The appeal of romance novels has grown steadily since the Bronte sisters'
Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights became instant best sellers
back in 1847. Yet, while post-Bronte appraisals of the genre's literary
value have not always been generous, 20 million or so American women can't
all be wrong; they keep romances the number-one selling category of fiction.
The one feature all romance covers share is the high-quality artwork: grandly
expressive paintings by artists of unusual technical ability.
Publishers go to great trouble and expense to get these bookcovers painted. Once the artist reads the manuscript and makes prelliminary sketches, photographs are taken--not as simple a task as it may seem. Models must be hired, costumes assembled and, often, locations scouted, just as for any other shoot. Working from the photograph, the artist then creates an oil painting, which can cost the publisher up to $10,000 if done by a first-rate illustrator. While some publishers have attempted to forgo the artist and use only the photographs for covers, the results keep them coming back for more of the larger-than-life paintings. In the world of romance, drama and allure beat stark realism hands down.
Some objections have been raised about the characterization of women in romance novels. Arguing that they portray women as powerless creatures overwhelmed by their obsessions for the opposite sex, feminists present a strong case for the romance novel's role in creating negative stereotypes. Those in the business say that their heroines, while certainly not invulnerable, uniformly prove themselves to be resilient, complex characters who inevitably triumph over adversity. Although women write most of the books, using their emotional expertise to focus on the heroines' internal struggles, men create the covers, their voyeuristic skills sharply honed to ponder the heroines' physical form.
Some might consider Elaine Gignilliat, 1983 Romance Illustrator of the Year, to be on the wrong side of the business. But Gignilliat flatly states, "most romance illustrators are men because most illustrators are men." And unlike the few men who write romances under a female pseudonym---Gignilliat has risen to the top without having to change her name.
Even in the rarefied world of romance illustration, there is room for specialization; Gignilliat's is the historical romance. Noted for her keen sense of place and attention to historical detail, she maintains a large research library in her studio and may spend days or even weeks preparing for the actual two-week painting process. After many years as a fashion illustrator--including a stint in Paris writing and illustrating a fashion column--she can come up with precise costume styles for a book's setting. Although Gignilliat left New York two years ago for her native Georgia, she says she has to turn down work these days.
Gignilliat attributes her success in the romance field not only to her eye for detail and historical accuracy but to a genuine appreciation of the subject matter. She dismisses the categorization of romance books as "silly and unimportant." She says, "Men are never chastised for reading a typically masculine book--whether it's sport or adventure--while the most important subject in the world--love--is dismissed as frivolous." When romance writing is at its best," she says, "it captures a sense of genuine romance--I mean the real, great love-of-your-life romance that ends in total commitment."
As new racy titles appeared like Ecstasy and Desire, some publishers even began printing consumer labels on book covers warning the prospective reader about the explicit sexual content. The new cover art made it impossible for the reader not to understand exactly what was inside: more and more began featuring half-clothed couples looking more lust-ridden than starry-eyed, holding one another in vice grips that appeared more painful than passionate.
Lately romance is in the air again. With the fear of AIDS and the new sentiment that free love leads only to emotional bankruptcy, the romance industry is responding with books that are closer in spirit to the genre's beginning than to the steamy books of its recent past. As Gignilliat says, "People are tired of relationships that don't mean anything. Even James Bond," who may be the closest equivalent men have to the female romance heroine, "just had one girl in his last film." For everybody's sake--especially the artists who spend their days trying to capture the burning ardor of love for the covers of books--let's hope love is really here to stay.
The Gignilliat painting featured with this article was Hearts of Fire by Christina Savage.