Romance, Dystopia, and My Least Favorite Book Covers

By Richie Bowman

There are two genres I loved growing up– teen dystopias, and romance novels. For dystopias, I grew up in the prime; The Hunger Games was released the year I was in 7th grade, and I happily spent my high school years reading everything I could until the great dystopia bust of 2017 (thanks a million, Divergent.) With romance novels, my mother used to read them all the time when I was a kid; I have clear-as-day mental images of her bookshelves lined with Nora Roberts, Jennifer Crusie, and Charlaine Harris. I used to sneak her Blaze branded mass-markets to middle school to giggle over them with my friends. To put it frankly, I’ve done my time in the trenches of pulp. But I’ve noticed something recently in the rom-com world that reminds me a little too much of those dystopias I love, and I’m just going to need it to stop. 

Why don’t we tell people the plot anymore? Publishers, I’m seriously asking. I’m so genuinely exhausted by looking at the back of the new Elena Armas only to see “#FakeDating #ThereWasOnlyOneBed #EnemiesToLovers” and not a damn thing about the actual… characters? Sequence of events? I’m not saying every book needs to give itself away in its description. I understand that romances come with enough of a beat sheet that the characters can often be the only “new” thing about a romance. I just don’t love that publishers have started to think it’s the only way to market a book!

I’m reading more romance than ever lately, so I started to wonder what the shift truly was. Why can’t I easily find a plot summary these days? Why did the publisher only spend 6 minutes in Canva to make a cover that looks identical to every other romcom cover I’ve seen this decade? Is it BookTok? Lots of people would love to throw the blame their way, but I think that’s only part of it. And I think it speaks more to our current government than anything else.

See, I’m pretty sure nobody expects me to write this article. To be honest, I’m not even sure the owners read these before they’re posted, so this could be a fun shock for them (I hope not! Sorry if it is!) But if you follow the rise of romance’s popularity throughout the decades, we consistently see romance thrive during recessions, depressions, plagues, and wars. These are escape routes, coping mechanisms, and they’re frequently brought out to shake away the frightening aspects of the world we live in. And now, with LGBTQ+ hate bills on the rise, with gun control getting scarier by the second, reeling from the pandemic, about to enter a recession, and with an election year just ahead? I’d love to be shaken from some of that. But seeing hashtags covering the back of my beloved romances just does not take me away. It’s not an escape; it’s Twitter 2.0! All our options for freeing ourselves from the world are being monetized and marketed. While marketing has obviously always played a part in the book industry, it feels so in your face these days with all their “cool slang” (that publishers use 3 years too late) to try and spark interest in a genre we’d be buying anyway!

Ultimately, “internet speak” is something that we’re not getting away from. I remember reading Uglies by Scott Westerfeld as a teenager and laughing with my friends over the ridiculous way they speak. But hindsight is a gift, and I don’t think the word “girlbossification” is any less ludicrous than calling someone “Tally-wa.” We’re hitting critical mass linguistically on how much “traditional language” we’re able to keep. 

I’m not opposed to language shifting. But I think that in particular, this shift has been towards monetization. Much easier to market “fake dating” than an actual plot. It’s much easier to convince the kids to say “unalive” than to lose sponsorships from using the word “kill.” Teenagers have always been a bastion of culture, whether we want to admit that or not, and it’s so disheartening to see them forced into a language that removes anything you can’t sell. It’s pretty 1984 in my opinion. God knows when I was a teen I wasn’t able to reconcile that I might be used as free marketing, especially when I was just using whatever words my friends heard that week as my Brand New Personality. So I doubt they even see what’s being done to them, even as I recognize so much from Fahrenheit 451, and The Hunger Games, and so many other dystopias that didn’t feel nearly as real back in my own childhood.

It’s not surprising to me that, with the uptick in surveillance and capitalism crying its final death knell before the collapse, romance novels have been booming once again. People need an escape from politics, from the environment, from illness and war threats and propaganda. So they go out in search of something easy and palatable. It’s the same reason TikTok is so popular, and Vine before that, and Youtube before that. But the melding of these arts– the constant usage of internet slang to try and sell me one of the few pastimes we have that doesn’t require WiFi– makes me feel ill. It makes me feel like there’s no escape.

Part of this is simply nostalgia. I miss the feeling of crappy, chewed wood paper. I miss the look of an oil painting cover with two people in scandalously draped clothing, rather than the ClipArt we get now. I miss paying 25 cents in a bargain bin for Debbie Macomber. That’s not going to come back, and I realize that. We live in the world we live in, and as I see more and more of us in dystopias, I think romance could be a real safe haven. It’s just…not.

The solution is the simplest thing in the world– just tell me the plot!! It’s not huge, or bank-breaking, or really anything noticeable at all. It’s just a small sign that we’ll be allowed to keep this one remnant of a pre-social media era. I don’t know about the rest of y’all, but I need pretty frequent reminders at this point that Twitter actually isn’t all there is. 

So, romance publishers, I’m begging– give me more than the tropes. We all know you have to sell things to us, so must we make the transaction permeate every step of the way? I think we’re better than that. It may seem extreme to tie all this to a couple of hashtags, but I’m not in the business of ignoring flags. If we want to stave off the bad things that this world has to offer, we need to separate our art from our money. When we have to pay to hear the birds sing, who would journey outside?