Judging (By) the Cover

Since I can’t seem to bestir myself to comment on the insides of books I’m reading.

What Does “The Best” Mean?

Here are the 50 best book covers of 2012, as chosen by Design Observer. I have read precisely one of these books, Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You, which is one of the few books in the list that could (loosely) be called genre fiction (can it? I think it’s on some chick lit/women’s fiction/literary fiction border that proves how fuzzy genre boundaries can be). I’ve also read an earlier book by Benjamin Black, who’s represented here. Those are genre fiction (mystery) written under a pen name by John Banville; it’s interesting how his Black website both trades on Banville’s “acclaimed [literary] novelist” status and divorces his genre fiction from it.

Anyway, my point here is not so much that genre fiction gets overlooked again, but that I found it interesting that “good/high” cover design parallels “good/high” literature in some ways. Genre fiction covers are governed by conventions (we all know what they are for various romance subgenres) and, far more than the contents in my experience, emphasize consistent branding, the idea that “you know just what you’re getting” when you grab a book featuring a sword-wielding, tattooed woman in leather pants or a shirtless man in breeches.

These award-winning covers–for a range of fiction and non-fiction, certainly–have their own conventions: they are often spare and abstract. Very few represent people (and even fewer faces that are not distorted in some way) or landscapes. I think you can guess a lot about the principles of good design subscribed to by the jury that chose these covers, and they are not the principles that govern genre cover design. It is often not at all clear from these covers what you’ll be getting inside, and I think that’s meant to emphasize that you’ll be getting something surprising, new or original (and of course “high quality”)–originality being something our culture values in “high art” these days.

Weary as I am of the repetition in a lot of genre covers (another waxed chest, another woman’s back with giant dress falling off), many individual examples are beautiful, striking, and excellently designed for their purpose. But they are designed according to a set of principles that guarantees they’ll be overlooked by this kind of award, just as genre fiction is overlooked by literary awards. It’s good to remember that awards like this promote one kind of good, not the kind of good.

Book Spine Poetry

I loved this Brainpicker post on Nina Katchadourian’s “sorted books,” sentences made by stacking books and reading their titles as a sentence. I remember when people were tweeting “book spine poems.” Here’s my erotic poem, almost entirely composed of out-dated literary theory. Or maybe it’s about grad school?

IMAG0499If you try your own, and you’re on Twitter, tweet them!

Judging a Hero By His Cover?

His hair, that is. Carolyn Jewel wrote about an old favorite romance, Karen Robards’ Loving Julia, and how rare its blond hero is in romance novels today. Her post quotes this line: “This man was blond, lean, and blindingly beautiful with the flawlessly molded face of one of the Lord’s archangels.”

I wondered on Twitter whether blond heroes are regularly described as (arch)angelic; I’ve just been reading about Patricia Gaffney’s blond Christy, who is described that way–a bit ad nauseum for my taste. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it before, too, though sometimes as a fallen angel. Marijana Okanovic (@OkanovicM) pointed out that dark heroes are often “devilishly handsome,” and that there is some obvious light/dark symbolism (or stereotyping) at play. But then what are we to make of the dark-haired bad-boy archangels to be seen in some paranormals these days? Perhaps we can discuss this deeply imporant question of hero hair in more depth as part of our Gaffney book club.

Or perhaps not. Really I don’t care in the least about hero hair color (I don’t need the heroine to share my preferences, and I’m not sure I have any anyway) and I kind of wish the romance genre wasn’t so into describing characters in detail and left more to our imaginations.

ETA: thanks to Brie for reminding me of Jessica’s great post (good comments too) on blond heroes.

Under the Covers: What I’ve Read Lately

Max Gladstone, Three Parts Dead Alternate-world, vaguely steampunk, urban fantasy legal thriller. Solid plot, really interesting world-building, liked the characters but would have liked more character development (with all that, something had to give). I’m in for more of the series when it comes.

Lois McMaster Bujold, Falling Free (on audio) I actually have Things to Say about this Vorkosiverse prequel and will try to do a post on the weekend.

Tamara Allen, Downtime My first by her. I know, I know. Great character development and lovely slow-building (m/m) romance. Of course I have more TBR.

Jill Mansell, To The Moon and Back I totally enjoyed this while I was reading it but can hardly remember anything about it. Um, wait, oh yes! This kind of light/humorous take on serious subjects like grief, recovery and finding self worth is not really my favorite thing, but she’s a great storyteller, though I got tired of the instalove in every interwoven plot. It’s not as melodramatic as I often find women’s fiction, but covers some of the same territory. And it doesn’t have that humor from heroine humiliation that I hate in chick lit. It was exactly what I needed when I read it.

Charlotte Stein, Curve Ball A short erotic romance. Stein somehow builds sexual as well as other tension out of anger, misunderstanding, and hurt feelings. I felt really tense reading it, at points. The first-person voice might drive some people crazy, and the characters are definitely drawn in broad strokes, but I thought it worked to get real emotion across on a small canvas rather than seeming caricatured. I think Stein may be the Mistress of Squirm, of various sorts.


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5 Responses to Judging (By) the Cover

  1. From a purely authorish view, I have heard booksellers and publishers say blond men on romance covers don’t sell books. Several authors have written blond heroes but got dark-haired men on their covers.

    When I bought Loving Julia, low those many years ago, the cover told me exactly what it needed to about the contents.

    As an author, though, I can’t help feeling like the cover of a book needs to do everything possible to convince a reader to click and find out more. Reader me? Rotten covers have kept me away. I’ll pick up (or click on) a beautiful cover just to look… (cue the jaws theme) and then I’m often hooked. Design matters. The visual rhetoric matters– on so many levels.

    Readers often complain about covers that don’t represent the contents of the novel, and I know I will often flip back to look at the cover…. I just do. But if readers see a blond dude and something in the cultural air makes them recoil? Then, I don’t want a blond dude on my cover. Is that not a problematic reaction? I think it is. Suppose we were talking about people of color, as opposed to hair color? And then, how would you square the squee factor of a romance novel with, say, Idris Elba on the cover, with such problematic conditioning? I suspect Elba would move a lot of books.

    And on the other, other hand, I just released a novel where my hero is Indian (South-East Asian). Prior to April of 2012 — I was unable to find images of an Asian (Tibetan in the book) man suitable for a Romance novel. By then I’d been looking for nearly a year. I had readers sending me links, and none of them conveyed what I hoped for that cover. Fast forward 1 year and when I went looking for images of hot Indian men suitable for a Romance novel, I found MANY images and was able to choose from more than one. This makes me think we are slowly, slowly, changing our cultural ideas about how we represent what is physically attractive.

    But there’s more! If you take a look at the cover to Loving Julia (which you can see at my post) you will see a man in a position of physical dominance over a woman. He looms over her. She is in a passive posture. His position and posture are active. Hers are motionless. In the moments to come–we KNOW he will be the active character, and she the patient receptacle of his attentions. It was 1986 — and I did not then have the tools to even begin to see what’s at play in that cover. I’m not even sure we were having those kinds of conversations; certainly not without a large dose of ridicule about women who didn’t know their place.

    The thing is, there would be nothing, objectively, bad about a given woman at a given moment, choosing to receive attentions rather than bestow them. So, in terms of romance covers today, it’s interesting that we seem to be moving away from such clinches.

    I see very few romance covers that are both beautiful in a design sense and also less suggestive of female passivity. My last two historical covers are beautiful in a design sense. The colors are rich and sensual. But both women are in passive/come hither positions. (There is no man on either cover)

    Or do I think that because I’ve been conditioned to interpret it that way?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I’m not sure what to say, except that this comment is way more thoughtful than I feel the post deserves.

      Re. hair color on covers, I wonder this: is there a symbolic/stereotypical association of blond(e) with good/angelic? And if so, do “we” reject blond heroes because good guys are weak and boring and “we” prefer bad boy alphas? Maybe some of this is going on, and it does seem problematic, if not on the same scale as rejecting covers with people of color (and we all know whitewashing of covers happens).

      I pay very little attention to covers when I’m picking romance, because they are so generic. But when I’m browsing general fiction sections, they definitely influence what I pick up to look more closely at.

      • Ros says:

        That blond angel thing doesn’t work for me. If I’m thinking of a male angel, I’m thinking dark hair. Blonde cherubs, sure, or nativity play angels. But not angels who are grown men. BUT I do tend to think blond hero = good guy. Dark hero = edgier, rakish, bad boy. I have no idea where this comes from in my head.

        On the other hand, I’m with you about the covers. Since 9 times out of 10 the cover model looks nothing like the character, I barely bother to look.

  2. I have to confess I rather like those angelic metaphors for blond heroes, at least when something interesting is done with them. One of my favorite uses of that metaphor is in Balogh’s Dark Angel, where Gabriel, the hero, is at first compared in the heroine Jennifer’s POV to a devil (she thinks his name isn’t very fitting) and her fiance, the blond and gorgeous Lionel, whom she thinks is the true angel, later reveals himself to be quite the villain.

    Gabriel is far from an angel too, which makes his falling for her all the more compelling. If only Jennifer was a little more gray herself, I think this book would be a masterpiece. But the otherwise fabulous plot, which is reminiscent of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, requires her to stay on the sweet and clueless side for a little too long.

    I also really like the way Laura Kinsale applied the blond angel metaphor in The Shadow and the Star, because Samuel’s golden exterior contrasts so well with his shadowy interior. I’ll save my thoughts on To Love and to Cherish for your book club.

  3. Isobel Carr says:

    I always think of Lucifer (the monring star, the light bringer) as blond, so blond does not equal angelic in a “good” way. He’s a golden baddie. Like this:

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