Birds Do It, Bees Do It, But How Does The NYT Review It?
October 5, 2017 1:55 AM   Subscribe

Robert Gottlieb's Roundup of the Season’s Romance Novels.

Some responses to the piece.

From Amanda Diehl at Book Riot: What bothers me most about the label of “harmless” is that it minimizes romance and things that women enjoy are so often minimized as silly, a passing fancy, or inconsequential. But romance has done so many great things for readers, readers who I have personally spoken to face-to-face and via online communities. Some readers thank romance for opening the door to discuss sex and physical needs. Some characters deal with traumas that many men and women face, and it can be a comfort to see that treated respectfully on the page. Representation of non-white, non-cishet individuals finding love can be so incredibly important and reaffirming for marginalized communities.

From Ron Hogan at Medium: Now, a critic who really wanted to dig into a body of literature might ask himself, what does it mean when a number of authors choose to set their fiction in a particular part of the United States? Is there a cultural assertion being made? An attempt to focus on people who feel left out of a “literary” canon that frequently focuses on the urban experience? Is it a convenient hook for a particular type of plot, or an avenue to write about a particular landscape? You could ask all sorts of questions, reaching back to Janet Dailey’s project of writing at least one romance for all fifty states.

From Lauren Layne: But ladies, thank goodness we have the blessing of a man who goes on to assert: Why shouldn’t women dream? After all, guys have their James Bonds as role models.
Absolutely, Mr. Gottlieb. Because a woman reading about romantic relationships and a decent orgasm is totally on the same outrageous fantasy level as Goldfinger, right?
The romance genre deserves a hell of a lot better than a belittling, benign adjective like harmless.

From Stephanie DeLuca at Melville House: I’d wager that what women want, need, and deserve, besides an extra 20.4 cents, is not to be spoken down to by an eighty-six-year-old man who somehow thinks he’s an authority on the subject. There is no blanket statement about what women need — we all want different things. Some want a man and a dog and kids and a yard. Some want a woman and a dog and kids and a yard. Some want to live alone forever. Some want a career, some don’t. Some want to imagine what’s it’s like to be in a relationship with a sexy vampire or brooding werewolf and aren’t looking for plausibility in their romance novel, dude.

From Cora Buhlert: The New York Times now has a review round-up column for new romance novels, just as it already has one for crime fiction and one for science fiction and fantasy. This is a good thing. However, while the SFF column is written by N.K. Jemisin, a genuine SFF writer and double Hugo winner, and the crime fiction column is written by Marilyn Stasio, a dedicated crime fiction fan and prolific reviewer, i.e. people who know what they’re talking about, the romance column is not penned by someone who has any discernible connection to the romance genre.

And a response from the New York Times Book Desk over who gets to write about romance: But the fan’s relationship to a work of art is different from the critic’s. Our goal is not simply to recommend books or enthuse about them — though we do have two recurring features reserved for exactly those functions: our weekly book recommendations and an occasional column called “The Enthusiast.” Our goal is to assess and critique the books on offer. Mr. Gottlieb’s assessments include drawing positive attention to the “robust sex and amusing plotting” in one writer’s novel and noting another’s “preposterous” story line (though he adds that the preposterousness is what allows for the fun).
posted by gusottertrout (51 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
This really isn't an area of expertise for me, but, prompted by Fizz's comment in another thread, I thought it too interesting a subject to pass up.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:57 AM on October 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

From the Cora Buhlert article:

So while it’s great that the New York Times finally acknowledges the romance genre, they really could have done much better in their choice of columnist and chosen someone who actually has a clue about the genre (e.g. Eloisa James a.k.a. Mary Bly or Jennifer Crusie or Courtney Milan or Sarah Wendell or… well, the list is endless). As for Mr. Gottlieb, I’m sure the New York Times could have found something for him to write about that’s more within his field of experience.

QFT! It's infuriating. And I'd like to add Mefi's Own Linda Holmes, who does a great tinyletter on romance (not just novels, but including novels) called cartoonhearts, to that list.
posted by Ziggy500 at 2:24 AM on October 5, 2017 [10 favorites]

I'm reading the amazing How To Suppress Women's Writing, which has a lot to say about the ways in which men completely miss the point of work written by and for women, often willfully. Sucks that we're still having this same conversation decades later.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:48 AM on October 5, 2017 [23 favorites]

The NYT response annoys me more than the original article. "Who gets to write about romance?" Clearly anyone can write about romance, but your opinions will carry more or less weight given your knowledge and experience of a genre. The writer dazzles us with his qualifications as an editor of Crichton and Morrisson and tosses in the factoid that he's a "voracious reader of contemporary romance." Really? Maybe he hate reads it in the same way that I hate watch Grey's Anatomy. And instead of responding to the essence of the criticism, the NYT cherry picked some of the negative reactions and turns their response to them into a hit piece against readers of the genre, stating that, as "fans" of a "beloved" genre, their opinions lack merit. Then they round off the entire response piece with an emotionally manipulative conclusion: some people don't want us to write about your garbage genre in the first place, so you're lucky we bothered to do a piece at all!

Both writers fall into the same trap: rather than confining their discussion to the genre, they draw unearned conclusions about readers of the genre. I was actually in agreement with some of Gottlieb's discussion of romance and how it has changed over the years, but then, of course, we have to get into a bunch of nonsense about what all of this has to say about readers of romance.

Here's some news for Gottlieb. I've been reading romance since 1992 and I'm still basically the same person. Despite my affection for vampire and werewolf romance, I do not actually wish to be whisked away by a hulking brute who claims to be my true mate, his alpha to my omega. I just read this shit for fun, dude.
posted by xyzzy at 2:53 AM on October 5, 2017 [22 favorites]

"Only those for whom a sexual fantasy “works,” that is, those who are aroused by it, have a chance of telling us to what particular set of conditions that fantasy speaks, and can analyze how and why it works and for whom. Sexual fantasy materials are like icebergs; the one-tenth that shows above the surface is no reliable indicator of the size or significance of the whole thing. Sexual fantasy that doesn’t arouse is boring, funny, or repellent, and unsympathetic outsiders trying to decode these fantasies (or any others) will make all sorts of mistakes."

-Joanna Russ, ‘Pornography By Women For Women, With Love,’ 1985
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:59 AM on October 5, 2017 [10 favorites]

"Our goal is to assess and critique the books on offer. Mr. Gottlieb’s assessments include drawing positive attention to the “robust sex and amusing plotting” in one writer’s novel "

Yeah, dude, that wasn't a POSITIVE assessment, that was a SNIDE assessment.

That was a skin-crawlingly gross original article. I'm not much of a romance reader, but that was infuriating and that guy came across as a condescending and creepy voyeur who didn't engage with the books at all but definitely stuck post-it flags on all the sex scenes. And could he be any more snide?

It's especially egregious because there is such great romance criticism available on the web these days. Sure, parts of the genre are silly -- like parts of every genre (including lit fic) are silly. But there's a lot of really interesting critical writing engaging with the high-quality end of the genre as well as talking about the sillier parts. Surely the NYT could do better than a guy going, "hee hee, boobies!"
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:36 AM on October 5, 2017 [9 favorites]

That was a skin-crawlingly gross original article.

No kidding. The low point might have been calling one of the authors "sexy," but there are plenty of other low points to choose among.

I've never been a romance genre fan, but as a genre it deserves at a minimum the same respect that is occasionally shown to genres like crime, westerns, or science fiction. A starting point, as noted in a number of the responses, would be picking a reviewer who is legitimately immersed in the genre and can provide useful and informed reviews.

This guy just gave a mix of lulz and signposts to know where to find the sex scenes. They could have done better picking a random person off of the subway to write the review.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:18 AM on October 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

But do they address climate change? Because I guess that covers a multitude of sins.

Also, having been referred to as "harmless" by a girlfriend's father once, no, don't do that. It's kind of rude.
posted by Naberius at 6:07 AM on October 5, 2017 [5 favorites]

Ugh. The original piece was unreadable, but I did manage to get to the bit where he condescendingly praises Eloisa James's "robust sex and amusing plotting... as we would expect from a writer who in her other life is the daughter of the poet Robert Bly...."
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:09 AM on October 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

I would say I had wasted my life reading that article, but I did learn there's a new Eloisa James out, so that's something.
posted by corb at 6:16 AM on October 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

“In the last half decade, he’d seen an enormous white whale, the Great Wall of China and the aurora borealis. And now he’d seen Miss Willa Ffynche.”
That's a pretty great line. It had me humming Buffett's "Last Mango in Paris" for a moment and that is not the sort of thing I ordinarily do.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:45 AM on October 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

A friend of mine had a Twitter thread in response to the original article too.

The original article concludes in with this:

Its readership is vast, its satisfactions apparently limitless, its profitability incontestable. And its effect? Harmless, I would imagine. Why shouldn’t women dream?

Which out of all the incredible spewing bullshit happening in our world right now, is perhaps The Most condescending, dismissive, dehumanizing thing I have read about women in a few weeks. It's like women, with their pathetic little stories, as fucking hamsters or something, with tiny dreams of bigger seeds.

Fuck the New York Times Book Desk and fuck Robert Gottlieb.
posted by Squeak Attack at 7:34 AM on October 5, 2017 [17 favorites]

Would it be appropriate and/or interesting for a cinema critic to review some of the latest porn films?
posted by twsf at 8:23 AM on October 5, 2017

In the past year or so, my reading preferences have shifted from being a mixture of science fiction and fantasy, literary fiction and historical mysteries to being pretty much historical cozy mysteries written by women and historical romances.

There are two reasons for this:

1. I'm at a point in my life where I only want to read books that take the emotional lives of women seriously. This means that I'll still pick up some fantasy or literary fiction, but it's very likely going to be written by women and have a female protagonist.

2. My favorite historical romances seem to be really grappling with the idea of how can heterosexual couples have an equal relationship under the patriarchy. The better ones also grapple with issues of race and class.

I'm ace -- so I'm really not in it for the sex. If something tends to be too much of an erotica or if the characters fall instantly into lust with each other, I put it down.

I'll take that it may be a fantasy that equal heterosexual partnerships can exist under the patriarchy, but I'd prefer not to have to deal with additional patronizing sexism in an evaluation of my escape from sexism.

A small aside -- does anyone know about lesbian historical romances? I'd love a Boston marriage book.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 8:49 AM on October 5, 2017 [8 favorites]

The barely-veiled contempt dripping from every line of the original piece is really astonishing. JFC.

Even when he's ostensibly being complimentary, the language he uses is infantilizing and belittling -- Catherine Anderson has "pleasingly written books" with "sweetly pretty covers." Nora Roberts' books are "sensibly written and on the whole as plausible as genre novels can be" [what a backhanded compliment]. Debbie Macomber is "adorable." ADORABLE.

Oh, but at least Eloisa James, who can at least pull together "amusing plotting," has bona fides that Gottlieb can respect: She's "a writer who in her other life is the daughter of the poet Robert Bly and a professor of English literature at Fordham." I'm glad we've been informed of her connections to Real Literature so we know to take her semi-seriously.

And really, you just get the sense that he's offended that readers would be interested in satisfying sex, literary or otherwise. (Of Tessa Dare, snarkily: "And — a bonus — it turns out that 'bringing a woman to orgasm had always been a particular pleasure for him.' …" ... yes? Am I supposed to guffaw at the idea that the story's hero is supposed to enjoy satisfying his partner?) He makes sure to note that Barbara Cartland, who he at least frames as successful and influential in the genre, never includes sex in her novels.

But mostly he can't even muster positive adjectives that tepid. Danielle Steele is "redoubtable" and Cartland is "formidable." (I actually thought he called one of them "divine" but a CTRL+F quickly proved that was an overly optimistic mis-remembrance.)

It's just all so ... UGH.
posted by alleycat01 at 8:53 AM on October 5, 2017 [9 favorites]

(Sorry I had more to say.)

And THIS shit:

>>The only new element in the genre these post-Heyer days is the relentless application of highly specific sex scenes featuring his “hardened rod” and her orgasm that “went on for what felt like hours but was probably only a minute or two.” Bodices no longer need to be ripped — your bosom happily meets his abs halfway.

OK, so, I would actually argue that you could make a damn convincing case that the entire idea that "bodices no longer need to be ripped" and that body parts are meeting "halfway" represents some preeeettty interesting new elements. E.g., the idea of CONSENT and the change in popular perception of "ideal" relationships and the balance of power between partners. You could write whole papers about what that says about the evolution of societal norms and our understanding of male/female roles and oh, other people HAVE written those papers. He was just too lazy to engage with them.

The thing is ... I also don't like a lot of the authors he mentions in the piece, nor their writing. And of course there IS a lot of dreck out there ... but what a narrow and uninformed view of genre, with a mostly-dated crop of references! Where's Courtney Milan, whose plotting and research is top-notch? Where's Jennifer Crusie?* Ilona Andrews? Josh Lanyon? Kristan Higgins? Bec McMaster or Meljean Brooks? KJ Charles? Sarina Bowen? Diana Gabaldon? Meredith Duran? (Not to mention, if you were going to stick with the premise that 1 of only 2 existing categories is Regencies AND include only years-old titles in your "roundup of the season's romance novels," you'd have done better to nod at Laura Kinsale, Madeline Hunter, and Mary Balogh). Where's the discussion of M/M romance, LGTBQ romance, or genre-blending romance (so, so much genre-blending)?

There's good and bad writing in EVERY genre, and it's just such a shame that the NYT chose to hand this assignment to someone with such an obvious disdain for it, and who chose to take such a lazy, biased approach.

*oh, Jennifer Crusie is in the comments, calling out the patriarchy.
posted by alleycat01 at 9:10 AM on October 5, 2017 [15 favorites]

justkeepswimming - there's a lot less actual sex in older romance novels. It wasn't until around the late 1990s that mainstream Romance turned into thinly-veiled erotica.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:48 AM on October 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

I just listened to the recent episode of Criminal where they interviewed the NY Times Book Review crime reviewer, Marilyn Stasio, who very obviously loves crime fiction. So it seems strange that the NY Times can't find somebody to review romance fiction who likes romance fiction.
posted by interplanetjanet at 9:52 AM on October 5, 2017

your bosom happily meets his abs halfway

Also I'm trying to imagine the actual act being performed here and being a bit puzzled. Upside-down fellatio?
posted by praemunire at 10:01 AM on October 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

yeah- halfway up or halfway down?
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 10:14 AM on October 5, 2017

A small aside -- does anyone know about lesbian historical romances? I'd love a Boston marriage book.

if you find one give it to me right now. if you haven't heard the name Sarah Waters you should check her work out--full disclosure, I actually kind of hate her writing style personally but historical f/f romance is pretty much her thing. I would also rec looking at Hild by Nicola Griffith.

will return later when have a chance to actually read posts linked

posted by sciatrix at 10:29 AM on October 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

A small aside -- does anyone know about lesbian historical romances?

I haven't read any of them myself, but Sarah Waters' works seem popular.
posted by one for the books at 10:49 AM on October 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm so glad there was additional discourse in here, because I could barely get through the first 'review' in that link. so... condescending.
posted by dreamling at 10:54 AM on October 5, 2017

I sort of like this optimistic take from Olivia Waite at the Seattle Review of Books: Robert Gottlieb is Obviously Smitten
posted by alleycat01 at 11:07 AM on October 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

So it seems strange that the NY Times can't find somebody to review romance fiction who likes romance fiction.

For what it's worth, my take on Gottlieb's piece is that he actually does enjoy romances, but in a very narrow and specific way. The "round up" seems to me clearly aimed at what I believe Gottlieb imagines as something like the idealized New Yorker reader that magazine has been deluded into thinking real. His approach is one of genteel condescension to romance novels, treating them as a frivolous pleasure when indulged in moderation.

The piece isn't aimed at actual readers of romance novels, but those Gottlieb thinks of as "serious" readers to whom he is explaining the light and often preposterous pleasures he feels they might encounter should they deign to pick up one of the books as an apertif before indulging in something more formidable.

His tone is clearly that of an earlier era where sexism was mixed in to all discussions of culture as simply the way things were, from the privileged perspective those who found success so often showed. I suspect he may have had something like Auden's essay, The Guilty Vicarage, in mind as inspiration for writing about his little indulgence, with the notion being that, as Auden puts it, For me, as for many others, the reading of detective stories is an addiction like tobacco or alcohol., except instead of detective stories, Gottlieb finds his pleasure in romance novels.

To be sure, Gottlieb doesn't duplicate Auden's attempt to lay bare the forms detective novels follow, but his method of reference to their history and pleasures, as he sees them, carry a similar sense of belief in seeing the thing whole, understanding its appeal and point of view, and enjoying the books for the way they weave in new detail to set genre forms. The form is the constant, while the amusement comes from the different variations of accoutrements that are arranged inside.

Gottlieb's likening of romance novels to James Bond, I think, tells the tale of how he sees the books and the readers he is addressing, which is to say the article assumes familiarity with Bond, which he associates with a male readership and through the analogy then the readership he is addressing with this piece, and that such a readership shares his estimation that such pleasures are superficial fantasies in object accumulation and desire. That such an accounting fails to consider the values behind the Bond franchise or romance novels is of course just another of the failings of the article, further suggesting Gottlieb's perspective is coming from a different era.

I suspect the New York Times chose Gottlieb as much for being a man and thus providing that "outside perspective" to romance novels as they did for his credentials, which are indeed impressive. It's a form of appeal to authority that has lost appeal over the years as its constant abuse and failure has showed it as hollow. Authority in this sense is based more on privilege than expertise in the subject. It isn't that Gottlieb knows nothing, it's that he knows enough to consider himself expert which robs those truly more knowledgeable from providing a better informed commentary. That this is common in media and elsewhere is no defense for continuing the kind of relationship which we should by now all know is not beneficial.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:10 AM on October 5, 2017 [7 favorites]

> there's a lot less actual sex in older romance novels. It wasn't until around the late 1990s that mainstream Romance turned into thinly-veiled erotica.

That actually happened in the early 70s. Kathleen Woodiwiss's 1972 The Flame and the Flower was the first "bodice ripper" style romance, filled with loads of sex and adventure and *ahem* problematic, rapey, asshole heroes. Rosemary Rogers swiftly followed with Sweet Savage Love in 1974. Bertrice Small's stuff was... quite the eyeopener to wee teen me in the 1980s. In the mid-nineties or so, the genre generally moved away from the rapey alphahole heroes (though they have sprung back up with a vengeance in the 'billionaire erotica' genre).
posted by lovecrafty at 11:43 AM on October 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

> "A small aside -- does anyone know about lesbian historical romances?"

I quite like Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin; it's a lovely YA one. I'd highly recommend it.

Here's a whole bunch I have more mixed feelings about:

Sarah Waters has already been mentioned; Tipping the Velvet is a good place to start, or Fingersmith maybe. Lots of people love her, but she leaves me a little cold.
Patience and Sarah by Isabel Miller is odd but interesting.
The Last Nude by Eliis Avery was all right.
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue is interesting but suffers a bit from "cram in every detail I researched about the era" disease.
Passing Strange by Ellen Klages had some beautiful moments, although overall I thought it was a little thin.
posted by kyrademon at 11:59 AM on October 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

I read romances, I squick my own squee about them, I would *love* to read more good criticism of them.

And I also would like a Boston Marriage romance, preferably one commenting on James' _The Bostonians.
posted by clew at 11:59 AM on October 5, 2017

(I should mention that Passing Strange also has a bit of a magic element, in case you don't like mixing your genres.)
posted by kyrademon at 12:07 PM on October 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

That actually happened in the early 70s. Kathleen Woodiwiss's 1972 The Flame and the Flower was the first "bodice ripper" style romance, filled with loads of sex and adventure and *ahem* problematic, rapey, asshole heroes.

I read The Flame and the Flower as a kid - while it does have a couple of explicit scenes, it's nothing compared to modern fare. You can skip over them and still have a whole book to read. (A problematic book with a rapey, slaveholding asshole in the male lead, absolutely true. He could have been named Heathcliff Rochester.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:46 PM on October 5, 2017

Hm, yeah I don't know which ones you're reading today, but most mainstream romance of the sort discussed in the NYT article aren't wall-to-wall sex either. There's usually a couple of explicit scenes that generally go on for a few pages, but the rest is all story. Bertrice Small was FAR filthier than most modern romance authors! (I will admit the genre didn't really discover oral sex of any flavor until the nineties...)

Now, if you want into stuff specifically marketed as 'erotic romance' (or whatever the Anita Blake novels turned into after the author got divorced...), then you'll get mostly sex, little plot. (Also more common in the self-pubbed world, where people can get deep into specific niches.)
posted by lovecrafty at 12:56 PM on October 5, 2017

I could also, if anyone wanted, recommend a number of f/f romance books that were contemporary when they were written but would be considered historical fiction if written now. Probably nothing earlier than the 1920's, though, at least among those that I can think of offhand.
posted by kyrademon at 12:57 PM on October 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

clew, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books is the usual rec for romance novel reviews, criticism, and discussion.

(Also, in the cringey, rapey, bodice-ripping disasters side convo, the blatant Jennifer Wilde -- Thomas Elmer Huff's pseudonym -- erasure is an outrage.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 1:43 PM on October 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

To follow on to Iris Gambol, here's SBTB's look at the NYT article.
posted by rednikki at 1:45 PM on October 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

Kyrademon, I would happily take those recommendations!
posted by skycrashesdown at 1:46 PM on October 5, 2017

Patience and Sarah was based on a real life same-sex couple.
posted by brujita at 2:23 PM on October 5, 2017

I read SBTB, I really appreciate that they are willing to give a book an F and explain why, but it isn't very rigorous. Olivia Waite now has a column on romance , but (like SBTB) the first one is "here's some good stuff" rather than "these are the vexed problems of the genre". There was a collection of essays by romance writers about ?ten?twenty? years ago that was also very strong on "this is the good that readers get from romance" but sheered off completely from "and these are the weaknesses and risks".

Which I recognize from the SF&F world -- when you're in a file-drawer popularly used as a urinal, defensiveness is the stance towards outsiders. But I think it's a terrible stance for insiders to expect of insiders, and I think of myself as a (mild, sub-FIAGH) insider in both cases.
posted by clew at 2:27 PM on October 5, 2017

I think the thing that pisses me off the most is the way that men like this bring this whimsical form of anthropology to the genre— ohhhh, no bodice in this one! How curious! Women want to have fulfilling sexual encounters, how quaint! Mark that in the appropriate column, chortle chortle chortle har har.

The central fantasy of 99% of M/F romance novels is of being seen as a real person, in the midst of a world that tells you that you are a plaything or a drudge. How shocking, that women who live in a stew of constantly humiliating misogyny might wish to retreat into fantasies where they will be treated as people and partners. How adorable and precious and lowbrow! They buy them in the grocery stores, don't you know!

This attitude is especially galling when coming from men steeped in literary fiction, which is RIFE with men’s masturbatory fantasies about leaving their age-appropriate but emotionally distant wives for gasping coeds. “AH, BUT YOU SEE, WHEN A MAN DOES IT, IT IS ABOUT THE HUMAN CONDITION. OF WANTING TO BONE 18 YEAR OLDS IN ORDER TO AVOID DISCUSSING THE SADNESS THAT CONSUMES YOUR WIFE OF THIRTY YEARS. THAT CONDITION. SO TRENCHANT, PROSE SO ELEGANTLY SPARE.”
posted by a fiendish thingy at 2:30 PM on October 5, 2017 [25 favorites]

> "Kyrademon, I would happily take those recommendations!"


I'm arbitrarily restricting it to stuff written before 1980 (even though that leaves out classics like Annie On My Mind) and less arbitrarily restricting it to stuff that could legitimately be called f/f romance (even though that leaves out classics like Mrs. Dalloway which, while it has an f/f component, really can't be called an f/f romance.)

From the 1970's:
Happy Endings Are All Alike, by Sandra Scoppettone
Note: YA
Recommendation level: Eh. It's not bad.
Notable for: Being one of the most 1970's books ever to 1970 in the 1970's. People ask if they can "rap" with each other when they want to talk. I feel completely comfortable including this on a list of "would be historical fiction if written today" books.

From the 1960's:
Desert of the Heart, by Jane Rule
Note: Set in the late 1950's
Recommendation level: It's great!
Notable for: Being a classic of the genre. There's a large age difference between the two characters, which is something characteristic of a lot of mid-century lesbian fiction.

From the 1950's:
The Price of Salt (AKA Carol), by Claire Morgan (AKA Patricia Highsmith)
Note: Set in the late 1940's. There's a fairly recent movie version (Carol)
Recommendation level: It's great!
Notable for: Another classic, another big age difference. However, the New York location and somewhat earlier setting (among many other things) gives it a completely different feel from Desert of the Heart.

Also from the 1950's:
The works of Ann Bannon (Odd Girl Out, I Am a Woman, Women in the Shadows, Journey to a Woman, etc.)
Note: Part of the wave of lesbian pulp novels - these are the good ones
Recommendation level: They're quite good!
Notable for: Almost unique among pulp novels for allowing its characters to have (over the long-term course of the series, at least) happy endings without converting to heterosexuality. These were written hastily for the pulp market and that sometimes shows in the prose, but Bannon is nonetheless a good writer and her quality often shows through. The later books are set in the underground Greenwich Village lesbian scene, quite different from The Price of Salt's more upscale New York setting.

From the 1920's:
The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
Note: Historically significant
Recommendation level: It's ... pretty bad, actually.
Notable for: As a historical artifact, a pioneering book arguing for not just the existence but the humanity of lesbians and gays at a time when there was almost no explicit literature about them at all, it is both important and significant. As a work of literature, though, it's really not very good.
posted by kyrademon at 2:42 PM on October 5, 2017 [7 favorites]

It doesn't entirely fit the criteria, but to anyone looking for charming LGBTQ romances of historical interest, I'd recommend The Story of the Marquise-Marquis de Banneville, published in 1695 and attributed to François-Timoléon de Choisy, Marie-Jeanne L'Héritier, and Charles Perrault. The language in the blurb ("actually a young man," etc.) is misleading and problematic. It's not a disguise story and doesn't feel allegorical--the characters are very plainly attached to their self-presentations as a matter of personal identity, even if I'm not certain what contemporary terms they'd choose. The only plot point I recall reading against the grain was the explanation of the marquise's background.
posted by Wobbuffet at 3:42 PM on October 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

The thing is, there's so much contempt for romance readers along with the contempt for romance, and that's something I find really interesting - it's not just that romance readers are women (as it happens women have been some of the most horrified observers of my romance habit: "You really don't seem like the type to read those books!") but the type of women that they are - that these are books that are sold at Wal-Mart and read by the sorts of women who shop at Wal-Mart. And yet when you pick up a romance novel from the shelves at CVS, it's entirely possible that there will be openly gay characters; that the heroine will have her own career; and that the reader will be exposed to a world entirely beyond her own. That's the whole point of books in general, isn't it? To be transported to a world beyond your own? Different mindsets, different times, different life experiences? But because romance novels are about women and orgasms and have a predetermined happy ending, they're somehow... bad for you? Because you should be... what, reading Dostoyevsky? Cleaning the house? Playing computer games (those are art now, you know!)? I do those things too! I contain multitudes!

Anyway, regarding this column in particular, I think in penance the NY Times should be forced to write all genre reviews in the style of this book, meaning that the SF/Fantasy round-up should be forced to include a review of something by Robert Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke in every column, and Marilyn Stasio needs to include a snarky line about the number and quality of the murders ("there's only one death but it's gory enough to satisfy even the most discerning reader") in every title she covers. Oh, but wait, those are genres that men enjoy too - so clearly it's different.
posted by posadnitsa at 3:59 PM on October 5, 2017 [14 favorites]

The thing that repeatedly bounces me back out of romance is that the way to be seen as a real person is for there to be enough money to afford personhood for two.

I'll always have The Dispossessed.
posted by clew at 5:06 PM on October 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

men’s masturbatory fantasies about leaving their age-appropriate but emotionally distant wives for gasping coeds.

It's even grosser when you consider the reason the wives are usually emotionally distant is that their husbands are using them as drudges.
posted by corb at 5:09 PM on October 5, 2017 [4 favorites]

Or sometimes because they regret never finishing their own degree.

Beyond Heaving Bosoms is the romance authors' essays; mentioned in an article in Reason praising romance because it promulgates consent and the bourgeois vritues.
posted by clew at 5:26 PM on October 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thanks to everyone, particularly kyrademon, for the lesbian recommendations. It's appreciated.

My gift back to the thread is that if you didn't know about it -- Courtney Milan, Rose Lerner, and Alyssa Cole are releasing a collection of novellas together called Hamilton's Battalion. Alyssa Cole's piece is a lesbian romance! It's not out yet, but I'm pretty sure that the cross over of Hamilton-loving people and people who like these authors is pretty high in this thread.
posted by JustKeepSwimming at 6:51 PM on October 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

There's on series I read that is coded sci fi but is really romance. I often ask myself why I find stories of beautiful people achieving happiness and wealth (every single book has a shopping scene) so soothing. I think it serves the same mental function playing Barbies once did. Here is a dream world where trouble is always worked out, clothes are always amazing, and people bring you delicious feasts and tell you you are beautiful. A man protects you from other men (even in fantasy, guess we can't escape that grim idea) but doesn't ask much of you otherwise.
posted by emjaybee at 8:44 PM on October 5, 2017 [3 favorites]

The Katie Fforde books follow that formula very successfully, almost in a madlibs style of bourgeois satisfaction. Woman leaves __ bad situation and ___ unfulfilling career to reinvent herself in a new charming place, ____, as a quaint ___ where she has conflict then chemistry with the local ___. All vaguely English and Doc Martin with off-page sex, like cupcake Jilly Coopers.

There must be a thesis somewhere about why the Cathrine Cookson selfmade business heroines lost their mass market lustre over getting a cute hipster business and a well to do husband.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:48 PM on October 5, 2017

cough emjaybee, mind name-dropping said series? sounds like a newsletter i would subscribe to
posted by alleycat01 at 9:39 AM on October 6, 2017

although guessing which one it is is also entertaining. Barrayar, especially the later books?
posted by clew at 12:20 PM on October 6, 2017

In case anyone's still reading this thread, there's a great post in Jezebel critiquing the original article.
posted by rednikki at 1:44 PM on October 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Much, much better NYT piece about lack of racial diversity in romance novels. However, they did manage to slip in a gratuitous reference to who someone's father is, because apparently that's a really important fact about women.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:30 PM on October 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

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