After working at the public library for four years, you start to notice some glaring similarities between the book covers of a certain genre. Mystery novels are instantly recognizable by a shadowy figure of a man in front of a bridge, bench, or abandoned car. Religious fiction usually shows us some version of a woman in a bonnet on a farm, smiling chastely. Western paperbacks are as expected: a man, his horse, and his cowboy hat. For the most part, cover art is predictable and makes my job of sorting genres out onto carts much easier. But a few weeks back, as I was checking in a pile of books, I noticed something troubling.
“Is it just me or is every single person on the cover of these books white?” I asked my co-worker, holding up a paperback romance novel. She laughed and agreed and we went back to our work.
So later when I went out to shelve a cart of paperbacks, I was curious and decided to check it out. Sure enough, every book that I randomly pulled off the romance shelf featured either a white woman, white man, or passionate white couple. It reminded me of a meme that circulated the internet when I was about 14. As a young teenager who thought Nicholas Sparks was the pinnacle of literary achievement, I’m sure I believed that there was nothing inherently wrong with his *very* white book covers. After all, the author was able to write The Notebook– how could anything associated with that masterpiece be wrong? But maybe the image stuck with me all these years later because I realized how strange it was that such popular novels could not be bothered to feature a single person of colour.
So I made like one of the shadowy men from the aforementioned mystery novels and I investigated. Of the 378 romance novels we had on the shelves at work (Alice Turner public library), 332 of them featured real people on the cover. The rest of the romance covers were usually some sort of park bench and river combination, with the occasional vase of fresh flowers added for good measure.
And then we get to the really interesting numbers. Of the 332 novels I looked at, only one featured a person of colour. 0.003% of the romance novels had a non-white person on the cover. That number is shockingly low. I managed to find 8 covers that featured someone of racial ambiguity. And by racial ambiguity I mean that the glistening abs of the model could have belonged to someone of any number of races. 8 out of 332 brings us up to a whopping 0.25% of non-white book covers.
Of course there is the possibility that some avid romance novel reader came to the library and happened to check out every single book featuring a non-white model on the cover. But I really don’t find that likely. After working at the library for this long and having checked in piles upon piles of romance novels, I have never noticed one of those piles featuring anyone of colour on the cover. The closest I have seen to any celebration of culture in romance novels is a strange collection of books that fetishizes Scottish culture. But alas, it is still a very white culture.
I will admit that I have never subjected myself to reading one of these novels, so I have no clear idea whether the characters themselves are white or if the covers just present them that way. The photos chosen for the covers are not the fault of the author either; the publisher is responsible for the overwhelming whiteness.
Many claim that romance novels are no more than “trash” and after evaluating the stunning lack of diversity in their covers, the critics just may be right.