Covers Covered by Carol

February 4, 1999

The issue of what book covers should be like for romance novels is one that concerns many people: readers, writers, publishers, artists and illustrators, book stores, reviewers and the public at large, which loves giving romance devotees a hard time. There are many different types of covers on romance novels, and over the next several weeks (at least), I'm going to be talking about them.

Because I work in the visual arts, I may have a different view on covers than some or perhaps many other lovers of romance. I may look at a cover and see technique, color, and form where someone else may just see a half-naked body, a castle, or a flower. While I'm certainly not one to say that you can judge a book by its cover, many readers, subconsciously or consciously, are affected more than they may know, by the covers of the romances they buy or pass by in the store.

I hope you will enjoy this fork in the romance road. It's not the most important aspect of a romance, but it does get a lot of discussion. In this edition of Covers Covered by Carol, I'm going to lay out the various types of covers, and then talk about one in particular. Be prepared, however, to discussion to veer into more important issues facing the genre as one cannot separate out stereotypes without talking about what's behind the stereotypes. Intrigued? I hope so!

As with the other columns at AAR, this one will be interactive. Included at the end of each column will be an email link to me so that we can continue discussions begun here.

It's no great surprise to learn that the public at large still considers romance novels too trashy for intelligent women to be reading (much less men!). Covers have gone a long way towards perpetuating that perception, especially those known as the clinch, where a man and woman are in a torrid embrace and her dress is half off and his shirt is off (or half off). These are typically used in historical romances and to a far lesser degree in contemporaries. Regency Romances will have also present the lead characters on the front, albeit fully clothed and barely touching.

Romance novels have other types of covers as well. There are flowers on quite a number of romances, both historical and contemporary. Interestingly, since flowers are the sexual organs of plants, one could say that the symbol is merely replacing the human body on those covers. A hybrid cover also exists where a flower is on the front and, when you open the book, there is another cover, called a stepback, of the characters, usually in a clinch. There are also covers that have a place depicted on them, usually an idyllic scene. Such scenes do not rouse much controversy, although they are not terribly inspiring to me. Lately, we're also seeing colorful line drawings and graphics on contemporary romances in an effort to look more modern and mainstream.

Contemporaries have the covers most closely resembling mainstream books and, if the lead characters are depicted, they are almost always in a stepback. Categories or series books (also contemporaries) ironically have pictures of men and women on the front that look like they are for a late adolescent audience yet they are the books which handle some of the most controversial topics in the genre. Collages are used in only a few covers. These can be of objects such as an artfully arranged tapestry, flower, sword, jewels and the like. Alternatively, collages can also be of different views of a book's characters. When of the characters, it generally is put in a stepback.

All of the above covers have their admirers. There is not a single type of cover that everyone hates, although readers are most vociferous about the clinch. Knowing that all of these types of covers exist, which should be kept and which jettisoned? I don't think there is a universal answer because the genre has changed and continues to change. While all romance novels contain some sexual relationship, even if handled off the written page, the degree of explicitness runs the gamut from kisses to scorchingly hot sexual scenes.

Besides, is the romance genre really about sex, as its detractors claim? Some of it, a very small percentage, is borderline erotica. However, the bulk of romance is emotion-based. Emotions have traditionally been regarded as women's area of interest - it is not surprising that romance is considered a woman's genre. In fact, if the bulk of the books were about sex, wouldn't more men be reading them? Also, most mainstream books written by men, even ones considered literary, have a great deal of sex. The difference is that it is usually sex that is alienated from emotions and feelings whereas romance books are awash in those before, before, during, and after sex scenes. Romance books probably have no meaningless sex depicted in them (unless the author is trying to make a negative point), in direct contrast to the other literary and visual arts.

So what should the cover be? The cover should depict what the book is about. I feel that is the best answer for any book of any genre. That said, admittedly some romance covers are not misleading. There are indeed some where the hero and heroine go from one torrid clinch to another throughout the book, making the book little more than sex scenes linked together by plot. One can count the romance authors who write in this fashion on one hand, at most two hands. So for them, they probably do not need any change in their torrid book covers at all. Ironically, a few of these authors have covers that look like mainstream books when they are the least mainstream of the lot!

Presently you can only sometimes tell what a romance book is going to be like by its cover. Many of the readers know what they want to buy regardless of cover. What they object to is the making of uncalled-for remarks based on the cover of the book they are reading. Or, even worse, they hate a cover that depicts a woman in a submissive sexual role. The thinking goes that if one is going to put a sexual fantasy on the book, at least make it a woman's sexual fantasy, not a man's, since it is primarily a woman's genre. This is a viewpoint I heartily agree with. I've heard that the reason some romance covers now picture a lone male is in response to this criticism. But does objectifying men any better than objectifying women as objects of sexual desire? What do you think?

Interestingly, one image you almost never see on a romance cover is the depiction of a close-up of a human face showing a specific emotion. This is fascinating to me because that is the image that I associate with romance: the range of human emotion. I've seen this image on the covers of other books, sometimes as a painting and sometimes as a photograph, and it is very effective. Just imagine a painting of the close up of a man's face with "longing" expressed visually on it. The field is practically limitless on what could be tackled since love encompasses virtually every negative and positive emotion. Are there images that you can think of that would better depict the romance novels which you read?

I would like to discuss at least one cover, sometimes more, in each column I write. I believe the only way to gain a balanced view on this subject is by analyzing different covers. I would like to begin then with one that is book that is almost unanimously adored by romance readers: Flowers From The Storm by Laura Kinsale.

The story is about an arrogant duke, in the period following the Napoleonic Wars, who has a right-sided stroke while dueling over another man's wife with whom he was having an affair. This stroke partially paralyzes him for a time, and renders his speech unintelligible. He is place in a mental asylum because they believe he's gone insane instead of had a stroke. The heroine is the Quaker woman who ultimately rescues him from the asylum and his relatives. She redeems him from being the unfeeling lout he once was with love and compassion.

All that said, I originally thought this was a pretty bad cover. This was because the cover model is a bare-chested Fabio holding a spray of flowers. I thought this was just the kind of image that the romance genre did not need. I shared this with Aarlist and two other readers gave me some input that made me change my mind. Connie, a nurse, pointed out that half of his face was in the rigid position that she sees in stroke patients. I looked closer after she said this and noticed it was also in shadow whereas the unaffected half of his face was in the light. That was pretty good imagery for this character as well: half in the dark and half already in the light. Then Soojoeng picked out the actual, climactic section of the book, where he's holding out the flowers to her, which matched his picture and quoted the scene from it verbatim. Someone on the list wondered if it was really Fabio and writer Marsha Canham confirmed that it was. Apparently, the artist altered his appearance somewhat so as to better suggest what the stroke had done to his face. Well, all of this certainly took the wind out of my sails!

I was left with one criticism: I would have preferred it if his shirt had been buttoned so that he didn't appear bare-chested. Why? Because this is a book that any reader would have problems belittling for any reason and so you might as well remove the one thing in the picture that only the romance genre uses. Then bash those mainstream readers over the head with it as being a book worthy of critical analysis and review! I confess: the cover is a lot more intelligent and artistic than I originally thought so as to complement this brilliant representation of the romance genre.

I've brought up many issues in this, the first of what I hope will be a series of interesting articles. Please feel free to comment on any type of cover discussed (and let me know if I've missed a style). I welcome your comments on the covers you like and don't like, the larger issues of romance as an emotion-based genre, or any other topics which relate to romance novel covers. Thanks for taking the time to read my first foray into romance commentary.

 

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