What a Scandal

scandalThe promise of a scandal seemingly sells.  In fact, scandal seems to be one of those publisher buzz words that is used over and over again whether there’s a real scandal in the story or not.

In fact, judging by the number of times the word has blazed across book covers, scandal has been used, abused, and reused, I think almost to death. Amazon lists 276 paperback romances with “scandal” or a version of it (scandalous, etc.) in the title, as well as 27 hardcover and 50 Kindle titles. Worldcat lists 578 romances with the word in the title. And AAR has reviewed five pages with it or variations in the title. So far in 2011, four books with that title have been reviewed using the word in their titles. If the trend continues, this year will be a banner year for scandal.

But how much scandal do most of the stories include? Take Scandal in Scotland by Karen Hawkins which will be published in June of this year. A sailor and an actress, whose protector is trying to hide his homosexuality by providing for her, scramble to get hold of a mysterious antique onyx box. So what’s the scandal? Her having a protector?  Hardly! Weren’t actresses during the Regency supposed to have them? Wasn’t part of a young man’s “wild oats” to be spent hanging around actresses? Having a liaison between a sailor and an actress, under the circumstances, isn’t scandalous at all! But the title indicates there will be one somewhere in the 384 pages.

Many of the novels with scandal in the title involve rakes – often “hardened” rakes. Take Prelude to a Scandal by Delilah Marvelle. Radcliff Morton, the Duke of Bradford, our hero rake, was indeed once caught up in a scandal when he was discovered with his brother’s mistress. Maybe that’s why when he is propositioned by a lady he insists she marry him before he gives her his assistance. But where’s the prelude to the scandal? Not in this book, that’s for sure. Again, it’s a title that has no meaning given the book itself.

So what does scandal really mean? The first definition as given by the Merriam-Webster dictionary doesn’t ever apply to Regency books as far as I know: Discredit brought upon religion by unseemly conduct in a religious person; conduct that causes or encourages a lapse of faith or of religious obedience in another. Discrediting someone’s religion and putting the word scandal in the title of the book are two items scarce as hen’s teeth in romance novels.

More likely we think of scandal as the next few meanings: The loss of or damage to reputation caused by actual or apparent violation of morality or propriety (disgrace), or a circumstance or action that offends propriety or established moral conceptions or disgraces those associated with it, or maybe malicious or defamatory gossip. But when I think of scandal, I usually think of the final definition: the indignation, chagrin, or bewilderment brought about by a flagrant violation of morality, propriety, or religious opinion.

More and more in books with scandal in the title, however, there seems to be little flagrant violation of morality or propriety even by hardened rakes. This is probably because if the rake is to be the hero, his flagrant violations make it difficult to turn him into a believable love interest. Some authors, like Mary Balogh with Joshua Moore in Slightly Scandalous, are able to turn a hell-raising reprobate into a charming rogue, and finally into husband material. But books with real rakes, reprobates, and rogues rarely have “scandal” in their titles.

Instead, scandal seems to have slid into meaningless territory as far as title words go. It’s used more to catch the reader’s eye than accurately describe any of the book’s contents.

Do you agree? What do you classify as a scandal? Are you ever disappointed if the word is used in the title but the book contains no scandal? Or are you, like me, tired of the word and tired of its misuse?

-Pat Henshaw

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17 Responses to What a Scandal

  1. Jane A says:

    I agree. It’s just a meaningless buzzword.

  2. CEAD says:

    I don’t really pay attention to titles (or covers, for that matter), because titles that are actually relevant to the content of the book seem to be few and far between.

  3. I don’t think that’s the only word that’s misused in titles, either. I’ve just read “Guarding a Notorious Lady” by Olivia Parker, and there was nothing notorious about the lady at all. She was an accepted, courted member of society who kept falling over, conveniently into the hero’s arms, but she never lost her reputation or was pointed at in ballrooms.
    It’s a bit like a bottle of tomato sauce claiming that it’s chili sauce, but in my country anyway, you can be prosecuted for using an inaccurate description!

  4. Jody W. says:

    Are there any books called Not Quite A Scandal? Or Half a Scandal?

  5. Jane AAR says:

    Interesting note: in Catholicism, the sin of scandal is rather different than the romance novel definition. It basically means doing something that causes another person to sin… like, enticing them into stealing or seducing someone to commit adultery.

    Speaking of “seducing”… talk about an over-used word in romance! also wicked and rake.

    (another tangent: on Jeopardy back when Ken Jennings was on his winning streak, there was a category called “Also a Garden Tool.” the clue was “disreputable pleasure seeker.” Ken Jennings answered, “What is a ho?” the answer was rake ;) best Jeopardy moment ever.)

  6. Leigh says:

    I don’t read a lot of historicals now, but I had to check and yes, Loretta Chase had a book with scandal in the title.

    I do have to say that I rarely pay that much attention to titles or covers.

  7. Victoria S says:

    Pat, maybe the word “scandal” is used so much in fiction is because nothing seems to be scandalous any longer in the real world. Wasn’t there a theory once that the lower the economy was doing, the higher women’s hemlines were? Well, if you follow this logic and apply it to titles with the word “scandal” in them….. I’m just sayin’ :-)

    Like Leigh, I usually buy a book based on the author, or in case of a new to me author, recommendations from others, such as AAR. The titles and covers all seem to be by people who have not read the book itself, and don’t really mean much to me. Let’s face it, according to romance titles, Dukes are thick on the ground.

  8. HazelB says:

    I am sick to death of books with scandal, wicked, sin and sinful in the titles. I’ve pretty much decided that those words are a signal for “Do Not Buy.”

  9. JML says:

    You made me curious Pat so I checked Urban Dictionary — often good for a giggle for those of us who have always depended on Webster’s — and it gave me a bit of a laugh. It seems that their definition of scandal is “Something that is currently happening, what a person is up to, the news.”

    I haven’t consciously thought about it too much because, like other comments here, I’ve found that the title and/or covers and/or cover blurbs have very little relevance to the content of the book. For my purchases I’m depending more and more on reviews or simply the authors that I know and find reliable.

    Generally I pass right by anything with the overused “Prey” in the title, but like “scandal”, it sells so I assume we’ll be seeing it over and over.

  10. Virginia DeMarce says:

    I tend to think that romance novelists use “scandal” to mean “anything that would have made the gossip columns at the time.” Or the tabloids (of which there were equivalents in the 18th and 19th centuries). In the real world, a “scandal” was outside the accepted norms of society.

    It was hard for actresses and courtesans to create real scandals about themselves, because they weren’t expected to live respectably. It only became a “scandal” when a duke married the actress who was his mistress.

    So a rake behaving like a rake was not a scandal.

  11. maggie b. says:

    The fact that titles and covers no longer can be used as definers for what the book is like is an endless source of irritation to me.The end result is that buzz words such as scandal tend to push me away from a book rather than towards it. Clearly, though, they work for *someone* or publishers wouldn’t be so quick to use them.

    maggie b.

  12. Cee says:

    “Scandal” is one of my romance pet peeves – but unfortunately like with the majority of romance titles, the words are meaningless. How many of us have wracked our brains trying to think of a title of a book though we remember the plot/characters? It’s all just white noise.

  13. Hi Pat!

    That’s an interesting comment. I don’t always title my books, although I try my best to veto any I think are ridiculous. I did, however, suggest Scandal in Scotland for my coming May 24th book and it works quite well for it because there really is a scandal brewing between the pages of the book.

    To give you a brief outline: The heroine is being blackmailed and if she doesn’t produce a certain ancient onyx box, her blackmailer will reveal her family secret to all and sundry. And yes, her secret would indeed result in a scandal, though it wouldn’t have had a huge effect on her. As an actress, she really doesn’t have a reputation that could be sullied by a scandal, though she could still certainly be involved in one. No, the scandal the heroine is trying to avoid would have hurt innocent others.

    Sometimes what’s inside the book explains what’s what a good deal better than the short cover blurb, which – because of its length – can only explain so much.

  14. Michelle says:

    This post made me laugh. I just finished reading “A Tale of Two Lovers,” by Maya Rodale. This book is very much about scandal (two scandals, in fact); the scandals drive the plot. The heroine actually refers to herself as Lady Scandalous in the book! And yet, it does not have scandal in the title. For once, scandal would have made sense in the title, but instead, it’s something else that, to me, has no connection to the story.

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  16. Anika Guster says:

    I didn’t know that. Thanks for taking the time to enlighten me. I’ll be sure to come back to see what else you can teach me!

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