February 2005

Sharon Adarlo


Judging a Book By Its Cover: Valentine's Day Edition

Valentine’s Day is upon us -- a good excuse to get that special someone a gift, get laid, or slit your wrists in your small and barren studio apartment while your neighbors copulate like crazed weasels next door. And since love or lust rather is in the air, it’s a good time as any to examine romance novel covers for this month’s Judging a Book By Its Cover.

Now don’t laugh. Romance novels? You are reading right. Taking a huge and very profitable slice of the publishing industry every year, they represent a much maligned but vital part of the pie. Tracing their very beginnings to Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte and finally to Georgette Heyer and the Diana Gabaldons of our present day, there is every manner of romance novel to fill one’s appetite from traditional regency to fantasy. Yes, most tend to be formulaic and, god forbid, plot driven, and disposable, but for every cringingly bad trashy book, there is a Jude Deveraux, and yes, she’s no David Foster Wallace, but she doesn’t mean to be.

As for covers, romance novels tend to go for flowery cursive script, soft lighting, and the classic and at times clichéd poses of couples: some Fabio guy on the front cover, bursting with muscled pecs and yielding a phallic shaped sword, his woman desperately clinging to his lips as her dress scandalously falls from her well-shaped shoulders -- you know the one. But there are covers that are more discreet and at times sport a serious “literary” or “mainstream” design.

But in analyzing romance novels, the standards set for more mainstream books should be disregarded due to the special and unique situation of these books: there is a stigma attached to reading these stories. As told in engrossing detail in the best romance book website on the internet, All About Romance, most avid romance readers are embarrassed and shamed by overtly sensual images on some covers, and yet there is a critical minority who aren’t. And at the same time, there are marketing and more subjective qualities and questions that need to be addressed in romance novels as opposed to more mainstream ones: Do the models look good? Does it look sexy? Does it make you feel sexy? And most of all, for lots of people, can you read this on the L train without some hipster making cutting looks at you?

Stealing a page from All About Romance who hold a very entertaining cover contest every year, I have assembled a very unscientific panel of unobjective readers to look at this month’s featured covers as well: this critic’s significant other to lend a masculine perspective and a good girlfriend whose taste tends towards William Gaddis but has been known to weep like a baby over some Jude Deveraux novels.

Savage Trust by Cassie Edwards
Leisure Books
Cover by John Ennis
Model: John DeSalvo
ISBN: 0843950536

There is a very interesting and politically incorrect sub-genre of romance novels out there: Native American romances that usually feature some really hot looking “Indian” guy and the horny white chick who can’t wait to get into his moccasins. There is the mirror image in other books, but for the most part, it’s the former that figures so prominently in that niche. It’s all about forbidden love and wild, unbridled (and unsafe) sex in the untamed frontier of Manifest Destiny America. Cassie Edwards seems to be the queen bee of this niche. She has probably written, oh I don’t know, about gazillion books of this theme -- the same book really -- over and over again. For her latest book, her publishers have employed the best romance novel cover artist, John Ennis, and the "it" model of the romance industry, John DeSalvo.

Now at first glance, the cover is bad. Very bad. It employs schlocky primitive-esque font for the title and author name. John DeSalvo clearly does not look Native American ‘cept for his sweeping mane of black hair. The design is uninspiring, pedestrian, and at the mere sight of the cover, your English professor will howl with rage. But wait, John Ennis has lovingly painted the horse -- isn't it soooo cute? And for some happy women, there is no hide or hair of another woman wrapping her legs around John DeSalvo’s torso, so John DeSalvo fans can imagine only themselves riding astride the, er, horse. For some reason, covers with just the man on the front cover tend to sell more than a featured couple. It’s all about fantasy and lust for some women, objectifying men. In that case, the cover works. For others, such as this critic, we wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.

As for the critic’s panel, the s.o. said, “The cover looks really and deeply gay. I would not read it.” The girlfriend weighed in with her verdict, “I like my men nerdy looking and skinny most of the time, you know, like Elvis Costello, but John DeSavlvo is really cute. I wouldn’t throw him out of bed for eating crackers, you know. But at the same time, I’d take a pass on reading this book.”

Lord of Fire by Gaelen Foley
Ivy Books
ISBN: 0449006379

Some of Gaelen Foley’s books are romance novels, but they don’t look like romance novels. Her Lord of Ice and Lady of Desire books feature architecture, a green and lush manse and a windswept castle respectively. Her Lord of Fire novel, a regency novel about a “virtuous, 21-year-old spinster and a moody rogue,” also follows the same design and theme. The picture is not overtly romantic. It’s a beautiful manor of uncertain age. The grounds are green and thick -- perhaps hiding secret places for delightful misunderstandings? The restrained but well done painting is paired with the fancy filigree skirting the edge of the image, and the large and expansive lettering does not detract from the “serious” air of the book except for the gold embossed title, but for the most part, despite the conventional layout, it fulfills a prime requirement for many romance novel readers, you can read this anywhere and it is pretty. Our judges both said, "It doesn’t look like a romance novel. It doesn’t look embarrassing at all.”

The Wolf of Haskell Hall by Colleen Shannon
Love Spell Books
ISBN: 0505524120

Whoa. This is bad. You thought Savage Trust was bad. No, this is terrifyingly bad. Every thing about this cover shouts kitsch and just the worst dregs of every bad romance novel cover in the world over. The overly ornate and silver embossed font for the title and author name is ugly and overblown. The wacky juxtaposition of the brooding castle in the background, the howling wolf, and image of the naked couple, straight out of a soft porn movie, jockey for position on this very busy and terribly hideous cover. If you've ever wondered how many cliches can fit onto one cover, this book answers it. The Candleglow insignia in the corner doesn’t help matters, but simply emphasizes how cheap and tawdry the whole thing looks. The critic’s panel simply laughed when presented with this cover.

Mine To Take by Dara Joy
Leisure Books
ISBN: 0843944463

Not nearly as bad as The Wolf of Haskell Hall book cover, Dara Joy’s latest futuristic scorcher features a beefcake guy in chains, sensually stewing in some dank dungeon, and a pale-haired lass on the back cover and her hand, holding a big iron key, appears provocatively -- wrapping towards the front. The Conan-the-Barbarian-esque font is terrible but not as outrageously stupefying as the preceding book. Once more, probably the only good thing about the cover, besides the model -- if your taste runs to that -- is that the layout is not cluttered at all and the hacked off hand of the heroine lends some interest to the cover. The male model also appears to not be wearing anything at all, which was noted most frequently by a number of this critic’s female acquaintances. The panel weighed in with divided opinions. Obviously the male perspective was, “This looks hilarious. It looks like a Tom of Finland illustration. Are you sure this book is marketed to straight women?” As for the female half of the panel who I might add was recommended this book and read it recently, she said, “Yeah, the cover kind of sucks. You can’t show yourself in public with it. But it’s interesting that the guy in the cover is in chains -- he’s also got really nice lips. But the book is really good. There’s like really great sex scenes every five pages or something.” she squealed.

The Lady’s Tutor by Robin Schone
Kensington Pub Corp
Cover by John Ennis
ISBN: 0821769820

Robin Schone has caused a ruckus in the normally placid “missionary position only, please” world of romance novels. She has explored adultery, time travel via masturbation, dildos, and anal sex. Hordes of fans laud her for her frank and sensual depictions of sex, and the school marm faction of the industry have protested that she should be in the erotica section of the bookstore instead as written up in a great Salon article. The Lady’s Tutor, a erotica laced romance novel by the author, boldly goes where few romance writers dare to go: an unhappy and cuckold wife hires a really sexy, exotic guy to teach her the fine arts of pleasing her cheating husband. Along the way, there’s of course lots of steamy sex, purple prose by the gallons, off-putting and inaccurate Middle Eastern history, pedophilia, wacky so-called sensual dialog, and a strange kind of distaste for homosexuals that occurs repeatedly in her other books. Despite the obvious drawbacks of the book, it’s worth keeping for the cover alone. The first edition, if you can find it on eBay, is hotter than Georgia asphalt on a summer day. Too bad that instead the newest edition of the cover is some tepid painting of irises and fuchsia colored silk sheets. The original cover, despite being overtly romantic and fit to be clothed in brown wrapping paper while you take it on the subway, is not kitschy at all. It’s deeply sexy in an understated way. You don’t see the couple’s faces -- you only see the woman’s heaving bosom as a man’s hand reaches for her corset’s fastenings. It’s simply hot and not even the terrible and flowerily font on the front can detract the central feel of the cover. The male perspective of the critic’s panel concurs. “It’s a really sexy cover. I don’t think it’s trashy at all.” The female perspective weighs in, “I don’t care if the book is bad. I want it.”