Over the weekend, The New York Times Book Review published a three page round up of romance fiction. On the front page! Can you believe that?!
I’m not sure where you are in your paywall or whether you’ve used up your free views this month if you’re not a subscriber, but you can read the piece online. And many people are talking about it.
Why? Because romance was featured on the front page of the NYTBR!
HOLY SMOKES, RIGHT?
And some of the authors featured included Tessa Dare, Cheris Hodges, Joanna Shupe – several excellent writers whom I know you count among your favorites.
So on the surface, lots to celebrate. In fact, if you stop reading after this sentence: “Romance fiction is on the front page of The New York Times Book Review,” you can keep breathing happily ever after. It sounds pretty incredible, doesn’t it?
You can even peek at the covers and the author photographs. Our books! Our favorite authors! In the NYTBR! Hot diggity.
But then there’s the editorial content, written by Robert Gottlieb, former publisher at S&S and Knopf, and former editor of The New Yorker.
And honestly, it’s better for everyone if you don’t read that editorial content.
Take your glasses off, maybe. Let it be blurry, and look at the images and the names in bold.
There are so many things wrong with Mr. Gottlieb’s write up, I might run out of room on the whole entire internet accounting for them all. And if you’ve been on Twitter, you may have seen many far wiser and funnier people than I already expressing outrage at so much of the awful.
And in that editorial, there is so much awful.
Allow me to share some wonderfully funny, erudite, and excellent links to threads and individual Tweets that capture some of it (and thank you to all of these writers for their permission to quote them here):
Olivia Waite: “If you told me someone had written that NYT romance piece as a satire of how the NYT would review romance, I’d believe you.”
If you told me someone had written that NYT romance piece as a satire of how the NYT would review romance I'd believe you.
— Olivia Waite (@O_Waite) September 26, 2017
John of Dreaming Reviews, addressing the focus on “women” in the article: “A gentle reminder that romance is and should be for non-binary and trans people, not just cis women.”
A gentle reminder that romance is and should be for non-binary and trans people, not just cis women.
— Non-Binary Babe (@DreamingReviews) September 27, 2017
Racheline Maltese: “I often say, ‘I wonder what it feels like to be a person.’ I suspect one of the ways it feels is not to have bang[ed] my head into a wall every time the NYT writes about my genre.”
Critiques of the romance genre are generally critiques of women having fantasy lives.
— Racheline Maltese (@racheline_m) September 26, 2017
Alisha Rai: “I am reading this NYT romance coverage and YAY NYT ROMANCE COVERAGE but also um…”
— Alisha Rai (@AlishaRai) September 26, 2017
And for a larger context, please take a moment to read this outstanding thread from Jen, who reviews at The Book Queen.
Remember the good old days of 1980 when Joanna Russ wrote about how men suppress women's writing? pic.twitter.com/iidZiKjRhn
— Jen (@neighbors73) September 27, 2017
No question: Mr. Gottlieb’s editorial content was a sexist, misogynist, racist, and condescending assembly of words and letters. It doesn’t represent a round up of anything but antiquated stereotypes with a side order of reductive suppression. It was outstanding exposure for romance…framed entirely by mansplaining.
It also seems to me that from the perspective of some publicists and the folks working for decades to increase the media coverage of the genre, that this might be a victory of sorts. As I said at the beginning: front page, illustration, three-page spread in The New York Times Book Review?
That right there is literarily unprecedented coverage for romance.
To paraphrase Alisha Rai, Yay for the authors getting that newsprint exposure. That is no small feat.
While we wish the article revealed more of how complex & empowering the romance genre is, so many kudos to the authors featured https://t.co/s9cMGANxyi
— RWA (@romancewriters) September 27, 2017
I asked for additional comment, and the Romance Writers of America replied to me via email:
“We think the romance genre is worthy of front cover coverage in one of the most prestigious book review outlets in the country, and we are glad that the New York Times Book Review dedicated three full pages to showcasing several amazing romance authors. However, we are disappointed that the contents of the article did not adequately convey the complexity, diversity, or sense of empowerment found within the genre.”
Their statement highlights again the conflict between the content and its frame. I remained curious, and I had a question I kept asking myself. So I did some emailing and asking of nosy questions.
I know from working with many publicists both inside publishing houses and from independent firms that this kind of coverage, despite what it is, is a big deal. It’s a win when looking back at a lot of effort over the past several decades. The fact that this article was on the front page, and was three pages in total, was discussed as a victory in some conversations, and I wanted to ask why.
The thing is, sometimes being in publicity (which, to recap, is the free promotion one secures for a book, i.e. press mentions, blog reviews, and coverage that is NOT paid for) means holding on to a big picture view. It’s a tough job, romance publicity. And a lot has changed about the romance genre’s, well, romance with mainstream media coverage. To understand that point of view, I think I do have to take my glasses off, blur the editorial text, and maybe levitate to 5,000 feet above the newspaper issue.
From that perspective, there are a few things I notice.
First, a lot of effort on the part of different teams of people went into encouraging a piece like that, and getting individual books into the collection. A “round up of romance” in a given month amounts to hundreds of books which could be considered “new.” So the people who secured a spot for a book or author from one of their houses worked their asses off.
After that effort, I can recognize it’s a big deal, but I still land hard on the ground under the weight of my anger at what Gottlieb wrote.
So I asked for people’s reactions, and interestingly enough, some of the people I contacted asked if they could be anonymous – which says a lot in and of itself, and which I totally understand. The publishing community, within romance and within the larger corporate environment, is really, really small. I joke often that it’s six total people, the rest is done with mirrors, and everyone has to switch places when someone rings a bell. The joke is obviously the bell part — there are in fact nine total people in publishing (KIDDING). (It’s 27.5.)
The answer to my question, “Why is this a good thing?” was varied.
As one anonymous publicist from a big five house said to me via email,
For years publicists have worked to convince the Times to feature romance so, to some small degree, it’s a success that they finally listened. It’s a shame that when The New York Times gets around to devoting significant space to romance novels they offer up such a dismissive, condescending, outdated, and misogynistic take on the genre.
One of a book review editor’s primary responsibilities should be to find the right reviewer for the task at hand—a reviewer who can cast a critical eye at the work without devolving into condescension.
My hope is that the Times learns from this experience and decides to give romance the same thoughtful and respectful review attention it gives to other genres like science fiction/fantasy and mystery.
Another person I spoke with said, essentially, it’s a complicated happiness.
Pam Jaffee, Senior Director of Publicity and Brand Development for Avon Books and Harper Voyager, took the time to explain some of the history of media coverage of romance, and her own work within it: “I’ve been doing this for more than twenty years. And as you know, everything about romance has been slow steps. There have not been many overnight wins in changing perspectives on the genre.”
“But you have a concerted effort of a community of people – not just publicity, but editors, authors, readers, reviewers – putting themselves out there time and again to talk about romance as being smart books for smart women.”
So when I asked about the positive aspects of this article, Pam’s location of this article as yet another small step in a long, long walk helped me understand this perspective:
“It’s real estate. It’s acknowledgement of the percentage of the industry that we represent. I hope they come from this with a list of people who have written them smart and heartfelt letters with arguments for the genre, showing them what we can do.
As a publicist who has seen this over and over, time and time again, any opportunity can become growth. It comes from many people working together and talking, and taking small steps to spur change, and to spur discussion on why change is merited.
My job is to be a bridge between books and media. And for The New York Times Book Review to have not only covered it, but given romance a cover, three pages – I’m blown away. I never would have expected that. I think there’s got to be a way to bring them forward.”
Pam mentioned writing letters and with arguments for the genre, and I want to touch on something else, with apologies that I can’t share more in good conscience: I saw one of the responses that the editor of The New York Times Book Review, Ms. Pamela Paul, has received for their featuring romance in the first place. Because this letter was posted on a private Facebook page, I don’t feel comfortable reprinting it, but the response I read was staggering in its sexism, vitriol, and condemnation.
So if readers of romance are angry, and some readers of the NYTBR are angry, what does this article accomplish?
What was the purpose of the article, or, more importantly, what work can it do in romance’s favor, if any? Does being in the NYTBR do anything positively or negatively for the genre as a whole?
For example, I initially doubted that any part of what Mr. Gottlieb wrote was going to make a NYTBR reader think differently about the genre. If anything, it’s more likely to suppress any interest by reinforcing and magnifying the stereotypes about the genre that we have worked against for years.
But I was also reminded of what I say in my own workshop about reviews, specifically negative reviews: no matter what was said, if the name of the book and the author were spelled correctly, you’re good. That’s a win. Because someone will read that review and think, “Oh, hold up, what book is that? Because that is ALL of my catnip,” and then WHOOSH the “one click buy” button bursts in to flames – we’ve all been there, right?
And I was reminded of the times that my own presence in some form of mainstream media, including The New York Times, has brought new readers to the site.
And hey, I should have said this earlier: if you landed here because you’re curious about romance, welcome! You are among friends, and we are happy you’re here. And by all means, ask for recommendations because I promise, we can find a book for you that you will love.
I read the article again and, as is my habit, mentally chased my tail for awhile. For example, all publicity may be in some form good publicity, but there’s a difference between a negative review on a blog and three pages in a prestigious weekly newspaper section with a reported circulation of more than a million people.
But as research of the Book Review itself has suggested in the past decade, negative reviews of lesser-known writers has helped sales.
From the abstract of Positive Effects of Negative Publicity: When Negative Reviews Increase Sales, by Jonah Berger, Alan T. Sorensen, and Scott J. Rasmussen:
Specifically, we argue that negative publicity can increase purchase likelihood and sales by increasing product awareness. Consequently, negative publicity should have differential effects on established versus unknown products. Three studies support this perspective. Whereas a negative review in the New York Times hurt sales of books by well-known authors, for example, it increased sales of books that had lower prior awareness.
It seems likely that a NYTBR reader may not have known about any of these titles prior to that article, so I wonder, does that theory still apply? Does the appearance of the selected romances in the NYTBR increase awareness and potentially sales for those authors?
I hope so – but the Times can’t tell us, as they eliminated the Mass Market Paperback bestseller list a few months back.
Which is just depressing, isn’t it?
After reading, re-reading, talking with a bunch of very smart people and texting with more of the same, I’ve come to this conclusion:
It may be progress. But it’s not great progress. It’s smelly, in fact.
It’s as if the Times coverage of romance is in its infancy. It has a long way before it catches up to other outlets. With this article, it has managed to soil its diaper rather than crap on the floor. It’s progress – but we’re a long, long way from being toilet trained.
Personally speaking, it’s difficult for me to see much of the sparkle of victory in this article. And yet, there’s some glimmer: I absolutely want to congratulate authors wholeheartedly, and congratulate the often-invisible behind-the-scenes people who busted serious amounts of work to make that happen.
I also want to commiserate with them. This article is a tawdry outcome to the work of many women – but, hey, what else is new? As much as I want to high five the people for whom this is an outstanding piece of promotion, the collective insult to the women mentioned makes it a somewhat flimsy victory at best, and downright pyrrhic at worst.
Also, my advice, for what it’s worth: I think an excellent framing store would be able to isolate the cover and head shot, the headline, the illustration, and the masthead with the date so that folks can commemorate being featured in an unprecedented placement in newsprint. I recommend a mat board in a contrasting color – it’ll look great.
But I cannot ignore two nagging thoughts.
Thought One: Imagine if!
Imagine what this could have been, but for the involvement of someone with publishing experience and fluency in romance.
I would even forgo some experience with the genre in exchange for cogent and sensitive attention to prose. I remain frozen-cold shocked and ashamed that this line from Mr. Gottlieb’s discussion of Cheris Hodges’ Deadly Rumors was even published:
Oh, yes – Zoe and Carver are African-Americans, though except for some scattered references to racial matters, you’d never know it. (Well, you would from the cover.)
Frankly, as The Ripped Bodice pointed out, we shouldn’t settle for less. We deserve better than that.
And, without a doubt, Cheris Hodges does.
Thought Two. Well, more A Question.
Consider this piece in context, compared to recent coverage.
Look at the way romance has been explored thoughtfully, seriously, and with attentive care and journalistic rigor in an increasing number of mainstream publications in the past five years.
Look at Kelly Faircloth at Jezebel, starting with this examination of how much Fabio actually appeared on romance covers, then make tea and come back for “How Harlequin Became the Most Famous Name in Romance.”
Heck, The Washington Post just published an article from editor Ron Charles about a romance author event I attended at Politics & Prose in DC. That article was titled, and I quote, Stop dissing romance novels already.
Look at Bustle, and Book Riot, and WaPo, other outlets who regularly examine romance, up close and from the 30,000-foot round up point of view…and somehow manage not to be as painfully obtuse and condescending as Mr. Gottlieb.
Which brings me to the question I haven’t been able to answer yet, and I’m very curious about your answer:
Do we as a community of readers of the romance genre need The New York Times at this point?
Seriously. I’m asking.
Because there is clearly so much room left for improvement in romance’s relationship with the Times, and I’m not sure we are the ones who should do the work to convince them to include more coverage from experienced writers. If they are starting from a place of very little insight and understanding, it’s not surprising that Mr. Gottlieb’s article assembled the alphabet in such a fashion. Do we want to do the work to bring them up to speed? Should we? Why?
I am over the moon that NK Jemisin covers Science Fiction and Fantasy for The New York Times. Expanding coverage, even with the removal of the mass market list? That’s brilliant!
This was the opposite of brilliant. If anything, it was as if the Times was insisting on irrelevance to a significant and intelligent segment of the marketplace.
That said… I will admit I went looking for framing coupon codes for those who might want a custom mat board cut to fit their needs. There remains some optimism in me somewhere, I guess.
So what do you think? What’s your take?