare’s comedy.  And if they’re not the most canonical of canonical Lit-er-a-chure, then tell me what is.

  22. DS says:

    Sherry, that was the first thought that crossed my mind.  There’s a definite literary minded disconnect between the romantic novels of the 18th and 19th centuries and the genre romances of the late 20th century. 

    I remember when I was in college early 70’s and took part in the first SF class that was offered.  We talked a lot about Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  I can also remember the assigned readings:  Childhood’s End by Clark and Einstein Intersection by Samuel Delany.  The book I chose to read was The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin.

    I’ve been trying to come up with some works comparable to the sf reading list in genre romance but I just can’t come up with anything.

  23. dillene says:

    Nevertheless, Sarah, one charge that can rightly be leveled at romances (many of them, anyway) is that they deal in stock characters and follow the same pattern.  I mean, we know from the beginning that Godefroi LeBeauhunc and La Belle Iseult are going to meet, hate each other, be attracted to each other, fight, shag, deal with their difficult families, shag, have a Big Misunderstanding, have a thrilling action sequence, have make up sex, and then get married.  The End.

    Of course every romance has its own plot (?), but you get my meaning.  The cardboard characters don’t help, either.  I’m glad to hear that Godefroi is six foot six, muscular and has unresolved Mother issues, but tell me about the inner life of his mind.  Does he have any fears or doubts?  Likewise, it’s nice that Iseult is the fairest woman in Normandy, but does she have any personal flaws at all?

    My point is:  their character development is not what drives these novels.  The focus is on the romantic entanglement.  If there was no HEA, then the whole point of the book would be lost.  This could be why romance is not grouped with “literature”.

    Pride & Prejudice, on the other hand, is a romantic novel of manners, but its primary focus is on the emotional and personal development of Elizabeth Bennet.  Lizzie’s inner life is as important as anything that happens in the outside world, including her relationship with Darcy. 

    Think- if the romance with Darcy hadn’t worked out (and it almost didn’t), how would Lizzie’s character be different at the end of the book?  She would have been a sadder woman, but the fundamental changes that had taken place in her character during the course of the novel would remain the same and in that sense the novel would still have an upbeat ending. 

    You see the same thing in Jane Eyre– remember that Jane was ready to chuck Mr. Rochester, the Hall, and even England itself once she found her independence towards the end of the book.  That romance was almost dead in the water, too.  But the book would have had a happy ending anyway, because Jane had developed into a stronger and wiser woman.

    Ah, well.  It’s 12:30 here and I’m going to bed.  Sometimes I really hate having been an English major.

  24. Robin says:

    Hmmm. I actually thought Garner responded to “Jen” quite respectfully.  We’re all familiar with (and perhaps quite accepting of) that edge of stridency that ONE MORE seeming dismissal of genre Romance can engender, but is Garner?  What does that look like from the outside?  I frankly thought he did quite well, and is the first person associated with a MAJOR pub to open to door to Romance reviewing.

  25. Candy says:

    I thought Garner was polite, too. Dismissive, but polite. He certainly didn’t raise my hackles, and God knows my hackles aren’t that difficult to raise sometimes.

    Dillene: stock characters and situations are a problem with romance, it’s true, but they’re a problem with genre fiction in general (if you want to talk about wooden characters, let me point you to some SF), and mystery novels often deal with some of the most stock situations out there. But there’s still less of a stigma attached to reading and reviewing those books than others. Not that this necessarily addresses your point about how Austen differs from many modern romances, but I’d argue that Austen doesn’t differ substantially from the best modern romances—and Austen was some of the best HER time had to offer. Appes with apples and all that.

    More tomorrow; for now, I’m off to le bed.

  26. dl says:

    IMO they are elitist bigots, who get their rocks off feeling intelectually superior.  I think it’s safe to say that romance has the largest market share of any ignored genre.  Major bookstores & critics appear embarrased that romance even exits…we could blame it on the covers.  Personally I can’t stand chick lit, nor many of the classics.

    Darlene…thanks for the recommendation, Six Frigates it’s on my shopping list for Fathers Day.

  27. Romance, as a genre, i.e. both the defining parameter of monogamous HEA and the quantity published making it a force to be reckoned with, is fairly young.

    Is it really? When Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland started to get published in the 1920s? And in the 1970s you didn’t only have the secretary-&-boss romances (which I would associate with category romance), but also sweet & savage love romances (the original bodice rippers) and gothic romances (Victoria Holt).

  28. I’m too late – you guys have already said anything I could have possibly added to this conversation so here’s a big DITTO.

    I love Jane Austen – and she was snubbed in her own day for writing romantic drivel.

    A contemporary author who is considered more literature: Anita Shreve. Her stories aren’t romance only because they typically involved star crossed lovers and often have tragic endings but relationships are the driving force of many of them (Sea Glass, Fortune’s Rocks, Resistance) She’s a wonderful writer but I wonder if she’d have the same sort of reputation if she put in HEA endings?

  29. Someone asked about the literary fiction/romance combination.  I would say Mary Gordon’s “Spending: A Utopian Divertimento.”
    Here’s my review.

  30. Jaynie R says:

    Reading romance novels seems to be everyones dirty little secret.  Print reviewers don’t want to actually start admitting they read the stuff.

    Age old prejudices take a long time to overcome.  Here’s hoping in the next 10 years romance novels finally get the space they deserve.

  31. Flo says:

    I think there should be a review for everyone.  From those who DO review the romance to those who don’t.  Who gives a shit if someone looks down on you for reading a book?  You’re enjoying it right?  Why do you (general you) need verification that your choice of reading material is right?

    So what if some paper or group doesn’t review and wants their snobbery?  Let them have it.  It’s their toy.

    Does it bug me that a group thinks that one genre of book is not worthy of their reviews or that they (probably) scratch each other’s back in reviewing?

    Nah.  It’s not that big a deal and doesn’t stunt my enjoyment in the least.  If I want reviews I’ll go looking for them in the places I know to find them.

  32. Sarah Frantz says:

    dillene, I think Candy said what I would say, but I’ll just reiterate it (damn you, Candy, stealing my thunder!).  Jane Austen was brilliant and a genius, yes.  But so are some of the romance novelists of today.  Suzanne Brockmann’s best books (Heart Throb, The Unsung Hero) are about the character development you’re talking about.  As are Nora Roberts’ best, almost all of Kinsale, Jenny Crusie’s best, SEP’s best (see rest of list above).  I picked the authors I did because, well, they’re the best and they do exactly what you’re talking about in your comment.  Yes, there’s crap out there, but there’s crap SciFi, crap fantasy, crap mystery, crap horror, and yet the genres AS A WHOLE get reviewed, where romance doesn’t.

  33. Francois says:

    I don’t think it’s all about the HEA in the best romance books. The worst try to provide complete closure, skipping ahead to the marriage ceremony, children, sometimes even going 20 years ahead to have some grandchildren turn up and say how happy their grandparents are. I much prefer it when there is a bit of mystery left about how it will turn out, they don’t necessarily get married or have children. Some books I just pretend don’t have that awful Epilogue, because they were fine up to that point.

    My point? How many mystery books end without telling us whodunnit? How many sci-fi books don’t have a twist in the tail where it turns out we were really on a future Earth after all(!)? Can you have a disco without flashing lights and Earth, Wind and Fire? All genres have rules, otherwise they wouldn’t be part of that genre. The interesting thing is how they can be used creatively, and thats what I need to know about in a review.

  34. Francois says:

    “All genres have rules, otherwise they wouldn’t be part of that genre.”

    Erm. What I meant was – All parts of a genre conform to the genre rules, otherwise they wouldn’t be part of that genre.

  35. Joanne says:

    Thank God! Another back-up reason to only read The Times when someone leaves it at the coffee shop… I love being validated!

    Applause, applause, applause to Candy and her Adult Reaction!!!! Me? I say screw Dwight Garner and the rest of his ilk… (I have always wanted to use “ilk” in something besides a crossword puzzle)…

    and I really hate the fact that in this one tiny instance, he’s right… I much prefer getting the Romance Book Reviews from people who actually appreciate them and know when a book is good, bad or ugly.

  36. Gracie says:

    But it *is* all about the benjamins!!!  I used to work at one of the big box bookstores, and one of my duties was to inventory and merchandise the NYT bestseller display as well as the in store bestseller display.  They *never* matched.  The NYT list always contained 2-3 books that weren’t selling well, and the in store display usually had *gasp* romances! 

    The other factor is how much pull a given editor or agent has at NYT.  It
    s a very elite, cliquish circle.  Think maybe if romance editors took more pains to be taken seriously things might improve for romance writers and readers?  (And authors?  Stop with the feather boas already please.  You just look crazy.)

  37. Stephanie says:

    “..I think romance as a genre should reclaim her…”

    Reclaim Austen? When did we lose her?

    She’s our creator. Bronte (the good one…Charlotte) is her sister and Nora is our Queen.

    As for the TBR surely they’ve reviewed Nicholas Sparks and every knows he’s a romance novelist.

    Oh wait. I forget – he’s kills a character off at the end and that’s what makes him “important.” My bad.

  38. MamaZ says:

    Mr. Gardner was not only dismissive but patronizing in his answer. He also hinted that romance readers should go elsewhere to read their reviews – and since anyone can get news online as well as on TV this was not a wise choice of words.

  39. Sarah Frantz says:

    We never lost Austen, as far as I’m concerned, but as far as the Austen establishment is concerned, whether academic or RFG, she is NOT a romance author, how dare you suggest such a thing?!

  40. Poison Ivy says:

    I nominate Michael Dirda of the Washington Post Book Review to review romances for the NYT. He actually reads and enjoys romances, sf, comics, mysteries, extremely esoteric literary works, and more. Reading his reviews is a delight because one always learns about wonderful books one has never heard of before. That’s the ideal kind of book reviewer, not an ignorant elitist pig who is being forced to read something he has already decided he hates. (And no, I do not know Dirda personally.)

    The NYT error is to think it can or even should ignore what many millions of people are reading. This is folly. 

    The merits of individual romances (remembering that 99% of everything is crap—and that’s a quote from a science fiction writer) should eventually be enshrined in more than our keeper shelves or our fond memories. Other readers to come deserve to know that these wonderful books exist. And that, after all, is the fundamental purpose of a book review. To let the public know what is out there.

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