Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Berlatsky Affair: a Close Reading (1/?)

--Eric Selinger

[Added note:  In a Tweet, Noah Berlatsky pointed out that "You might have mentioned that you liked the piece until people told you not to."  Fair enough!  For the record, I liked the piece, and said so on Facebook:  "Noah Berlatsky nails it!"  I was very surprised to see the response that it got.  I still think that the essay made an interesting point, which I'll get to in post #2; what follows is my attempt to show how that point got partly lost in the shuffle, and partly left unsaid.  

For the record, I've been very happy to see Berlatsky's articles on romance, and have promoted them, cross-posted them, congratulated him on them, and so forth, both in public and in private emails.  If what follows looks like I'm saying he himself is a sexist jerk, let me be clear: I don't think that he is, but rather that the persona he constructs in the first few paragraphs in his piece could be read that way.  I want to show why and how.

The structure of his article depends on some rhetorical turns, and my posts follow that structure, more or less.  Part 1, this post, accentuates the negative.  Part 2 begins the pivot into what I liked about the essay, and my own role in it.  Part 3 isn't written yet, so I don't know what it will do.]

Last week, an article by "comics-and-culture" writer Noah Berlatsky at Salon drew a lot of attention in the online romance world, or at least the parts of it that I encounter through Twitter.  In it, Berlatsky seemed to say that romance lacked a "canon," and that this had proved a challenge for him--albeit a productive one--as he set about introducing himself to the genre.

I feel a personal stake in the piece and its reception.  I've been swapping messages with Berlatsky on Twitter and Facebook and email for several weeks now, on and off, responding to his forays into the genre.  One of those messages concerned what I thought was a question about whether there was an academic canon out there somewhere: a list of professorially-endorsed Romance Novels One Should Read (tm).  I said that there wasn't, but didn't go into why I would be wary of any one of us putting together such a list.  It was a casual email, which got quoted (with permission) in the piece, so my name is in the mix.

More broadly, though, I feel a stake because Berlatsky and I have a certain amount in common.  We're roughly the same age--I'm a few years older, I gather--; we both live near Chicago; we both started reading romance in middle age, discovering in the genre a number of novels that we really like and admire.  We seem to have similar taste, and we're interested in some similar questions as readers.

And, of course, we're both men.

On Twitter, after the piece went live, I mentioned to Berlatsky that we men writing about romance have to consciously try, at all times, not to be That Guy in our writing, because our training, our habits, and our editors will all encourage us to condescend to the genre, playing up stereotypes.  I've been asked a dozen times to have my picture taken holding up a book with Fabio on the cover, and I've done it, because the book in question (Flowers from the Storm) is one that I've also written about and extol at every opportunity. That was my excuse, at least, but in retrospect, I wish that I'd said "no."

In any case, Berlatsky answered that he'd tried very hard not to be That Guy, and seemed honestly surprised by some of the anger towards his piece.  I figured I should take a second look to see where he went wrong.

Let's start with the title and subtitle, which I'm going to assume were given the piece by Salon, rather than by Berlatsky:
I’m a guy who loves romance novels — and Jennifer Weiner is right about reviews 
Romance is the hardest genre to read, and not because of the stigma. It's because critics don't take it seriously
Right from the get-go, this "guy" has set himself up for a fall.  Announce that "I'm a guy who loves romance novels" and you're calling attention to the immediate salient fact about this essay's appearance in Salon: as men, he and I have immediate access to attention, to a hearing, as romance readers, no matter what we want to say or the knowledge we bring to the table.  To add that "Jennifer Weiner is right about reviews" right in your headline--and again, I'm assuming that he's NOT responsible for this--is to suggest that now that a "guy" has tromped on-stage to weigh in, that question has now been settled. (Were you wondering whether she was right?  Well, now you know!)  Add in the subhead that romance is  "the hardest genre to read" because "critics don't take it seriously"?  What does that say about the people--mostly women--who read it just fine without that critical guidance?  Either they don't exist, or their experience of the genre doesn't exist, or if they and their experiences exist, neither of those matters to the "I" who's speaking and the audience who's been implied.  Strike one, strike two, strike three, and Berlatsky hasn't even stepped up to the plate.

OK, now we're into the article proper.  Here's how it begins.
I’m a guy who loves romance novels. Or, rather, I would like to love romance novels. Jane Austen is just about my favorite novelist; I’ve read “Pride and Prejudice” I don’t know how many times. I also adore Trollope and E.M. Forster and George Eliot. Those folks are all dead, obviously, and aren’t writing any more books, because writing books when you’re dead is tricky, even if you’re a genius like Jane Austen. But it always seemed to me that books in the vein of “Pride and Prejudice” had to be out there somewhere, written by somebody less dead than Jane or Anthony. Witty heroines, and dashing heroes circling each other with arch asides and sudden plunges of emotion that would make me cry the way that last paragraph about Dorothea and Will always makes me cry in “Middlemarch.” How hard could that be to find?
This paragraph is, like many first paragraphs, at once an introduction to the author's public persona and a signal flare that illuminates the kind of person that the reader of the piece is presumed to be.  It introduces Berlatsky as a "guy who likes romance novels," but then immediately qualifies the statement, taking it back. He'd like to love them, as a class, which means that he doesn't, quite.  Why not?

Before answering that question, we get some roadwork:  good intentions laid down like so much pavement, leading just about where you'd expect.  Saying that you don't love romance yet, although you'd like to, and then invoking Austen, Trollope, Forster, and Eliot?  That's a way to say, more or less, "I like love stories when they're by canonical authors, which shows that I'm educated and have good taste, and in fact I'm pretty sophisticated, because I love one author (Trollope) who's not as well known as the others.  Come to think of it, I'm also a really sensitive guy, because I keep rereading "Pride and Prejudice," and I even cry at that one George Eliot paragraph that we all know about, we sensitive and educated types.  But enough about me.  Now, let's talk romance."

I don't mean to be harsh.  But even if every word of this is gospel truth--and why wouldn't it be?--as a rhetorical strategy, it's aimed mostly at establishing camaraderie with a reader who also likes those dead, respected authors, or at least knows that you're supposed to like them, and call Austen a "genius," yet who somehow doesn't like or love or admire or respect them enough to know that calling Austen "Jane" is falsely chummy and insufferably condescending.  (That "Anthony" is just a stalking horse.)  Berlatsky wouldn't be caught dead writing about how he loves "Allen" and "Jack" like a gushing beat wannabe, or announcing his love for feminist poetry by "Adrienne" and "Audre."  Jane me no Janes.

The first paragraph, then, sets up Berlatsky's character as a soi-disant "guy" who's about to judge modern popular romance against some kind of highbrow standard, and who's already implied that--alas!--it really doesn't measure up. We're in this muddle together, the paragraph also insinuates:  you and me, reader, and people like us, who'd really like to love romance, if we could find the right novels.  Texts that are, how shall we say? Truly accomplished. Books handsome enough to tempt us.

Why, then, does that quest turn out to be "ridiculously hard"?  Here's the paragraph that answers:
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? A friend recommended Nora Roberts at one point, and I gave that a try … but I couldn’t hack the dreadful prose — and this is from someone who rather enjoys “Twilight” and can even manage the occasional Robert Ludlum thriller. I’ve poked around online to find “best of” lists or other recommendations, but it soon became clear that there wasn’t even a provisional consensus on which books were the best or essential romance novels. Jane Austen showed up consistently, as did “Gone With the Wind,” but there was nothing that gave me a sense that certain books were clearly central, or respected, or worth reading. The genre is so culturally maligned that there has been no concerted effort to codify it. There is, in short, no romance canon.
Shall we take this piece by piece again?  Hoo-boy.  Sentences one and two are a shorthand overview of the genre designed to appeal to the common sense of anyone who doesn't read it.  They don't inform that non-reader of anything he or she doesn't already think that he or she knows:  the name of the famous publisher, three character types (one heroine, two men), two genres (historical and contemporary), and of course the scary fact that there's just so much of it!  Even this early in his reading career, Berlatsky knows full well that there's more to the genre than these handy, prefab talking points, but he doesn't mention what he knows, in order to paint himself as a naif, a boy who needs guidance.  "Where to start?" That's the question.

And you know what?  It's a fair question. And I know from Twitter that Berlatsky has gotten solid recommendations--many for books he really likes, which he recommends later in the piece--from romance authors and bloggers and reviewers.  Because the romance community does that kind of suggesting all the time.  Smart, sophisticated, incredibly well-informed readers, women who know the genre far, far better than I do, went out of their way to suggest books that he might like, based on his tastes and interests.  But he doesn't mention them until the end of the piece, waiting several paragraphs to tell his reader that these networks and conversations exist.  To an already skeptical or resistant reader of the piece--specifically, to some of the readers it found on Twitter--that seemed profoundly disrespectful, a missed opportunity for Salon readers to learn where they can go, other than to future pieces by Noah Berlatsky."][Note: my original sentence read: "But he doesn't mention them, or tell his reader that these networks and conversations exist.  That's profoundly disrespectful, and it's bad journalism, too:  a missed opportunity for Salon readers to learn where they can go, other than to future pieces by Noah Berlatsky."  In his comment, Noah replied that this was demonstrably false, since the end of the piece is quite specific about where else readers should go.  Here's the relevant passage:  "I was at a loss for years — but, eventually, I ended up doing what I think most romance readers do. I got some recommendations. Janine Ballard, who writes for, in particular, has led me to Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Laura Kinsale and a bunch of other wonderful authors." I apologize for insinuating that Berlatsky had not gone on to give those names, and for misrepresenting the piece as a whole.]

The only trace of that guidance by romance readers that shows up in the piece is the bit about one anonymous "friend" who suggests Nora Roberts, "and I gave that a try."


Where to begin?
  1. She's a "her," not a "that," bro.  Save "that" for important critical pronouncements, like "I'd hit that."
  2. She's published, what? 210 novels? So trying one is reading .5% of her work. I've taught four of her novels, over the years, roughly 2% of her oeuvre.  On the basis of that, I am officially incompetent to say anything about the quality of her novels, and if I am, so are you.  
  3. I'm sorry, but "dreadful prose" is just one of those vague, important-sounding things that people say about books they don't like, as a way to pat themselves on the back for their own taste. All you've really said here is, "I tried one book by Nora Roberts, and I didn't like it."  As critical discourse, it's about as savvy as "Disco Sucks."
Now, let me be clear.  Have I put down novels for "dreadful prose"? Sure, in every genre.  I've put down books of poetry for bad verse, too.  But that tells me exactly one thing about the book I've shut:  I didn't like it enough for other reasons to read past the language.  Because I can tell you, as God is my witness, if I like something else about the book enough, the language takes care of itself.

Of course, dropping lines like "dreadful prose" is part of a well-established paracritical discourse.  It's the kind of thing that you say when you're arguing over lists of what are, as Berlatsky says, the "best or essential" works of some kind:  the best and essential films of the '60s; the best and essential TV shows of the '70s; the best and essential punk records, and so on.  This is clearly the sort of argument that Berlatsky enjoys:  after all, he's written and linked to many a piece debating which are the most over- and under-rated this that and the other thing, at The Hooded Utilitarian.  Seriously--take a sec and Google "Noah Berlatsky Overrated."  It's a go-to form for him.

To me, such arguments always seem both pointless and terminally boyish, like those scenes in High Fidelity where the record-shop crew one-up one another with their lists of, say, the five best opening tracks for side three of a double album released from 1966-86, in reverse order, go!  And their academic equivalents, which codify which novels or poems are "central, or respected, or worth reading," strike me as equally bogus.  I'm old enough to have watched texts cycle on and off of those lists, to have listened to the critical debates that undermined them, and to have seen my students come to life when given texts--especially poems--that seem to be found on nobody's lists but mine.

There are, of course, plenty of lists out there in the romance world.  I'll talk about them, and about the rest of Berlatsky's article, anon.  For now let me just say that Berlatsky tells me, via Facebook, that ages ago he read and loathed High Fidelity, because he "felt like the criticism of insular white dude music obsession seemed more like a intensification of the insularity rather than a critique of it [...] especially because the female characters are so much of an afterthought."

Yet the pose Berlatsky strikes in the first few paragraphs of his Salon piece make this dislike pretty ironic. To paraphrase Oscar--see how that grates?--this loathing of High Fidelity is the rage of Rob Fleming (John Cusack) seeing his face in the glass.

I asked Laura for help in tracking down the responses of romance readers, and before I turn to the next few paragraphs in Berlatsky's piece--I'll do that in the next post--let me step back and let her prose and links take over.  Take it away, Laura!

"Berlatsky's comments on the lack of a romance canon came under particularly intense scrutiny from romance readers. Meoskop swiftly retorted that Berlatsky's argument seemed to be a complaint that
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. 
In her response to Berlatsky, Sunita stated that
“influential” and “good” are different categories, and while you find people regularly putting certain books in both, there are many more that qualify only for one or the other. And even with supposedly consensual choices there will always be dissenters.
As Wendy, the 2011 winner of the RWA's librarian of the year award, observed:
Berlatsky bemoans the lack of a romance genre "canon."  A definitive list of books within the genre.  But digging deeper into his article what he is really bemoaning is A Lack Of Canon Featuring Books That I Deem As "Good." [...] Bemoaning that it's hard to find shit you personally like isn't enough.  It's understanding the history of the genre.  And lucky you - here I am to give you Wendy's Starter Guide To The Romance Canon That You Think Doesn't Exist.  It does exist - it's just not required by law to be validated by your personal tastes and preferences.
Close quotes--back to Eric.  See you in the next post, folks!

Noah Berlatsky Loves Romance but Can't Find Romances He Loves
Wendy the Super Librarian Fires the Canon
Meoskop on Dudesplaining
Sunita on The Uses and Misuses of Canon  


  1. Noah Berlatsky tried to comment, but it didn't get through, so he sent his response to me. I'll post it here, and in a separate post as well. I'm going to post it in pieces, here in the comments. It's a bit too many characters, otherwise.

    Hey Eric. I appreciate you taking the time to write this, and how helpful you've been with your time and interest as I've started to write and think about romance writing.

    Having said I said on twitter,, this seems like a pretty ungenerous reading in a lot of respects. Just for starters:

    1. there's no indication in your reading that I actually criticize canons for *exactly the reasons you suggest* in the piece itself. Like, I say, "don't trust canons; they're silly" just about verbatim.

    2. Along those lines, the piece ends with me saying, not having canons seems like a good thing for romance. The piece is about how romance doesn't need a canon, not about how it does. There is not a flicker of a suggestion that this is the case in this essay, presumably because if there was I wouldn't be the evil bro, which would cause rhetorical confusion.

    3. You assume that talking about Austen and Trollope means that I'm signaling to people who aren't readers of romance novels. Why would you assume that? Do you think that romance novel readers don't know those authors? I don't assume that at all. On the contrary, my assumption is that many romance novel readers are very familiar with those authors, and enjoy them for the same reasons they enjoy romance novels. (And why should my use of Anthony's first name be any different than Jane's, exactly? Because the use of Anthony doesn't fit with this piece's interest in painting me as a sexist jerk? Or what?)

    4. Of course, no one would know from reading your piece that I say in mine that austen and trollope are continuous with other romance writers, because you make no mention of it in your discussion. You point out that I don't like Nora Roberts, but there's little indication that I say in the piece that there are a lot of other romance novels I do like, and that I don't actually see any reason to separate Austen and Trollope from the romance field more generally.

    5. The assumption here seems to be that every romance reader who read the piece reacted as one with loathing at my condescension and sexism. That really is nothing like the case. Many readers responded as if I had rhetorically positioned myself as a newbie, which I did, and provided recommendations (read the comments to the piece.) Many romance readers and writers said they liked the piece and found it interesting and worth thinking about. Are those folks deluded saps who need you to explain to them why I'm really an awful person? Are you speaking for all romance readers when you denounce me? Who are you protecting exactly, and from what?

  2. Noah's comment, part 2:

    6. The single most infuriating thing in your essay though, is this:

    "Smart, sophisticated, incredibly well-informed readers, women who know the genre far, far better than I do, went out of their way to suggest books that he might like, based on his tastes and interests. But he doesn't mention them, or tell his reader that these networks and conversations exist. That's profoundly disrespectful, and it's bad journalism, too: a missed opportunity for Salon readers to learn where they can go, other than to future pieces by Noah Berlatsky. "

    That's absolutely false. Allow me to quote:

    "So, in the absence of critical consensus, which of the gazillion romance novels with nearly identical covers featuring nearly identical flexing pecs and/or heaving bosoms do you choose? As I say, I was at a loss for years — but, eventually, I ended up doing what I think most romance readers do. I got some recommendations. Janine Ballard, who writes for, in particular, has led me to Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Laura Kinsale and a bunch of other wonderful authors."

    Did you not read to the end of the piece? Did you just skip over it because you assume that I'm such an asshole that it can't possibly be there? Or what, Eric?

    I understand that anyone can make mistakes, but you've systematically distorted my essay, to the point of actually misrepresenting it. I'd appreciate a correction, at least to the last point, which is simply flagrantly false.

    Finally, I guess I'd say that in terms of Wendy's piece, I think there's a difference between a canon and a list of historically influential works. There's overlap...but her adamant insistence that historical influence is the only way to make a canon for romance pretty much dovetails with what I said in the piece — that being that romance seems really reluctant to create a canon along the lines in which other genres have created canons (like comics, to point to the thing I'm most interested in.) I don't think that means that romance is backwards or wrong. I do think it's interesting though and worth discussing. It would be nice if discussing it didn't involve using me as a rhetorical punching bag, but if it does, it does.

    1. I am overall in favor of dismissing insider/outsider policing of who gets to talk about a particular genre, but I admit I had hoped for better from this prominently positioned commentary on romance fiction. Are you saying that because you mentioned Janine's recommendations and the website she writes for, Eric is wrong to suggest that the piece did a disservice in missing, omitting and/or dismissing the rich and diverse network of widely read and recognized blogs and conversations that constitute an ongoing and fluid discussion of that which is "canonical" and/or controversial in romance?

    2. I feel partly responsible for that gap, Pamela1740. My email, which Noah quoted, could easily have said more. That's part of my job as JPRS editor, in a way: getting the word out when asked.

    3. Thanks, and I know how common it is to wish one had said more or different things, when reflecting on a conversation in hindsight, whether email, online, or in person. For me, the issue is whether the piece offered a fair representation of the kinds of voices in the conversation about canon, and I think he could easily have alluded to the presence of other sources of critical discussion in addition to you/JPRS and Janine. I also think recent discussions have demonstrated there is substantial interest and activity in critical discourse that occupies the "space between" fandom and scholarship (Olivia Waite, Liz/Something More). As I know you are already aware, lots of really interesting work is going on in that space, including discussions that touch on canon, though without attempting to construct a static definition.

  3. I agree that there were plenty of problematic elements in the piece. For instance, I'm not keen on labelling things as having "dreadful prose" unless it's incomprehensible, which Nora Roberts's certainly isn't, and I got rather puzzled later on by the whole "canon" thing since I couldn't work out exactly what Berlatsky meant by "canon" even before he did a rhetorical pirouette and said he didn't really want one after all.

    However, I had a more positive than negative response when I first encountered the piece. In large part, that's probably because I'm favourably disposed towards any article on the genre which is broadly positive about it and doesn't describe romances as "mommy porn", "porn for women" etc.

    I also think it's because of how I read the opening lines/paragraphs. You're critiquing the bit about "Romance is the hardest genre to read, and not because of the stigma. It's because critics don't take it seriously" but I read that as very similar to a point made by Pam Regis and, before her, by Jayne Ann Krentz. Pam writes that "Women admit that they cover a romance novel if they are going to be reading in public" (xi) and Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women opens with the words "Few people realize how much courage it takes for a woman to open a romance novel on an airplane. She knows what everyone around her will think about both her and her choice of reading material" (1).

    Looking back, and taking into account what Berlatsky has to say about the canon, he was probably discounting this sort of discomfort (as due to "stigma"), but I thought maybe Berlatsky was suggesting that the stigma was due to critics' lack of knowledge of the genre and so the two were linked.

    The list of authors which you read as partly a "rhetorical strategy, [...] aimed mostly at establishing camaraderie with a reader who also likes those dead, respected authors, or at least knows that you're supposed to like them" actually did resonate with me because, with the addition of authors such as Georgette Heyer, Victoria Holt, and the Lymond Chronicles, that's how I came to romance too. So while I can see your point, that's not how I read that part of the piece.

  4. Thanks Laura. I'm relieved that you didn't find the piece off-putting.

  5. Not "off-putting" exactly, but certainly puzzling. I wasn't sure what you were wanting from a "canon" (at the points when you did want one) and I couldn't work out why other people's lists weren't what you wanted even though some of them are relatively similar to the one you make at the end.

    Your "Romance as Criticism, Criticism as Romance puzzled me too, partly because I haven't read the Seidel but also because you were using different definitions of "romance" at different times.

  6. Canon develops after a period of study. Poetry and literature have been studied for a couple hundred years now-- plenty of time for discussion about what's significant and why. The study of Romance is new, and what's more, study of the genre as literature, as opposed to a social and gendered phenomenon to be de-facto denigrated, is shiny new. There hasn't been time to develop an Academic canon.

    Berlatsky says ::what I said in the piece — that being that romance seems really reluctant to create a canon along the lines in which other genres have created canons (like comics, to point to the thing I'm most interested in.) I don't think that means that romance is backwards or wrong.::

    Here's the thing -- we cannot separate the impact of gender on anything. The problems of gender in Comics is vicious; that canon can, and is, seen as quite hostile toward women. What, precisely, is the value of a canon when canon, almost across the board, omits and elides women?

    The danger in canon is exactly what so many romance readers and authors reacted to: it's almost inherently male-view. Every day of our lives women see themselves erased, misrepresented, and reduced to our ability to please men. As a man coming into a community that has operated for years without the slightest notice from the male view, it's vital to set yourself to identifying and understanding ingrained prejudices.

    The article, which I read, came across as "hey, I'm awesome because I'm trying to read romance! NOW romance matters." And all the women who have been critically discussing the genre for years can't help but roll their eyes. Here we go again.

    Romance is not reluctant to create a canon -- Academics who are only now beginning to study the genre are struggling to figure out what might be canonical -- without being widely read in the genre. In fact, it's not all that hard, after some lurking in the major communities to discover books that might qualify for canon.

    1. Well said! There are years' worth of critical discussions about the good, the essential, the "important" in romance fiction, and there are indeed "major communities" where one might easily gain insight into the issues and trends that are shaping an informal canon even as many critical readers probably would prefer to reject or at least to deconstruct the notion of canon. There is an abundance of riches when it comes to substantive critical discussion that might have illuminated the conversation about the relationship between romance and canon, and I think this conversation can and should be linked to recent discussions about the interesting intersections, and tensions, between romance fandom and romance scholarship. There is a broad territory in between where people are actively engaged in creating a robust critical discourse about the genre, and have been for years.