New York Times Bestselling Author

Don't Judge a Book….

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.

32 Comments

  1. Christine on June 17, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    Thank you! My thoughts exactly. (also, I’ve been kind of pissed off all day and got dangerously close to saying something like what you said, just not as nicely).

    I would also like to point out that Lauren has a fabulous education at some of the top schools in this country. As a mutual friend said to me about Lauren, “she’s really nice and brilliant to boot.” Anyone who has ever met her can say the same. Clearly, “trashy novels” are no indication of her character or intellect.

    We all have our ways of enjoying spare time. Who gives anyone the right to judge what someone else is doing as long as no one is getting hurt?

  2. Lauren on June 17, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    The degrees issue is a whole other kettle of fish (there was a very interesting post a while back on Dear Author about Ivy league degrees and romance writers and whether it did or should matter).

    The main point is that no one should be shamed for reading the book of his or her choice. It applies to genres other than romance. I’ve seen people mocked for reading Stephen King, Dan Brown or James Patterson. I may not personally adore those last two, but it offends me to think of their readers being made to feel bad for reading them rather than, oh, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”.

  3. Christine on June 17, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    I’d much rather read Dan Brown or James Patterson. Sure, I find some of them to be incredibly mass-produced, but they’re also relaxing, and that’s what I look for, regardless of what critics say or what’s classified as “good” reading.

  4. Karyn on June 17, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    Hi Lauren,

    While the fine art covers are what drew me to the series (Art History Major here)I stayed for your writing. I do miss them I won’t lie (I liked being able to see if I could ID them) the lack of them won’t deter me from finding out who Jane FINALLY ends up with.

    As for people complaining they look like romance novels…EH to that. Before I got my e-reader I would proudly read my bodice rippers out for the world to see, in fact I would pick the covers that show the most skin JUST to see people’s reactions on the subway here in NYC. If you wanna judge me by my book choices then go right ahead, at the end of the day only you really care. Plus if people are really worried they can always buy book covers, you can either make them (this is how I got away with reading romance when I was younger) or buy on etsy 🙂

  5. Cho on June 17, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Go Lauren! I definitely preferred the fine art covers, but as others have said before me, I read the books for the writing. Not for the covers. I love a good “smutty” historical romance as much as anyone, and I couldn’t care less who knows it. I also enjoyed War and Peace, which I read my freshman year, thoroughly shocking half of my teachers who didn’t know me and my penchant for large books yet (and this post has now made me wonder what it would look like with a bodice ripper cover). This being said, I think your designers have done a good job blending the traditional romance novel cover style with the fine art style we all love from your earlier books. As stated before, my only real complaint for this cover is your name-the font and colour don’t seem to match the rest of it. Nonetheless, I am eagerly awaiting its publication (why, oh WHY is February so far away?!) and will purchase it the first moment I can!

  6. Cho on June 17, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    Oh-and would you recommend Eye of the Needle? I’ve been trying to decided whether or not to read it.

  7. Virginia on June 17, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    Well said Lauren. It makes me so sad when people feel judged (and therefore possibly ashamed) based on what they enjoy reading.

  8. Tipsy Reader on June 17, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    First off, can I hug you? Because you are so awesome. It’s true, the Pink series has become more romancey on the cover, but the content has stayed enjoyable, fun, and so many other adjectives that I urge people to get past the cover whenever I recommend it.

    Besides, for all those lamenters out there who are being judgemental… Hello, find an e-reader and kindly stop complaining. You’re either going to enjoy the contents or never give yourself the pleasure of reading a delightful novel.

  9. AngelB on June 17, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    Just have to say thanks for all the book recommendations. 🙂

    I was one of those strongly disappointed with the change in the Orchid Affair cover, but there is no way in h.e. double toothpicks that I’d ever stop reading your books or stop recommending them because they are absolutely wonderful. I got over it. And like I said in the other thread…the new ones do ahve great colors and both Orchid and Garden continue with a new flow.

    But, I hold on to my right to make fun of the half faces. It’s a trend right now on a bunchof book covers that I just find hilarious. 🙂

  10. Gabrielle on June 17, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    I really don’t think of these books as romance novels but rather historical fiction. I’m a big fan of the series and most of the books I read are actually old (Austen, Wharton, Fitzgerald) or period books like the Pink series or like Phillippa Gregory’s books on the Tudors. I don’t find the Pink Carnation books to be dirty at all. But even if they were, some of the best classics are kind of dirty, like Lolita or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Books are always being redesigned with different covers. It doesn’t make a difference. It’s based on trends in publishing. The Bronte sisters books were recently redone with teenish Twilight-esque covers to try to appeal to the Twilight fans, another series which I enjoy.

  11. Elizabeth aka Miss Eliza on June 17, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Publishers do as publishers will and trends for selling change. The content matters. I will forever be foisting your books on others Lauren! (My mom’s cousin being the latest victim… I mean convert). People who are ashamed to read something in public due to art which may or may not refelect the contents are not people I want to know (plus they now have e-readers so be quiet).

  12. Lauren on June 17, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    Gabrielle, that’s an excellent point about the Twilight-ization of the Brontes. (Did you guys see the spoof on SBTB where they put a Twilight cover on the Bible?) I was also very amused by the trend, a little while ago, to slap chick lit covers on Austen.

  13. Lauren on June 17, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Cho, it’s been a while, but I remember very much enjoying “Eye of the Needle”. It’s a great spy thriller.

  14. Sheila on June 17, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    Isn’t it amazing that a book’s cover can create more controversy than its content? I am sure the publisher is thinking of sales, not what it will look like on a shelf in the home. If these covers will attract more readers to the wonderful Pink world, it means the publisher is that much more likely to keep Lauren typing away for us. (Huzzah !) I was saddened earler this year to learn that one of my favorite series has been stopped midstream because the publisher has said no more. When Pink Carnation came out, the cover IS what attracted me. Now there are a lot of fine art covers out there, so maybe this new style will be the one that stands out. Who knows? One trend I hope will be gone soon is that of headless, or half-headed heroines. What is that all about? Anyway, my only genuine disappointment is that we have to wait until February instead of January for this one.

  15. Lauren on June 17, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    Angel B, when my grandmother saw the cover of Pink I, she wanted to know if the publisher was going to go back and fix it– because, clearly, there had been a printing mistake. Part of the woman’s head was missing! When I explained that it was a stylistic choice, she wasn’t convinced and persisted in believing that it was a printing error and we were just trying to make the best of it.

  16. Christine on June 17, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    Interesting how many people are saying they first picked up Pink Carnation based on the cover. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I tend to pick up books based on title first. Half the time I don’t even notice the cover because it’s just some inanimate object.

  17. Allison on June 17, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    I do definitely miss the fine art covers. Although, frankly, I didn’t even notice that The Orchid Affair /wasn’t/ a fine art cover. The way the the cover was treated, it looked just as much like a painting as the others did. Hopefully, up close, this cover will as well. The cover for The Garden Intrigue does look a bit more “romance-y” than the others, but if people are that concerned about it, remove the dust jacket!

  18. Sealz on June 17, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    I don’t like the new cover. When I saw it in the blog post, I was like, “Ugh.”

    But its not going to keep me from reading it. I read lots of stuff with embarrassing covers.

  19. Lauren on June 17, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    That’s my feeling about a lot of books, Sealz. Sometimes, you really do wonder what they were thinking.

  20. Jessica S. on June 17, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    Lauren, I’m going to echo a lot of others here: I prefer the fine art covers but NOTHING will keep me from buying your latest as soon as it hits the shelves (or before, as some beleaguered staff at Borders can attest) or recommending them to anyone who will listen. I think you make GREAT, well-thought-out points here and I say brava! you go girl!!!

    I came to this series because I was fascinated that someone was writing about a grad student (being, at the time, 4 years into my own Ph.D.) I stayed for the writing, the stories, and all my new 1803-04 best friends and their amazing heroes 🙂 Also, having met you in person, the fact that you are so lovely and gracious and fun in person just encourages me even more to keep reading your books.

    The very idea of being ashamed of what you read is abhorrent. So sing it, sister!!! We are all behind you!

  21. Shenandoah Strojek on June 17, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    You go girl!!! I love your books and your covers! I just recommended the series to a friend of mine and would recommend these books even if it had dancing handkerchiefs on it. I think you are awesome!

  22. Jessica S. on June 17, 2011 at 11:57 pm

    lol — dancing handkerchiefs!!!

  23. Chartreuse on June 18, 2011 at 12:32 am

    It was the cover of “Black Tulip”, displayed art side out in the new books section of the library, that served as the bait on the hook. Interesting title. Napoleonic Wars? Secret agents? Spoof of “Scarlet Pimpernel”? Looks like fun. What’s that, second in a series. Let’s begin at the beginning. Went to the stacks. Yep, “Pink Carnation” is there. Checked it out and read it. WOW! TILT! Ditto for “Black Tulip”.

    So the cover of BT did its job, but I suspect the cover of GI might not have done. Doesn’t matter to me, now. Your writing means I will order the hard covers as soon as available, even should the art work would try to have me believe that its Miss Gwen in a clinch with Fabio. Those who don’t like the dust jackets can pitch them. 😉

  24. Linnae on June 18, 2011 at 6:40 pm

    An author should never be judged on her cover alone but a cover does give the publisher a wonderful marketing tool that can attract new readers and their target audience. The words inside contain the gift and the cover is just the wrapping paper.

    One of the reasons the Cover Cafe annual cover contest was created was to complement publishers on wonderful covers and to call out publishers when they produced less than wonderful covers. What I’ve learned since being associated with the contest is that one person’s “best” cover is another person’s “worst”.

  25. Am7 on June 18, 2011 at 6:53 pm

    I think the new cover is pretty.
    I can’t believe I missed all this.
    Kudos for those not shallow enough to only look at a cover! (Although I tend to my reading in private.)
    But I see Lauren primarily as a romance writer. Lots of romance writers Eloisa James, Julia Quinn, Loretta Chase, etc. etc. all write Historical romance. She is nominated for Rita, a romance writer award.
    Its great that some of you look past the cover but now some of you need to look past the genre. Or look into it further.

  26. SusanN on June 19, 2011 at 11:28 am

    Brava! Love this post about reading whatever we like without fear of embarrassment or censure. Other people, especially strangers, shouldn’t have enough power over us to rule our minds or what we do for (legal) pleasure.

    I love the story that Michael Dirda, former senior book critic for the Washington Post, used to tell about reading Harlequin romances on the Metro (subway) in preparation for a review. (He thought they were great, BTW.)

    I enjoy science fiction, especially space opera, and most of those covers are, frankly, hilarious. Some of the older ones really fall into the whattheckweretheythinking?!? category.

    Cover art basically boils down to sales, right? And most cover art is specifically designed to immediately associate a book, rightly or wrongly, with a specific genre in order to hook that base. I won’t use your blog to get on my soapbox about forcing books into genres

  27. Heather on June 20, 2011 at 9:16 am

    I kinda like the cover its in the same vein as Orchid Affair and it has the banding and ribbing that makes it apart of the series. I like things that match. 🙂 I objected to the original orchid affair because it was too much of a change but all in all, I still would have bought it and did in fact buy the stylized version of blood lily in paperback too. It seems that you and your publisher put a lot of work into making this cover because of us and I as a fan appreciate that. Thanks Lauren!

  28. Rebecca W. on June 20, 2011 at 4:32 pm

    Well said, Lauren! Just so you know, there’s nothing that would keep me from reading your books. If a person doesn’t want to read them because they’re too embarrassed for others to see the covers (which is not what I’m reading a book for, anyway), then that’s *their* loss!

  29. Stephanie Ball on June 23, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    I too picked up the first pink because of the cover read it and then left for college. in college i ran across another pink II and bought it because of the cover not realizig they were the same series. I do miss the old covers. I get that they are different and have more substance than your standard bodice ripper. i don’t mind the newer covers but i wont by a book with a trashy cover. ill hunt for other editions to find one with out but i just don’t want that sitting on my shelves for friends and family and Grandparents, maybe even a child someday to pick up and feel uncomfortable. So i am grateful that you keep the covers classy even if they are not the old art ones that drew many of us to the books. We are grateful you write them because we enjoy every page.

  30. Sharin on June 25, 2011 at 1:40 am

    Well said, Ms. Willig!
    No need for Romance Novel Readers Anonymous any more.
    My name is Sharin and I read romance novels in public.
    🙂

  31. jamie on June 29, 2011 at 12:14 am

    first, i too must say huzzah for your thoughts! 🙂 i agree that feeling as if you can’t/can read something in public based on the cover art is rubbish. all of my jane aiken hodge pb are from the 70’s and the bodice ripping covers always me laugh. i’ll read anything &everything that remotely interests me, regardless of how it is classified(i too adore diana gabaldon &have no clue how to classify her other than fabulous). however, i’ll be honest-with this latest cover i would have never picked up your book in hardback. this cover trend of floating headless people is not clever (we wouldn’t want to have to match eye color in our model would we?),and looks as if the art department was too lazy to to any research into the actual content of the novel beyond “oh-Victorian dates! let us do flounces!” which i feel does a disservice to any authors hard work, let alone an author i adore! i’m not saying you must go back to fine art covers (although that is what piqued my interest in the first place), but there has got to be something better than random headless people. this doesn’t mean i won’t buy it, because i really do adore your writing and the world you’ve created 🙂 just that i’ll toss the dj in the bin or wait to see if what is released in another region has better cover art.

  32. Genre Continued | The Bubblebath Reader on September 18, 2014 at 11:33 am

    […] exclamation of “I can’t believe YOU are reading THAT.”  Good grief.  Lauren has had that experience herself as both an author and a reader.  I am a firm believer that no one should be ashamed to read what […]

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