Sunday, March 06, 2005

What You See Is What You Get

I know the saying "You can't judge a book by its cover" is a wise rule to live by. I believe in it. I try very hard to practice it. I'm teaching it to my children. Because the sentiment in it is very true. Both literally and figuratively.

And nowhere is the proof more in the pudding than when it applies to romance novels. Literally.

For all the endless debate about the quality of the genre and the general demeaning of both writers and readers of romance novels, in the end, I sadly have to say those of us wearing the white hats will always, always come up the losers simply because the romance genre has been saddled with what have to be quite possibly the most humiliating book covers known to mankind since the invention of the Gutenburg press. (Whew, that was one hella sentence. Nearly a hundred words!) No matter how good the writers are, how original the stories, how three-dimensional the characters and how well the words on the page are able to move the reader into a new state of consciousness, romance novels will NEVER be respected as long as they sport the kind of covers so many publishers hoist upon them.

Today I was perusing the AAR message boards and found this link to Longmire's Spoof of Romance Covers. After I managed to pick myself off the floor for the laughing and nodding my head at his spot-on interpretations of the covers he'd chosen, I started to get kind of depressed.

I mean, I've already come to terms with the fact that if I ever succeed in this genre, I will have to bear the stereotype so many people hold against romance novels and novelists. I'm prepared to suffer slights patiently and explain that it is NOT all about the sex and to defend myself and others in the sisterhood when accused that we don't write *real* books. I've already come out of the closet and I admit to my family and friends when asked about my writing that I'm working on romantic novels. I'm not ashamed and I certainly won't apologize. I will still be embarrassed when or if my grandma or my mom or dad read my stuff, but that's an issue for another blog entry. And maybe a visit to my neighborhood psychiatrist.

No, what makes me sad is that not only will I have to fight against the history of romance novels that earned the genre such a lowly place in the literary hierarchy, but I might very well have to go up against book covers that support the bad press. If the bodice rippers of the 70s and 80s gave the genre its notorious start, I think it's fair to say that we've come a long way since then. Now the matter is simply one of re-educating the non-believers. A task of momentous proportions, to be sure. But the pages inside the cover can speak for themselves. That is, if we can ever convince people to give them a try.

Problem is, who wants to believe us when we say that it's not all about the sex if the *cover* is all about the sex? How can we honestly, with a straight face, hand over our latest great creation promising "It's not formulaic. It's unique and different. It's about love and relationships and people overcoming their difficulties to be together." when the picture on the front of said tome is that of Conan the Black-Haired Barbarian Loin-Clothed-Warrior groping Sheena-Of-The-Red-Hair-Waterfall-And-Clothing-Optional Society?

It's right up there with trying to convince the ill-informed that people from Kentucky don't marry their cousins while you're dressed up like Minnie Pearl. (Sidebar: I'm not dissing Kentuckians. Just an example.) You have to admit that it's very hard to make an argument against something when you are holding evidence to the contrary in your very hands.

I know that these days covers have take a decided turn for the better. I'm guessing that pressure from the chick lit competition has inspired publishers to pursue covers more in that vein - fewer and fewer of the clinches and (thank God!) less and less of the hero of the Fabio hair. This is all very good, and I do appreciate the efforts.

I won't go into how many ways it rubs me wrong that writers - unless they are of the Nora Roberts echelon - have little to no say about what appears on the top of the stack of their months/years of hard work. I don't need to be lectured to about publishers and the way it all works, but it does somewhat really suck that a writer can pound out a fantastic book only to have it slither down the sewer pipe because of a cover so hideous even the writer's mother displays it in a brown paper bag.

Honestly, though, I cannot fathom what the appeal of the old fashioned covers ever was. Yeah, the guy was a real piece of beefcake. And sure, it's fun to flip over and take a look at the cover to get a visual of what the hero and heroine being described look like (assuming that the cover couple does look like the description inside). But those positives are a pittance compared to the negative of carrying such a book out into public where there can be no mistake whatsoever about the content of the story you are reading. Even if the book contained no more than a few chaste kisses and a lot of closed bedroom doors, by the cover everyone on the bus or train or in the park would assume that your big, round eyes are a result of reading...*gasp*...smut.

I have a long way to go until I have to worry about any cover designs for any of my books. Like I've been saying about today's fashions - thank god there are a good five years or so before I have to worry about my daughter wanting to wear micro-minis and midriff-baring crop tops. (I'm hoping for a return to shaker sweaters, khaki chinos and izod shirts before she's a teenager.) So I can hold out hope that maybe, by the time I'm actually ready for one, cheeze-covers will have gone the way of the ripped bodice.

Now, as for book titles...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I so agree with you. It's one of my pet peeves about the industry. I tell people all the time that Romances are better than their covers and still feel odd about pulling out these ridiculous covers in the subway...