Romance novelists speak out on the harassment they face online

Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of June 23, 2019.

  • The New York Times delves into the way Judith Gurewich, publisher of Other Press, edits her authors:

Gurewich described her interruptions as physical reactions as much as, or more than, intellectual ones. “When my stomach intervenes, I stop the reading,” she said. “I ask what happened. My job is not to interpret.” She repeatedly emphasized that she’s not there to offer specific solutions, but to identify problems.

“You have to point to the defense that’s blocking the desire,” Gurewich said. “Never put your desire in place of theirs.”

I’m constantly bringing in new books. Keeping my library relevant and interesting is crucial to getting unmotivated students to read, because it turns out, people of all ages don’t like reading when they don’t care about the subject matter. Here are some books that never made it back to my room, and I hope it’s because they are loved and couldn’t bear to be parted with.

And oh, the clothes! “Scruples” contains so many delicious descriptions of garments that you may find yourself longing to pet its pages. Fabrics are not just brown; they are “future-wordly tones of melting taupe, fawn, biscuit, and greige.” A woman doesn’t just walk into a party; she enters “with the glitter of a matador, encased in a vintage, shocking pink-and-black satin Schiaparelli, thickly encrusted with gold braid.”

It’s time to zoom out — to take the focus off the individual books that have been so intensely scrutinized, and look at why this scrutiny exists in the first place. We can argue endlessly about single novels, their strengths and weaknesses, the question of whether the criticism was just or deserved. It’s more than fair to ask why Jackson and Zhao — themselves writers of color — pulled their books, while white writers rarely do.

But often, frustration about a book isn’t just about that book. It’s about the many books like it that readers have already seen. It’s about a desire that all kids see themselves represented in books. It’s about ongoing frustration with an industry that gives lip service to diversity but remains overwhelmingly white. And to understand that frustration, we need to understand that diversity advocates have been having this conversation for a very long time.

  • Things I did not see coming: Jenna Bush Hager, daughter of former president George W. Bush, (a) has a book club that (b) intentionally spotlights literary books by authors from underrepresented groups and (c) has proven itself extremely successful at driving sales. Per EW, Hager is apparently on track to build the new Oprah’s Book Club:

Read With Jenna began on a monthly basis in March, when Hager was announced as cohost of Today’s fourth hour. Half of its four selections are debuts by women of color, and none lean commercial; all have been catapulted to instant best-seller status. For context: On the morning of May 1, both Hager and Witherspoon announced new picks, Etaf Rum’s A Woman Is No Man and Tembi Locke’s From Scratch, respectively. Within hours, Hager’s choice ranked among Amazon’s top five best-sellers, while Witherspoon’s hadn’t cracked the top 50. (One reason: Today averages over 4 million viewers a morning, an unrivaled platform.)

This is not really negligence on Amazon’s part. It is the company’s business model. Amazon, which does not break out revenue or profit from bookselling or publishing, assumes that everyone on its platform operates in good faith until proven otherwise. “It is your responsibility to ensure that your content doesn’t violate laws or copyright, trademark, privacy, publicity or other rights,” it tells prospective publishers and sellers.

Whitehead has proved his mastery over his craft. Yet it’s taken time for him to accept his own place in the literary world. About a decade ago, he ran into Toni Morrison — who he says is the Great American Writer — on the Princeton campus. She invited him for coffee. “I was like, ‘I don’t deserve to have coffee with Toni Morrison. That’s ridiculous,’” he says. He never went through with it. “I was too embarrassed that she invited me. It’s like getting someone else’s mail.”

But women who write romance are particularly vulnerable to abuse. These are people who create narratives around sex, pleasure, and female happiness—in other words, women who are magnets for targeted sexist harassment.

“We’re talking about a genre that centers marginalized people in happiness, and happiness is threatening to people,” says Sarah MacLean, a romance novelist and a columnist for the Washington Post. “It’s part of the job,” she says of the harassment. “It shouldn’t be, but it’s women writing books having sexual parity and happiness. And that’s a threat to some not-great people.”


Here’s a rundown of the past week in books at Vox:

As always, you can keep up with Vox’s book coverage by visiting vox.com/books. Happy reading!