by Tracey J. Pennington
I must say something about covers which feature the ubiquitous headless naked male torso. Please note–this is not a criticism of authors, who typically have no control over what gets put on the covers of their books.
I will state here that publishers of gay romances are generally coping with numerous costs and are trying to find a cheap way of dealing with expenses. Costumes and wigs are costly. A naked male torso, on the other hand, looks roughly the same in any era. Cut off the head, and you’ve removed any evidence of a hairstyle that might identify the time period in which this is taking place. In fact, you can use the headless naked torso over and over again, and no one will know the difference. I know that it is a cost issue, and I do sympathize.
(I cannot say that it is as much a cost issue for the larger publishers of mysteries, who seem to adore using headless women, or women turned away from the viewer, on their covers. But I digress.)
Despite my knowing that expense plays a large part in the use of such covers, a headless naked torso suggests a couple of things about the book before I even pick it up. First, the nakedness tells me–rightly or wrongly–that this is essentially a book about sex. Not about love or romance. Certainly not about characters or characterization, since the man on the cover has no face and therefore no individuality or identity.
Now, I’ve had enough friends write books that were published with headless naked torso cover art to know that the axiom “you can’t tell a book by its cover” is never more true than in the field of gay romance. Nevertheless, I do wish that more gay romance covers looked as if there was more to the book than “Woot, lots of sex!”
The second thing that pops into my mind when I see a headless naked torso cover–and I’m sure this isn’t typical of everyone–is murder. I don’t see a headless torso as a man I can visualize as anyone I like; I see the dead and mutilated victim of a serial killer. (It probably doesn’t help that when I was about seventeen, there was a case at a Travel Inn Motor Lodge involving two young women who had been tortured, sexually abused, mutilated and beheaded. And as recently as 2007, a serial killer was leaving headless torsos outside the New Delhi jail, and had been doing so for more than a year.)
I’m sure this is anything but intentional. But the image chills me just the same, and it does so whether the headless or faceless body on the cover is that of a man or a woman. And my repulsion for such covers does indeed affect whether or not I’ll buy the book. In fact, it’s a determining factor. I don’t want to buy a book whose cover disturbs me.
Which, again, is not fair to authors, who may have a wonderful story ensconced between horrible covers. But that’s how much of a selling point that headless naked torsos are for me…or rather, how much of a non-selling point.
And I suspect that I may not be alone.
Also, while I’m sure the use of naked torso pictures is mostly an economic choice, and an understandable one in this recession, I think that it’s vital to show pictures of gay lovers as individuals and as people. Running Press’s covers are superb in that respect, displaying men in historical garb and realistic settings which say mutely, “This could have happened to real people who loved each other. And maybe it did. Read. Read and see.”
I suspect that showing pictures of specific men wearing clothes does a lot to counteract the common misperception of non-fans (and often critics as well) that “gay romance = gay erotica.” The men’s faces and clothes indicate that “male/male romance” is not a polite term for “sex with any random man,” but about one particular person above all else. That same-sex romance, like the more heteronormative variety, is about love.
And honestly, if you’re selling love stories, then use the covers to sell the love…not just the sex.