In which our author indulges in a slight rant. But first, I’d like to say that this shouldn’t be construed as a criticism of anyone who has emailed me or posted here on the site. I value your opinions and participation and I hope that everyone feels comfortable expressing their thoughts here on the site.
While I’m not the hugest fan of the cover switch (yes, I miss the fine art covers, too), I do feel very, very strongly that no book should be dismissed on the basis of its binding.
You’ve been generous enough to share your thoughts and feelings with me. Here are mine.
There I was in the Middle School Library, deeply engrossed in my paperback copy of Victoria Holt’s Secret for a Nightingale, when a friend grabbed it away from me, squealing over the clinch cover, the heroine’s plunging bodice, the hero’s bulging—something. “Omigod! I can’t believe you read this trash!” she tossed over her shoulder as she flipped through, searching for the sex scenes.
There weren’t any. This was, after all, Victoria Holt. When the hero tried to steal a smooch, he was dealt a resounding smack. (It took me years to figure out that this wasn’t the proper social protocol for responding to a goodnight kiss.)
My copy of Secret For a Nightingale wasn’t the only book on my shelf with a misleading cover. M.M. Kaye’s Trade Wind and Shadow of the Moon, beautifully written and meticulously researched, both bore clinch covers. Gone With the Wind, as much an epic as a romance, featured Scarlett, in considerable dishabille, being borne off by Rhett. In contrast, my copy of Ken Follett’s Eye of the Needle, far racier in its own way, bore a discrete cover that gave no hint of what lay within. Likewise, the raciest book I knew, Cleland’s Fanny Hill, sported a genteel eighteenth century parlor scene on the jacket, with all the parties fully clothed. None of my friends was going to go flipping through that one looking for the naughty bits.
There are two points to be made. The first, as evidenced above, is this: covers are misleading. Publishing goes through trends. The same book can bear radically different covers, especially those that go through reprints in subsequent generations. My copy of Johanna Lindsay’s Gentle Rogue was emblazoned with a bare-chested Fabio posing against the mast of an improbable sailing ship; when I taught my class at Yale last spring, the copy my students dutifully bore to class was mint green with a nondescript design of flowers. It might have been anything from a book of poetry to a manual on horticulture.
But the second point, the one that concerns me more, has to do with our self-identification as readers. I know Sci Fi readers who won’t touch steampunk and vice versa—although, given a different cover, the material is fundamentally similar. I know historical romance readers who shy away from anything they view as too historical fiction and historical fiction readers who blanch at the notion of being seen reading a historical romance. Yet, so often, books ride these boundary lines. Is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander a romance? Fantasy? Mystery? I’ve seen it classified as all three. Susan Carroll’s The Dark Queen has a historical fiction cover, but I’ve always read it fundamentally as a romance. On the flip side, her earlier novel, Shades of Winter, while classified as romance, always seemed to me to be more historical fiction.
When we limit ourselves based on perceived genre definitions, we lose out. Even more troubling, though, are the reasons for those limitations. There are all sorts of ways in which we self-limit, some reasonably benign. So you like reading governess books? More power to you. Won’t touch a book set in France because you ate a bad escargot in Paris years ago? Kind of quirky, but, okay. These are boundaries driven by personal preference. Far more pernicious are those boundaries created by the perception of public censure and derision.
It distresses me deeply to hear people say that they will not publicly read or recommend the latest Pink book because it looks too romance-y.
The raw material is the same. It’s the exact same book it would have been had it borne a fine art cover. We’re not talking about content, here; we’re talking about public pressures and the deep-seated strain in modern American culture that condemns the romance novel as the province of the under-educated and poorly groomed. I’ll save the defense of the romance novel and its readers for another time. That’s been done by others, and probably more effectively. My point here is simply that you shouldn’t allow other people to shame you for what you read, however it may be garbed.
What are we saying when we refuse to read a book in public—or at all—because of its cover? We’re lending credence to other peoples’ petty snobberies, to our fears of how they might perceive us based on our choice of reading material.
I read romance in public. I also read mystery, historical fiction, literary fiction, fantasy, and the occasional bit of sci fi, if it comes really, really well-recommended and I’m promised there are not going to be too many technical bits in it. I read plays in French and poetry in iambs. Sometimes, I even read non-fiction. Anyone who draws conclusions about me or my IQ based on any of these choices is the one with something prove, not I.
This is not to say that everyone should run out and buy a romance novel, just because. Like any genre, romance isn’t necessarily for everyone. (Although, as with anything, I’d advocate giving it a try before dismissing it out of hand.) What this is to say is that there’s something very sad, to me, about being afraid to read a book one wants to read because the packaging might trigger snickering noises.
My advice? Snicker back. Then ask them what they’ve read lately.
If they say War and Peace, they’re probably lying.