One of my projects of late has taken me into the world of romance novel covers. I went into the work thinking I’d talk about the covers of het romances—and then I stumbled across Anne Tenino’s Frat Boy and Toppy. And that discovery led to the presentation below.
Covering Up to Strip Down:
Remixing Anne Tenino’s Frat Boy and Toppy
I began this project with a general interest in the covers of romance novels (slide 1), in these too-familiar renderings [rendings] (slide 2) of female garments by well-muscled, occasionally well-meaning masculine overlords.
And then I came across this (slide 3): Anne Tenino’s terribly titled but oh so very excellent novel Frat Boy and Toppy—a male/male erotic romance.
Now on the one hand, this cover is stereotypical, a close cousin of the now-familiar images plastered on heterosexual romance novels—featuring two naked male torsos for the price of one. But on the other, the cover is just bizarre. Its assemblage-like quality comes off as an artist’s fever dream: over-thought, over-designed, and, worst of all [to my mind] a poor representation of the content [and the pleasures] the text presents. My goal, then, has been to redesign Toppy’s cover so that it might more effectively reflect both the book’s content and the current cultural conversation surrounding women and the consumption of popular [erotic] romance, a discussion sparked by the runaway success of this novel, (slide 4) Fifty Shades of Grey.
Perhaps the busy nature of Toppy’s cover (slide 5) is due, in part, to the many different kinds of stories that the novel manages to tell within the generic constraints of an erotic romance; that is, a romance in which sexual encounters are used as the building blocks of a mutually satisfying and emotionally supportive love match and one which concludes with the characters living “happily ever after.” Toppy manages to do this while performing several other kinds of stories within the same text. First, the novel is a coming-out story in which Brad [the titular frat boy] recognizes that he’s gay, that he’s attracted to other men: specifically, to Sebastian, the TA for Brad’s “Classical Greece” history course.
Early in the book, Brad comes out to his family, who are relaxed and groovy about the whole thing, as, it seems, is Brad himself. Indeed, he is pretty angst free about the whole thing: he accepts who he is—and who he is wants Sebastian. That said, Brad is reluctant to come out to his frat, many of whom aren’t homophobic, per say, but are pretty happily ensconced in their belief that Brad’s straight [given that he’s been dating—but not sleeping with—women] and show little interest in discussing the potential fluidities of male sexual desire.
But this is also a romance, a story about two people falling in love and using hot sex as a means by which to discover that their attraction goes beyond the physical. After getting Sebastian’s attention by turning in a paper he purchased online as his own [like you do], Brad confesses his desire. The two men immediately sleep together [in that Yankee Candle- infested living room on the front cover] and it’s all happily uphill from there.
Over the course of the novel, the boys make both erotic discoveries—hey, they both enjoy D/s in the bedroom [as the title might suggest]—and personal ones; ultimately, his relationship with Sebastian, the mutually supportive bond that they forge, gives Brad the courage he needs to embrace his true passion—cooking—and to not only come out to his frat but to give them an instructive lecture on the many ways that two men can get off together. By the story’s end, the boys are in love, everyone who matters accepts them, and they’re happily planning their life together.
As these reviews (slide 6)—linked to on the website of the book’s publisher, Riptide Press—suggest, Toppy’s also notable for its clever writing, its humor, and its ability to present a story that’s both “smoking hot,” as reviewer [and romance scholar] Sarah Frantz notes, and emotionally satisfying. As a writer of slash fan fiction—of male/male romance/porn—may I say that I think this balance is really freaking difficult to strike, to do, and especially to do as well as I think Tenino does here. And all of that skill, that nuance, that humor that makes the book remarkable to me is utterly absent from the nightmarish cover. Indeed (slide 7), as Don from the Hearts on Fire site puts it: “I was expecting an over-sexed coming out story [but] got so much more.”
So I return to the problem that I see in this image (slide 8), in the hodge-podge of pictures that form the novel’s front cover. [A note: Riptide does publish some of their texts in hard copy, but that’s relatively rare; most of their titles, including Toppy, are distributed via Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and the like, as e-books]. For me, the current design presents three key problems: too many images, too many fonts, and an assemblage-like quality that confuses, rather than clarifies, the content of the text.
First, a quick catalogue of the images here:
On the top 2/3 of the cover (slide 9), we have two boys: one who’s pulling his shirt up, kind of inexplicably looking down at—something? [Where he thinks his cock should be? I don’t know.] As a reader, I think this is supposed to be Brad—given the six-pack and his relatively youthful appearance—although it doesn’t match the image I have of Brad in my mind, as he’s described in the text. Now the second man—Sebastian, I presume—has no head [and no shirt] and is posing like Marky Mark in a Calvin Klein ad.
While this element of the design communicates pretty directly that this is story about two men, it’s the presence of the two naked torsos here that’s the relevant signifier. As these covers (slide 10) for two heterosexual romance novels by Lori Foster suggest, the naked male torso alone ain’t no thing: what’s of significance for Toppy, for the book’s content, is the doubling here of an otherwise familiar image in the context of the romance novel.
Next (slide 11), recessed behind the two men on the top 2/3 of the cover, we have an exterior shot of a building or a coliseum, perhaps. This element of the design is intended, I would argue, to suggest the collegiate location in which much of the story unfolds: the bewilderingly named Calapooya College.
The bottom 1/3 (slide 12) of the cover contains a soft-focus image of an overly neat living room, a room that features both a VCR [??] and a Yankee Candle [???]. Again, as a reader, my guess is that this is supposed to be Sebastian’s living room—if for no other reason than because this space is way too clean for a frat house. Its significance, then, lies in that it’s the first place [the first floor] on which our heroes have sex, but man, does it look uncomfortable with all that furniture everywhere.
The cover also features four different serif fonts [and two colors] (slide 14):
- “frat boy”: font 1 [yellow]
- “and”: font 2 [white]
- “toppy”: font 3 [white fading into yellow]
- “anne tenino”: font 4 [in white]
All in all, this equates for me to a visual that’s striking, that’s distinct—but for all the wrong reasons. It’s kind of hilariously bad, especially when coupled with the book’s title. My goal, then, has been to reimagine this cover, to solve some of the design problems it presents, to reframe it in a way that highlights both the content of the text and what are, for me, some of its pleasures.
First (slide 14), I’ve streamlined the design, eliminating all but one visual element. To do this, I took one [sub]element of the original design (slide 15)—the coffee table in the bottom 1/3 [and the stack of books on it] and let that space alone tell the story (slide 16). The table itself is black and forms a horizontal band that divides the top 2/3 of the cover from the bottom 1/3. Above the black line, on the table itself, rests a stack of books—including a cookbook and a text named “Greek Life.” On top of the books lies a pair of glasses—Sebastian’s glasses, which become, for Brad, a highly eroticized object.
The stack of books themselves are, I think, connotative of the educational space, the collegial space, in which much of the story’s action occurs, more so that the mysterious coliseum or building that lurks behind the boys in the original design. In addition, the titles of the books also open up a [subtle] opportunity for more story-telling in this space, for more hints as to the content of the novel, hints that are, after reading the text, easily identifiable, but not akin to a sledgehammer to the head. The same goes for Sebastian’s glasses—they suggest the ways in which scholarship and sensuality collide in the body of Sebastian and within the text itself.
Second, I’ve created a starker and cleaner contrast of colors. The black bar rests below a defined white space and sits just above a cool red. In this way, the viewer’s eye is drawn down, towards the title of the work that rests in the bottom 1/3 of the cover. No longer are sage greens and browns competing with yellow and silver text; rather, the color palate is simplified and made starker. The eye knows where it is to go, now: to the book’s title and the author’s name. Finally, I’ve added a subtitle to the text: “a novel of instruction.”
Again, this underscores the intertwining of sex and scholarship and hints at one of the novel’s contextual elements of which I’m most fond: the detailed explanation that Brad gives his frat brothers as to how, exactly, two men can get each other off. For the [probably female] reader, this section of the text serves as instruction as to some of the logistics of sex between two men, information to which such a reader has likely not had previous access. For Brad, this scene gives him an opportunity to publicly perform the knowledge that he’s gained about his own sexuality for an audience that represents the dominant, male, heterosexual discourse. Inserting this element onto the cover, then, allows me both to point towards this particular moment in the text and to suggest how reading such a work—a male/male erotic romance—might be instructive for more than one kind of reader.
Something that’s notably absence from my redesign, are, of course, the hot boys. And this could be read as a drawback, perhaps, as a disadvantage, particularly within the world of e-publishing, where the cover’s thumbnail—as on Riptide’s website (slide 17)—is often the first element of the text that a potential reader sees and thus serves as the first point of [potential] sale. I would argue, however, that this absence could make it possible for this text to be more present within the popular discourse. Indeed, the traditionally lurid [and frankly ridiculous] covers of romance novels like these I referred to earlier (slide 18), for example, could be read as a shaming device, a visual signifier of female desire that makes visible what otherwise cannot be seen, cannot be visually detected. While male physiology makes a man’s arousal a visual presence, something that’s difficult to overlook, female physiology makes a woman’s sexual arousal something that she can carry through the everyday world undetected, if she wishes.
A woman can be turned on, lit up right next to you on the bus, for god’s sake, and you’d never know it—unless, perhaps, she was reading a romance novel with a lurid cover. And then one could be doubly protected from the uncomfortable reality of female desire: one could smirk at her poor choice of reading material, make assumptions about her sophistication as a reader, and dismiss her as a poor lonely woman who clearly needs a man in her life to make those books unnecessary: think Kathy Bates in Misery, perhaps, so wrapped up in her romance novels that she’s willing to maim her favorite author in order to get the “happy ending” she thinks she deserves.
Witness, however, the recent popularity of EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey (slide 19), a book with a seemingly nondescript cover, but one whose D/s-related sex scenes have the dominant discourse in a flutter about women—moms! wives!—publicly consuming an erotic text and taking pleasure therein. I would argue that part of what’s made this conversation possible, what’s made these open acts of reading acceptable, is Grey’s cover—even though many women are accessing the text via their Kindles, iPads, or other e-readers, thus making the book virtually invisible to passers-by. The nondescript nature of the cover—although there is a whisper of D/s, if you know it’s there—has made it socially acceptable for the book to be flashed on programs like Good Morning America and featured in The New York Times, Newsweek, and The Guardian: this may be an erotic romantic text, but it doesn’t look like one.
Indeed, it’s the absence on the cover that suggests presence, that makes room for the text to move within the dominant discourse. The quality of EL James’ writing aside, this text has sparked a cultural conversation about women and romance novels, women and sex, hell, women and BDSM! that, I would argue, a more traditionally “erotic” cover like Toppy’s (slide 20) would have made far more difficult.
Selfishly, then, as a reader and a writer of male/male erotica, I would like to see women’s consumption and enjoyment of such “alternative” romance texts included in this discussion, in this [at times fumbling and awkward] conversation about the free and open movement of female sexual desire [as it’s actually practiced, not as it’s often re-presented] within the dominant discourse.
Thus, in this project, I’ve begun to think about ways in which one male/male romance novel in particular—Anne Tenino’s Frat Boy and Toppy—might be re-visioned so as to allow it to follow in the footsteps of Fifty Shades of Grey, to come into the dominant discourse in order to complicate this nascent discussion of female desire, of the texts through which women are “allowed” to negotiate, explore, and ultimate rewrite their own sexual identities.