Paratexts, Part One: Judging a Book by its Back Cover

This post is the first in a three-part series about romance paratexts. 

Paratext is a catch-all term for the parts of a book that aren’t the narrative itself. This includes the obvious elements that come along with a book – front cover, back cover, blurbs, dedications – and the less-obvious things that live separately from it – reviews, things the author has said in interviews, artsy bookstagram photos, etc. The term originated in the work of Gerard Genette, who titled his French-language book on the topic  “Seuils” or “Thresholds.” Essentially, paratext is everything that meets the reader at the threshold of reading  : what they encounter once they already know the book exists, but before they start to read it. Genette argued that paratexts affect how readers receive the books they pick up. What I’ll be looking at over 3 weeks are particular kinds of romance paratexts that do just that – influence how individual readers consume novels – but also how paratexts shape the way romance exists in the world. 

(This is how long the book about paratexts is, so obviously this is a rather crude summary of his argument) Image: abebooks.com 

The most obvious and often-discussed type of paratext is book covers. While I thought about including that topic in this series of posts, I ultimately decided not to wade into the Cover Wars. I don’t think it’s necessarily more complex than what I’m planning to discuss, but it’s ground that has already been covered (heh) frequently. Plus, I certainly feel more comfortable discussing words than images. 

So I’ve decided to start with a post on what I naively thought I could just call “blurbs” –  the 1-3 paragraph description of the plot and characters that you can find on the back of a book if you have a physical copy, or at online book vendors or “about this book” pages for ebooks. But I realized via an online conversation that calling these paragraphs “blurbs” wasn’t entirely accurate, as that word also defines publicity quotes about the book. Other options floated were back cover copy – somewhat dated with the advent of ebooks – and jacket copy – back from when books had jackets.  I’m going to be an insufferable academic and call these descriptors abstracts, as they fulfill more or less the same function of condensing the contents of a piece of writing to a paragraph-sized summary. 

Ideally, romance novel abstracts have a pretty straightforward job: they should tell readers who the characters are and describe their central conflict. But beyond this basic information, all kinds of other communication can get encoded. Reading between the lines, especially for those well-versed in the genre, good abstracts divulge information about mood and trope and even a book’s relationship to its predecessors. Taken together, the style of romance abstracts also tells us a lot about how romance conceives of itself as a genre distinct from others on the literal and virtual shelves. 

Doing an informal survey of romance abstracts (and I should clarify, from an exclusively reader perspective: I have no idea how these things get made and I’m not qualified to talk about this from a process or marketing standpoint) I found that they generally follow a three-part structure. First, at least in romances between two people, we meet the two MCs in sequence, each via a paragraph or section devoted to their personality and central character arc. Then a final section explains the circumstances under which the two MCs will come into contact, and why falling in love is a Bad Idea.  My shorthand for that structure here is going to be [MC1] [MC2] [Contact and Conflict].  Here’s a good standard example, from Lisa Kleypas’s Dreaming of You:

When shy and secluded author Sara Fielding ventures from her country cottage to research a novel, she inadvertently witnesses a crime in progress—and manages to save the life of the most dangerous man in London.

Derek Craven is a powerful and near-legendary gambling club owner who was born a bastard and raised in the streets. His reputation is unsavory, his scruples nonexistent. But Sara senses that beneath Derek’s cynical exterior, he is capable of a love more passionate than her deepest fantasies.

Aware that he is the last man that an innocent young woman should ever want, Derek is determined to protect Sara from himself, no matter what it takes. But in a world where secrets lurk behind every shadow, he is the only man who can keep her safe. And as Derek and Sara surrender to an attraction too powerful to deny, a peril surfaces from his dark past to threaten their happiness . . . and perhaps even their lives.

Together they will discover if love is enough to make dreams come true.

There are, of course, almost as many variations on this theme as there are books, and in the right hands these variations are rich in information. For example, I love how readers can pick up on the cutting humor and classic enemies-to-lovers trope as early as the [MC1] section of the abstract for Christina C Jones’ Getting Schooled: 

When 26 year old Reese accepts a position as a grad assistant, she has no idea an unpleasant encounter with a student will lead to the discovery of what she calls “the trifecta”: fine, intellectual, and a little bit rude – three qualities she finds irresistible in a man. 

The abstract for Hate to Want You, Alisha Rai’s childhood-friends-to-lovers-to-enemies-to-sex-pact-to-lovers romance uses the words “illicit pleasure” before we hear who Livvy and Nicholas are, signaling high heat up front. And the inversion of the classic structure into [Contact and Conflict] [MC1] [MC2] [Contact and Conflict] reflects the twists and turns of the couple’s relationship, as well as the plot-focused nature of this 3-book family saga. 

One night. No one will know.

That was the deal. Every year, Livvy Kane and Nicholas Chandler would share one perfect night of illicit pleasure. The forbidden hours let them forget the tragedy that haunted their pasts—and the last names that made them enemies.

Until the night she didn’t show up.

Now Nicholas has an empire to run. He doesn’t have time for distractions and Livvy’s sudden reappearance in town is a major distraction. She’s the one woman he shouldn’t want . . . so why can’t he forget how right she feels in his bed?

Livvy didn’t come home for Nicholas, but fate seems determined to remind her of his presence—and their past. Although the passion between them might have once run hot and deep, not even love can overcome the scandal that divided their families.

Being together might be against all the rules . . . but being apart is impossible.

There are a million small tweaks that happen within the formula once you recognize it. Beverley Jenkins’ Tempest, which starts with the heroine shooting the hero, also uses an atypical interrogative opener:  

What kind of mail-order bride greets her intended with a bullet instead of a kiss? 

The abstract of Lucy Parker’s Act Like It evokes the style of the celebrity gossip magazines that propel the plot of the book. 

Sources say the mismatched pair has been spotted at multiple events, arm in arm and hip to hip. 

The abstract for Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels contrasts Jess and Dain by presenting Dain’s [MC2] paragraph in free indirect discourse of hysterical exclamation-point-y worries, in contrast to Jess’s more staid statements of fact in her [MC1] intro.

Tough-minded Jessica Trent’s sole intention is to free her nitwit brother from the destructive influence of Sebastian Ballister, the notorious Marquess of Dain.



Damn the minx for tempting him, kissing him… and then forcing him to salvage her reputation!

In Band Sinister, KJ Charles sets up a tongue-in-cheek relationship to genre predecessors (which I’ve written about here) with an aside inserted into an otherwise mostly- traditional [MC1] intro. 

Sir Philip Rookwood is the disgrace of the county. He’s a rake and an atheist, and the rumours about his hellfire club, the Murder, can only be spoken in whispers. (Orgies. It’s orgies.)

When it comes to most romance abstracts, there’s clearly an identifiable formula (as Twitter pointed out last week, first person abstracts are a whole different thing that I don’t have space for here). Part of the potential of that formula, though, as I hope I’ve shown above, is that small changes can encode a wealth of information about tone, subgenre, tropes, and character traits. A good abstract provides transparent basic information to anyone who reads it, but can also offer a kind of inside communication to romance readers, who know the form enough to appreciate the variation.

Of course, if “knowing the form and appreciating the variation” sounds familiar, that’s because it’s true of romance as a genre on the whole. Not unsurprisingly, the structural touchstones of romance have given rise to a concomitant structure for describing the book itself. The presentation of [MC1] [MC2] reassures that the “central focus on the love story of two or more characters” requirement will be met. And the end of the abstract – the last sentence in particular – addresses the need to deliver on romance’s other primary task: an original and compelling journey to HEA.  

What intrigued me about the final sentences of most of the abstracts in my survey is that they focus more on the obstacles to HEA than the HEA itself. In a lot of ways, this makes sense: having an HEA is what makes romances similar to each other; the obstacles are what makes every novel different. These final sentences fall into five broad categories. 

The rhetorical: asks a question about threats to the HEA. The answer is yes.

Can their love survive their countries’ enmity? (Honeytrap, Aster Glenn Grey)

The contingency: an “if” or “maybe” statement that suggests the uncertainty of the HEA.

With every minute they spend under the same roof, this working mom can’t help but wonder if Rafe can handle all her needs… (Rafe, Rebekah Weatherspoon)

The either/or: presents the options that either will or will not lead to HEA.

Giving in for just one night might quench this longing. Or it might ignite an affair as reckless and irresistible as it is forbidden . . (Forbidden, Beverley Jenkins)

The obstacle: this closer presents an obstacle so great, its threat to the HEA is understood.

Following the path of the Underground Railroad, they find themselves caught up in a vicious battle that could dash their hopes of love – and freedom – before they even cross state lines. (A Hope Divided, Alyssa Cole) 

The prize: more common in old-school histrom, this one focuses on how great the HEA will be, rather than the obstacles to it .

But she never dreamed her gentle, healing touch would alter his life and her own so completely – and bind them together in need, desire…and love. (Flowers from the Storm, Laura Kinsale) 

Almost every romance abstract ends on some kind of statement proclaiming its capability of pulling off the fundamental tension between structure and struggle. But does that really set it apart? Lots of books ask leading or enticing questions about the plot. But I was curious if abstracts for other genres – particularly the somewhat vaguely-defined “literary fiction” – have different sets of codes and constraints from romance, and what that paratextual difference might tell us about how romance is positioned in the literary world. 

Consulting my shelves of non-romance fiction, I found a significant number devoted their final sentence to a citation of the title followed by a statement about what the book is like, rather than what it’s about. Here are four examples, all of which I read in the last year: 

In Daisy Jones and the Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid brilliantly captures an unforgettable place and time in an utterly distinctive voice. 

Richly told and profoundly moving, Pachinko is a story of love, sacrifice, ambition, and loyalty. From the bustling street markets to the halls of Japan’s finest universities to the pachinko parlors of the criminal underworld, Lee’s complex and passionate characters – strong, stubborn women, devoted sisters and sons, fathers shaken by moral crisis – survive and thrive against the indifferent arc of history. 

The Bone Fire is a political gothic, carried along by the menace and promise of a fairy tale. 

The Other Americans is at once a family saga, a murder mystery, and a love story informed by the treacherous fault lines of American culture. 

These are markedly different from the closing line of romance abstracts- so why is that? An obvious answer is that these final sentences narrow down genre in a way that romance doesn’t need to. However, indicating genre isn’t all that these portions of litfic abstracts are doing, nor arguably is it their most important function. These sentences also (justifiably!) laud the quality of the books, marking their contribution to broader discussions. They are “unforgettable” and “utterly distinctive” and expose the “fault lines of American culture.” They’re serious. They’re well-written. The end of these abstracts shift from the “plot summary” mode to “book review” mode, preparing readers to think of the contents as having measurable value. 

Citing the title directly also invites readers to think about the book as an object: something we might display on our bookshelves, or tell people we’ve read. That’s something I and many readers do with romance novels. But I’m suspicious that others might have past experiences mirroring mine, of having to wade through a swamp of societal judgment before reaching that point. Romance has a reputation for readers who go through books quickly and don’t want others to know what they’re reading (part of the putative reason we were early adopters of ebooks), which is the opposite of the kind of visible materiality suggested by talking about your book as an object in a blurb. I don’t want to fall into the trap of assuming that quick and private consumability is somehow inferior but… I do wonder about the way we’ve been conditioned to not to think of romance novels as objects of permanent value and as subjects of serious critique.

So, is the fact that romance abstracts rarely cite the book as a book a sign of broader reticence to consider romance novels as something appraisable and praiseworthy? 

I don’t think this difference is exclusively down to internalized messaging about quality. To begin with, there are other places on romance covers (endorsement quotes, “from the bestselling author of” intros) where such evaluation takes place. Furthermore, like any other semi-closed literary system, romance has evolved its own codes to mark itself as distinctive: they conclude with an estimation of the nature of the book, we conclude with a commitment to plot and conflict. Not citing the title betokens a kind of unselfconsciousness, too. The book just needs to be about something compelling, not announce to readers what their opinion should be before they’ve started.

In a lot of ways, romance abstracts have a different kind of knowledge of, and trust in, the reader. So it really is the farthest possible thing from my mind to make the argument that romance should be marketing itself like litfic. I do think, however, that this difference opens an opportunity to look at how we talk about romance: to both celebrate the codes we’ve created, and find spaces for evaluating quality and legacy and importance alongside plot and character and structure. 

***

Mostly what this initial survey of abstracts brought home to me is that paratexts are about a lot more than the meeting of reader and text at its threshold. They also reveal where and how the text lives in the world. That’s what the next two posts in this series will look at as well. Next week I’ll be talking about front matter – specifically content warnings, dedications, and epigraphs – and how they build bridges between the text, the reader, and other works of art and moments in time. Then the last stop will be a close reading of Twitter promo – both the kind authors create deliberately for marketing, and the kind readers create incidentally to push favorite books on people – and how they’ve created a more dynamic space of paratextual negotiation than anything Genette probably imagined. 

See you next week!

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