I have Australian band Smudge’s recent gig poster to indirectly thank for propelling me down an interweb rabbit hole to Planet Bizarro Romantico; the crazy kingdom of romance novel subgenres.
Last time I looked (way back in the 90s) Fabio, the Italian male model with the body of a stallion and intellect of a hamster, all but monopolised the genre’s cover art with his swashbuckling simplicity, honed as it were by the Easter Island Statue School of Acting.
But now that romance novel sales top $1.5 billion+ in the US alone for a market that appears to be permanently on heat and seeking ever more customised titilation, the genre has spawned thematic subsets of an increasingly obscure, bizarre and unintentionally hilarious nature.
For a literary form where the suspension of disbelief is the price of entry, poor old Fabio just couldn’t carry off what’s required of today’s cover model, which includes everything from a white lab coat and stethoscope to Mormon underwear, a yamulkah or even a sex change.
So here are just four reasons why it’s Fabiover and out!
#1 Amish Romance
‘You can leave your hat on!’
Evidently there’s nothing quite like the raw magnetism of a sombre, bespectacled chap in a straw hat and merkin beard to get you all hot under your grandpa shirt collar. The only sense I can make of this genre is that The Amish’s dislike of both electricity and shirt buttons makes for a fumble-free evening’s roll in the hay.
#2. NASCAR romance
‘Wheels and doll baby’
If you’re not really the horse and buggy type, then you can always rev your engine with NASCAR which funds a line of over 30 novels and appears to specialise in the relentless pursuit of cringe-worthy motoring puns, starting with the titles like, ‘Overheated’, Hitting the Brakes’ ‘Hearts Under Caution’ and plot descriptions like ‘The spark plugs between the two start firing almost immediately’. I’m just waiting for the short story, ‘Speed Hump’.
#3 Medical Romance
‘Is that a speculum in your pocket? …’
It may be one of the fastest growing subsets but the medical backdrop appears to be largely incidental because none of the female patients is ever subjected to anything as tawdry as a breast examination, pap smear or treatment for chlamydia. That’s also because the heroine is never actually a patient, presumably because the legal and ethical complexities of a doctor-patient sexual relationship simply get in the way of the prescriptive plots. As an Irish psychiatrist noted last year after studying the genre and posting his findings in “The Lancet”, almost every medical romance is the same and virtually every one of them is utterly scandal-free. Only one diagnosis for this lot. DOA!
#4 Paranormal Romance
‘Let’s get (meta)physical!’
Women have long gnashed their teeth over the paucity of male talent on Planet Earth. Now they can exit the real world and try their luck instead with a vampire, ghost or shapeshifter. Even the Grim Reaper (seriously!). Most stories follow the Buffy/Angel model where the frisson of excitement lies in the forbidden fruit of alien-human mating. Assuming vampires play to type and do a lot of biting, the sex must be truly, er, transcen-dental.
But, four on the floor and I’m already beat! For those still aching for more there’s also Time Travel, Lesbian, Gay, Satyr, Amnesia, Centaur, Mail Order Bride, Faery, Hannukkah and even Transexual subgenres.
Fortunately, the saving grace that made this whole mad adventure truly worthwhile was the light relief of the romance novel cover piss-take, the grandmaster of which is a stud named Longmire who looks like the bastard son of Bill Bailey and Ron Jeremy and whose motto is ‘All the Romance. None of the Bullshit’.
My personal favourites are ‘Lord of the Tube Socks’ and ‘For the Love of Scottie McMullet’.
Read ’em and weep.