Dudesplaining, The April Edition

April 22, 2014 Opinion 23

Last night I was linked to Yet Another Genre Thinkpiece By Someone With A Penis Which Is Therefore Worthy Of My Time No Matter How Uninformed The Author. I ranted on Twitter (as one does) and filed it in the circular bin. Things followed the predictable cycle this morning and I assumed there would be a Dear Author defense/rebuttal combo piece by the end of the week. The wheel of Romancelandia grinds on. Then the author jumped into author Suleikha Snyder’s mentions looking for his missing cookies. She served him a plate of Oh Hell No and invited him to move on.

Berlatsky’s special brand of stooping to conquer annoyed me more than the average piece (and let’s face it, these are a dime a dozen to long term genre readers). Encountering his Twitter feed clarified why. He’s a Comic Book Guy. I’m a Comic Book Girl. Let’s flip some tables and help Berlatsky understand why we aren’t venting our feelings about his article in Salon’s comment section where it would help him get his clicks on.

  • Rule one of Romancelandia – the comments will be complementary, the social media will be the truth.

Now if you are a a romance reading guy this might confuse you. Why, you’d think to yourself, with women rushing to bask in the glow of my gaze, are these chicks pressed? Ladies, I’ll be happy to explain anything you want to know! Come at me! Essentially, Berlatsky has written the classic Ally piece. He’s down with the struggle. He’s here to represent. He doesn’t even have to do this, he wants to because he gets it. He’s the good one. Hold his hand. Ignore the bigotry on display and let him center himself in the struggle as a comrade in arms.

“I’m a guy who loves romance novels. Or, rather, I would like to love romance novels.” – NB

Bless his heart. Look at him try! He likes Jane Austen! (Cue the side-eye, ladies) He digs Gone With The Wind! He’s probably even heard of a Bronte. Obviously he is tailor made for genre frolicking, so what could possibly be holding him back?

“How hard could that be to find? The answer is: ridiculously hard. Oh, there are rafts and rafts of romance novels out there; teetering drifts of Harlequins and historicals and contemporaries, filled with plucky heroines and dashing or dastardly young men. I know that. But the question was, where to start?” -NB
His problem is an abundance of choice? Or is it that no one held his hand and walked him through the genre education he expects to have at his fingertips? I mean, he’s willing and that should be enough, right? He takes some time to take his second (now I know I’ve encountered Berlatsky before) swipe at industry giant Nora Roberts. Hey, he likes Twilight (well, that’s one of us) so he’s down with popular fiction but Roberts? He can’t spit on her fast enough. No worries because he finds friends willing to suggest things he might find more palatable to his infant palate. That’s super, super lucky.

“The genre is so culturally maligned that there has been no concerted effort to codify it. There is, in short, no romance canon. I’ve always been a little leery of canons.” -NB

Wait, what? The patriarchy has failed to elevate romance as a genre, therefore the patriarchy has not prepared a Recommended Romance Diet for him to follow and yet he’s never been the sort of dude who believes in such a thing anyway? Pick a chair, son! (Then sit down.) If you can’t write a piece on the genre without taking a swipe at Harlequin and spitting on Nora then a Recommended Romance Diet would give you exactly the indigestion you’re fearing. Canons are not simply best of lists, they are reached by consensus over large periods of time and include major works. Roberts is going to figure heavily on this magic list you claim you want but also don’t want. (Very Hipster – let’s Doge that later.)

“Looking around desperately and in vain for some sort of consensus “best of” lists for romance novels, though, I realized that such lists are, or can be, unexpectedly important. Canons are a way to solidify, or demonstrate, critical bona fides.” – NB

Now we’re getting somewhere! The issue isn’t that there’s no best of list for romance or scholarly studies of romance or required reading for courses on romance reading, it’s that no one walked to his house, rang the bell and handed them to him.

“Romance novels don’t have that. Yes, there are the yearly RITA industry awards. And there are certainly lists of best-of romance novels — …  But such compilations tend to be by individual readers or, as with the All About Romance list, based on reader polls.” – NB

Wait, he does know that the lists exist? He is aware of the courses and the scholarly studies? Well… oh. Berlatsky goes on to quote Eric Selinger saying no one has had “the chutzpah” to put those lists in writing. These lists assembled by consumers of the genre and professionals of the genre and academics of the genre don’t count because…? I’m going to guess it’s because the patriarchy hasn’t kissed them awake. (Pro-tip, Sleeping Beauty was originally awoken by the birth of her twins after Prince Charming raped her. Super romantic ending! Don’t even ask what Anne Rice did to her, Hoo-boy!) Berlatsky segues into some issue he has with Boomers and Bob Dylan (Yes, Tempest sucked but Dylan’s recent work rivals the best of his career) before unleashing his Mommy issues full force.

Romance is like punk rock for middle-aged women (and some other folks too, obviously) — a pop culture underground scorned by the mainstream, limned by initiates for initiates through word of mouth. The main difference being, of course, that punk rock at this point is completely critically domesticated, its subversion utterly commodified and canonized.” – NB

Let me find my middle finger, because suddenly I need it. There is so much wrong with this thought that I am clapping between each word I type. The dude goes to the trouble of explaining that we drive a huge section of the publishing market, subsidizing the more male accepted underperforming sectors of the market, and then he goes in with this? Who is the mainstream? Not the women buying the books. What’s this underground stuff? Has he ever walked in a Wal-Mart and seen what books they’re selling? How about the supermarket checkout? The drugstore? Hell, even the truck stop! (Unpacking where he’s wrong about punk rock would take the rest of my day. On behalf of my middle-aged punk self and my boomer neighbor who not only fucked Iggy Pop on the regular but fronted her own influential band and my 14 year old daughter immersed in the current punk scene, that’s some bullshit, that is. The Sex Pistols? Child, please.)

It’d be nice, at least, to get to a point where romance readers aren’t considered fools or morons. Moreover, the lack of a canon, or any system of critical validation, means that important novels in the genre often simply drift out of print, never to be reissued. If romance novels do ever attain even the precarious critical standing of science fiction or comics or pop music, there will be concrete benefits, for new readers and old ones.” – NB

Considered fools or morons by who? I love this concept that important works of science fiction, comics and pop music never drift out of print. Jack White just released an $800 box set trying to reclaim early (and out of print) music for a new generation. Did you ever try to find Memphis Minnie in the 1990’s? How about Poison 13 before SubPop did a quick revival? All genres of art are constantly curated and recurated with an eye to profit. Notable works are lost every day, which is why vinyl crate digging is such a hipster thing. You can’t buy every significant work on the yellow band DAW imprint. The original Sugar & Spike is going to run you thousands to read even if you can pick Angel & The Ape up cheap.

Having fought his way into the romance genre (something millions of women seem to do without much difficulty) Berlatsky offers the benefit of his (incredibly limited) experience for newcomers walking the road behind him. Until the patriarchy gets together and agrees on what they should read, he is here to help. Never mind those industry experts or readers with decades of diverse experiences weighing in. We’ve got Berlatsky to help us all. (Wait, that’s the list? I’m sorry. I thought it was the free library shelf at my community pool. No disrespect to the authors contained therein, but I assumed all of this was building to some masterful insight.)

(A note from Ridley: If he really wanted to read good romance novels, there’s no shortage of resources out there. Between the AAR list he dismisses, Rita winners and DABWAHA, it’s easy to get an idea of what’s valued in the genre. We’re going to compile a big list of bloggers and romance readers this Sunday, but this Intersectional A-Z from Olivia Waite is a really great place to start.)

The following two tabs change content below.


Meoskop's first non-compulsory book review was in 1973. Although a hit with the 3rd grade, concerns raised by the administration necessitated an extended hiatus. Reviews resumed in 1985 but the concerns are ongoing.

Latest posts by Meoskop (see all)

23 Responses to “Dudesplaining, The April Edition”

  1. Laura Vivanco

    I read it pretty fast the first time through but looking at it more closely, I get the distinct impression that romance readers are not being considered a “group of experts” in that article. Also, the quote from Eric Selinger is taken out of context but I wonder if when he refers to “anyone” he’s thinking about academics:

    institutionally codifying the “greatest” is an important way to assert that there is a “greatest” — that there is some group of experts who considers these works in particular, and the genre or medium in general, to be capable of greatness.

    Romance novels don’t have that. Yes, there are the yearly RITA industry awards. And there are certainly lists of best-of romance novels — such as this fascinating one at All About Romance. But such compilations tend to be by individual readers or, as with the All About Romance list, based on reader polls. As Eric Selinger, professor of English at DePaul University and executive editor of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies, told me in an email, “There are readers’ polls, and there have been discussions on fan sites like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books about what should be in the romance canon — there was a podcast there in 2012 that drew a lot of comments, for example. But no one has had the chutzpah to put one in writing, yet.”

  2. Eric Selinger

    FWIW, the “chutzpah” comment was about academics writing up “The Canon,” or was meant to be. When I started reading romance, and when I put together my courses on romance, I went to AAR and DA and Smart Bitches and the RITAs, as well as to other academics (Pam Regis and Sarah Frantz). As one does. Looking forward to the Sunday list.

  3. Melissa Blue

    I saw the rumblings on Twitter. I clicked on the article. I stopped reading at the mention of Pride and Prejudice. An hour worth of research could have easily turned up the Teach Me Tonight blog. If that long. But I guess it’s not a good enough source.

  4. Las

    “Wait, what? The patriarchy has failed to elevate romance as a genre, therefore the patriarchy has not prepared a Recommended Romance Diet for him to follow and yet he’s never been the sort of dude who believes in such a thing anyway? Pick a chair, son!”

    That’s the part I can’t get past. What’s with the fixation on “canon?” As the writer himself points out, Romance is the biggest seller. It’s not like a lack of canon prevents new readers from finding something they like.

    And I need a better explanation as to why AAR, DA, SB, and the RITAs don’t count as canon or close enough. For all the issues I have with the various lists (WTFLordofScoundrelsWTF), with so much overlap it’s obvious that many of the books have stood the test of time for readers.

  5. Laura Vivanco

    @Eric Selinger: So I was right to think you were taken out of context: as quoted, it could have seemed that either (1) you didn’t count Smart Bitches etc as anyone or (2) you don’t count blog posts and online polls as writing. I doubted that’s what you thought.

  6. Eric Selinger

    @Laura Vivanco: Well, the context was an email that asked if there was a romance canon–or, rather, “I can’t seem to find a romance canon. Am I right that there isn’t one?” I just assumed that he meant an academic canon, something like what Pam Regis is now working on in the context of American romance from the 18th century onward. He then asked if he could quote me, and after adding the link to the podcast, I said “sure.” A 3-5 minute exchange, not one I thought much about at the time, alas!

  7. Sunita

    @Eric Selinger: Well, he seems to think that the two of you chat regularly. Or so he said to Robin on Twitter. So I guess I’d just be extra-mindful how you phrase things, or ask for more explicit information on how your quotes are going to be used if you’re going to continue to be a resource for him.

  8. Eric Selinger

    We seem quite similar in age, sex, background, taste in the genre, which means I’m not really on my guard, or on my game.

  9. Nu

    Even if he had researched a canon, DA, SB, etc. leave out a lot in discussion, as we all know, e.g. an entire tradition of Black romance authoring.

  10. SuperWendy

    Honestly, what did romance readers do before the Internet? I’m hard pressed to think of one online romance reader who hasn’t trolled the AAR, RITA, DA and SBTB lists over the years. I know when I was rediscovering the genre the AAR Special Title Listings were a life saver! Did I love every book I read? Hell, no! But damn grateful I was for those lists and recommendations. They gave me a jumping off point.

    “Canons are not simply best of lists… OMG – this. So MUCH this. I was reading the article and thinking the whole time, “Does this guy know what canon means?” It does not = shit universally loved and squee’d about. It does mean seminal works with historical and cultural significance. And as we all know? That doesn’t always equal good.

  11. Nu

    What did people do before the internet? In any genre? Libraries and word of mouth. Canons shmanons, lol. Those of us who don’t like canonical works or canon clones go on. All my Tolkien haters, lol.

  12. SuperWendy

    @Nu: My preferred method pre-Internet was trial by fire browsing the library stacks. “Oh, this blurb sounds interesting.” or “Oh, this cover looks intriguing.” I had very high standards as a teenager – but hey, it’s how I discovered Gothics.

  13. Meoskop

    I agree with Nu, of course, that the majority of the lists skew very narrow in their focus. That’s a constant point to be made.

    Also, given that I highly doubted Laura V had signed off on her inclusion, I assumed the full piece had not been run by Eric S.

    Thanks for the comments here and elsewhere. I’m overbooked this week but am reading along.

  14. Nu

    @SuperWendy: Lol, Wendy, same here.

    @Meoskop: Thanks for sharing. I hadn’t heard about the article before your post. His comments seem to be better than his article, lol.

  15. Bona Caballero

    Everything you say is very interesting.
    I’ve been reading romance novels since Woodiwiss was a relatively new author, and a couple of decades later, when JAK and La Nora started boring me, I had the same feeling ‘I want to read something different, there must be a place where I can find a list of the Top 100 romance novels’.
    So, happily, there it was -the internet,… AAR and SBTB and Dear Author were enough to make my own ‘Top 100 list’ of books I will probably enjoy. That’s the way I discovered Kinsale.
    But when you’re talking about a canon, I’ve always thought it’s something different, something more academic, about the history of a genre, what I call ‘literary archeology’. That’s different and the main problem of that Noah Berlatsky’s post is that it’s not clear what the author wanted to discover. Was it a list of novels you will enjoy because readers have enjoyed them for years? Or an academic history of the genre?
    They are two different things. I read SEP or Crusie or Kinsale or Brockmann because I know I will have a good time. And I don’t ask myself if they are going to pass the test of time or not.
    But when I read ‘The Sheikh’ I knew that I would probably dislike it, and it happened the same with books as ‘Whitney My Love’ or ‘Outlander’. They are not my cup of tea BUT I have to recognize that you have to read them if you want to find out where certain tropes come from, or the history of the genre. That’s a canon and it’s different from a list of books to enjoy. -BTW, those novels are widely read and appreciated by millions, so I know I have the problem, not them.
    Anyway, we can all have both things -a canon and a reader’s favourite lists. So I thank academics that are looking into the genre with a scientific POV. And I do also thank all those bloggers and reviewers that give their opinions about certain books.
    That’s the point where I don’t share Noah Berlatsky’s opinion. Perhaps I’m an ‘easy woman’ but I find both things (lists & canon) nowadays. Something that was impossible when I started reading romance novels back in the 1980s.

  16. Meoskop

    Absolutely. Can you imagine what an academic canon would look like in the early 80’s? The popular list would’ve been Dell Candlelights, Signet Regencies, Fawcett Gothics and a raging war over that new upstart Loveswept vs
    Silhouette vs Harlequin for what made a “proper” contemporary. Then the fight over plantation vs savage vs epic vs full length historical. If only all the lost BBS boards of the early garage driven internets were preserved!