Sex Sells?: Reading Romance Over the Covers

Kristine Mills-Noble looks at cover art

Image Credit: Screencap from Vimeo

H/T: Andrew Sullivan

I thought after my last post on Ryan Gosling that I’d be able to move on to more academic subjects, but when I saw Andrew Sullivan’s post on “The Market for Romance” I couldn’t let it pass. In my Women’s Popular Genres literature class last year I taught Fay Weldon’s wickedly funny novel The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, which tells the story of Ruth, a woman who gets revenge on her husband after he leaves her for a romance novelist. I wanted to pair it with an actual romance novel, but wasn’t sure I could find something that would sustain close reading. However, I think a rhetorical approach to the romance novel—especially its cover—reveals some interesting things.

TIME Magazine produced this interesting video that takes viewers to a romance cover photoshoot. I enjoyed not only inspecting the goods on display, but also hearing from Kensington Publishing Corporation’s Creative Director Kristine Mills-Noble on what she looks for in these poses:

Mills-Noble, after giving some directions to the model, explains the goal of these covers thus:

The fantasy is that this is the man who’s going to jump out of planes to rescue me in any situation. You know, we want to be seduced; we don’t want to be overcome. We don’t want to be abused.  We don’t want to be taken advantage of.

Cover for Burning Up by Anne Marsh

Image Credit: Anne Marsh

She further notes that, to create this fantasy, the model must carefully manage the placement of his hands, the look in his eyes, and the amount of muscle he shows. Too much muscle makes him look more Hulkish than heroic; a hand wrong might come across as threatening rather than protective.  The picture above shows the shoot’s final product—and Marcus appears strong and confident as he meets the viewer’s eye. The expression just misses stern; the hands almost suggest that he’s about to remove the jumpsuit, but the full exposure he might offer is rather physical than emotional. Yet it isn’t extremely lurid—his chest is mostly covered, only hinting at the body beneath.

Cover for Kat Martin's Hot Rain

Image Credit: Kensington Publishing Corporation

Despite the popular image of the bare-chested Fabio covers, this is actually consistent with what many romance readers say they want. When the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books critiqued an article that attempts to perpetuate reader shame for consuming romances, commenter Hannah E. notes that “While I can agree that I wish the covers of my favorite books didn’t sport naked male torsos (these aids to my imagination simply aren’t necessary), I’m never afraid to admit that I love romance novels.” Hannah’s contrast here juxtaposes a pride in reading romance with a dislike of traditional cover art. If there’s shame, it’s in the ways the cover art represents her romance. While contemporary romance novels contain even more erotic content than you’d find in a Georgette Heyer romance, displaying that content seems to create a dissonance for readers. The naked male chest seems to reduce these works to mere porn, whereas readers like Maria Bustillos see this as an imaginative space for women to discuss real-life problems and work out what they want in men:

The second purpose of romance novels is the exercise of imagination. This may sound paradoxical, given that there is a definite formula to these stories. But they are indeed vehicles for the imagination; each one a love rollercoaster, if you like, to tempt our fantasies. To idealize. What would a really wonderful man be like? What are the very best characteristics that men and women can have? What would the most exciting possible moment in a love affair be like; how would the tenderest lover behave?

Thus, while the title’s pun suggests Anne Marsh wants her readers to be Burning Up, the cover art offers readers one way to imagine what a sensitive smoke jumper might look like. Looking through other titles published by Kensington Publishing Corporation, I was struck that for every Hot Rain or Smooth Play that focuses on the naked muscled chest, there are works like Lutisha Lovely’s Taking Care of Business which suggests other fantasies.

Cover for Lutisha Lovely's Taking Care of Business

Image Credit: Kensington Publishing Corporation

The two men on this cover are well-dressed and broad-shouldered. Their hands in their pockets suggest confidence as much as their eye contact. The slight smile worn by the gentleman on the right hints that he can “take care of business” as the reader requires and makes the reader complicit in the insinuation. The punning nature of the titles and taglines, I’d suggest, directs these images to an aware audience who imagine themselves as active readers and sexual agents. Instead of celebrating rape, the contemporary romance today markets itself to a readership that can appreciate Fay Weldon alongside Anne Marsh.

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