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Austin Chronicle Postscripts

By Claiborne K.H. Smith

JUNE 29, 1998: 

Facile Page-Turners?

If only two historical novels about Texas that have the look of a romance novel had arrived at the Chronicle, they might have been ignored. But when within the span of one week three historical novels about Texas that all look like romance novels arrived, it was too much to ignore. All of the authors have mined Western territory before: El Paso author Elizabeth Fackler's newest is Breaking Even, another installment in her Seth Strummar series; Don Wright is the mayor of Gallatin, Tenn. and most recently the author of Gone to Texas. He's also written The Captives and The Last Plantation, among others. And Lucia St. Clair Robson, a resident of Annapolis, MD, has just written Fearless: A Novel of Sarah Bowman; she is the author of five previous works of historical fiction.

Now who's to say whether the treacly covers these books harbor matches the fiction inside? Is the writing just as overwrought as the covers? At least two local authors have some insight into how a book's cover design affects potential sales. Elizabeth Crook's Promised Lands, a historical novel about "the Texas Rebellion," was published in 1994 by Doubleday with a romance novel cover. When SMU Press published the paperback in 1995, Stephen Harrigan, who has recently returned to the U.S. after an unexpectedly long stint in England and Morocco as a screenwriter for a TV mini-series about Cleopatra, wrote an afterword that mentions Promised Lands as a case study of what can happen when a work of Western historical fiction is marketed as a romance novel. "[Promised Lands] sold respectably but in my opinion was handicapped by jacket art depicting a tumultuous orange sky in which the clouds coalesced into a ghostly horse. The cover was not in keeping with the novel's stateliness, its truth-telling, its beautiful language. Promised Lands is a fast and vibrant read, but it is hardly the facile page-turner that that painting implies." Perhaps these three new novels do surpass their syrupy covers; you can be the judge of that. All I know is that from my perspective, the world seems to be popping up romance novels. For Christ's sake, even a book about postmodernism from Autodidactic Press arrived this week with the look of a romance novel. It's called Beyond the American Dream, and oddly enough for a book about postmodernism, I don't think the publisher is taking the idea of a book about postmodernism with a romance novel cover ironically.

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