Domestic Violence Is NOT Romantic (Traditional Publishing Doesn’t Seem To Know That)

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, a time when I hope people whose lives are not affected directly by violence think about those whose lives are.  Maybe calling attention to domestic violence with purple ribbons, 5K walks, and blog posts this month will result in increased sympathy for survivors of abuse and increased funding for domestic violence services year round, not only during the month of October.  It may sound cliché to say that our goal is to “break the cycle,” but it’s true: much of the point is to raise awareness to reduce the level of violence that carries through to the next generation.

To acknowledge Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I decided to revisit Anita Shreve’s novel Strange Fits of Passion, which I discussed in a previous post, Do We Throw “The Book” At Battered Women Who Kill Their Abusers?  In that post, I provide background on how the American justice system has treated women* who have killed their abusers in self-defense.  It receives several visits per week through various search engines, and the search terms that lead people to my blog suggest that my readers range from people who are curious about this topic to women who may be survivors of abuse themselves (if you’re looking for resources, see NNEDV).

Shreve’s novel is a gripping fictional account of a woman’s escape from her abusive partner and of what she ultimately feels forced to do to save her life.  Each chapter of the novel is an interview of a witness, each with a different perspective on “the truth” that ultimately results in an article about the events and an interview with her child, grown up, years later.  It is a fascinating and horrifying story with twists and turns that will keep readers engaged from the beginning to the end.

While I appreciate this novel’s nuanced look at domestic violence and its attempt to show change in attitudes between the early 1970s and the early 1990s, there are two aspects of the paperback book I purchased over the summer that make me uncomfortable: the title and the cover.

The title, Strange Fits of Passion, comes from Wordsworth, and it is unclear whether readers should interpret “passion” the way it would have been interpreted in Wordsworth’s time (grief) or the way it is interpreted now (ardent love).  Coupled with the intimate cover on a recent edition of the book*, it would be easy to equate “passion” with “love,” which would be incongruous with the brutal portrayal of abuse and its consequences in the novel.  There is also an ambiguity over what the “strange fits” are (the abuse or the homicide).  I balk at equating abuse with “strange fits of passion.”  Abuse is not about passion; it is a pattern of intimidation and control, not a sudden “fit.” To see it as such may bolster myths that wrongly suggest that abuse can be excused as a temporary loss of control caused by strong romantic feelings.

The cover, designed by Kimberly Glyder (and on the left below), further supports domestic violence myths with the wife’s “come hither” smile and the portrayal of intimacy that suggests that this is a romantic relationship as opposed to an abusive one.  This cover belongs on a romance novel, not on an emotionally harrowing book about abuse.  There were better covers in previous editions of this book, like the one pictured on the right below, which clearly shows the control element of intimate partner violence:

Adding to the misleading design is a ridiculous misquote from a Cosmopolitan review of the book on the cover of the recent edition: “Superbly rendered… both touching and romantic.”  When I read that, I was flabbergasted — did Cosmopolitan really call this story about domestic violence and death “romantic”?  Of course not, and that fact becomes clear when you see the excerpts from reviews on the first page of the same edition (see comparison below; click on the image to see it more clearly).  This is the actual quote: “Superbly rendered… both touching and troubling.”  “Troubling” is a much more appropriate description of the themes in this novel.  Replacing “troubling” with “romantic” is an egregious error in this context, and I hope people remember that the next time they say that only Indie books contain these kinds of errors.

The publisher, Harcourt, Inc. (which is now called Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), did a poor job with this cover, which almost deterred me from buying the book.  As I have explained in a previous post, Cover Art: What Does It Say About The Book?, I try not to judge books by their covers alone, and I am glad I gave Shreve’s novel a chance.  It is well-worth reading. If you purchase it, as opposed to checking it out of the library, I recommend the ebook, which would allow you to avoid the cover completely as you read.  If only the ebook ($9.99) weren’t more expensive than the bargain paperback ($5.98) on Amazon.

* I recognize that men are also victims of domestic violence; however, women are disproportionately victims of intimate partner violence based on coercive control.

*There are many covers for this book.  This one still seems to be available as a bargain book through Amazon.

13 thoughts on “Domestic Violence Is NOT Romantic (Traditional Publishing Doesn’t Seem To Know That)

  1. That cover and misquote were no mistake. Someone made an ugly, ugly amoral marketing decision to repackage the book to appeal to the romance crowd.

    I thank you so much for the post, but also for the link to the paper. Fantastic. Had never seen that research. Brilliant. Will be linking to it to quash trolls elsewhere.

    1. Loretta Adkins

      I came across you comments about the book and l agree that there nothing romantic about abuse. I am a victim. I have been writing a manuscript mixed with my own experience and fiction of women and 2 men as victims. So l appreciate you acknowledging men are victims. Abuse is abuse no matter the gender! I hope to finish it soon. Keep up the fine work of bringing such things to light.

  2. Pingback: Heathcliff: A Man or a Devil? (Part II of the Wuthering Heights Read-Along) | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  3. Pingback: What Do We Want? Better Titles and Covers! When Do We Want It? NOW! | The Misfortune Of Knowing

  4. Pingback: Strange Fits of Passion: Do We Throw “The Book” At Battered Women Who Kill their Abusers? | The Misfortune Of Knowing

    1. It is very hard to empanel an unbiased jury. I’ve been a juror before in a federal case, even though most people assume lawyers won’t get picked, but it wasn’t related to domestic or sexual violence. I can’t imagine I’d be chosen for a case like that.

    1. Indeed! Domestic violence and rape myths permeate our culture. Books reflect these attitudes and then reinforce them, which can have very real consequences (such as when judges and jurors in an abuse or DV case hold these attitudes). Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Wow, that cover is flabbergastingly bad. How could anyone think it was okay to replace ‘troubling’ with ‘romantic’?!

    I wonder, from a purely economic point of view, does sprinkling the word romantic on the cover, regardless of the actual content of the book improve sales? Or are sales harmed by being sold to readers who are expecting something different and are disappointed?

    1. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that misquote on the cover! Everyone makes mistakes, even publishing houses, but this is a HUGE mistake considering the sensitive subject matter and the fact that it’s the cover. I have no idea how a mistake like that could happen, especially when the earlier editions of the books had the correct quote and the correct quote was on the very first page. I wonder to what extent the misquote impacted sales. I purchased it online without noticing the misquote until it arrived in the mail. I noticed the terrible image, though, and I thought it was inappropriate. I decided to get the book anyway because I had read a positive review. Thanks for commenting!

  6. Sally Rooney

    This is a great post. I always enjoy your posts, but this is so important with a link to vital information. Certainly attitudes have changed since the 1970s, but I believe we still have quite a way to go, especially with what I view as the current backlash against women’s rights by some….very frightening!

    1. Thank you! I’m so happy to hear that you enjoy my posts, and I appreciate your comment. The current political climate is very concerning when it comes to women’s rights. I was shocked (although maybe I shouldn’t be) by Romney’s horrible response to the equal pay question in last night’s debate. Equal pay is vital to women’s independence, which is a major factor in whether survivors of abuse are able to leave their abusive relationships. Women’s rights shouldn’t be a political football. We shouldn’t even need a question about equal pay in a debate because BOTH parties should be in favor of it.

I appreciate your comments (respectful dissent is welcome)!

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