Belletrista Blog

Girly covers

September 12, 2010

You may have seen Belletrista’s recent tweet about the article Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, has recently written on Guardian Unlimited. In it she talks about her frustration with what she sees as the ghettoisation of women writers and women readers by the publishing industry. She highlights the recent adoring reception to Jonathan Rantzen’s latest work, Freedom, noting that a female novelist would never generate that kind of response because in America the literary ‘heavy hitters’ are exclusively male. Jodi Picoult has called them the ‘white male literary darlings’. I’d argue that there is a similar situation here in the UK. While writers such as Hilary Mantel and Jeanette Winterson sometimes get a look in, white male middle-class authors such as Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Martin Amis are so often cited as our intellectual literary cultural icons.

Shriver also takes publishers to task about the way books written by women are marketed. The suggestions from a German publisher for two of Shrivers books that are written from a male point of view are covers with images of women. I haven’t read her other work but if We Need to Talk About Kevin is anything to go by, Shriver’s books do not warrant a remotely girly cover!

The marketing of books written by women to women readers drives me crazy. I recently read a book that was written by a woman but told entirely from a male point of view; the cover was a whimsical, romantic, soft  image of a young woman. But not the whole picture of a woman – just her body in a pose that suggested she was running away playfully from the camera. This was not a playful story.

I feel like I’m seeing this kind of cover art more and more. Images of women on book covers very often don’t actually show a woman’s face, just a mysterious, elusive figure. Is that what publishers think women aspire to be? Or is what they think women should be? They also seem to think that we only really like books that are pink or sparkly or have swirly writing on the cover. The London Underground is full of ads for books marketed in this way – as you can imagine, my journey into work often makes me angry.

Shriver tries to suggest an alternative for her novel, Game Control – a photo of sagging elephant carcasses. Unsurprisingly the publishers rejected that!

9 Comments for this entry

  • Jana

    Interesting subject! I certainly agree with Shriver that this happens. Whether it is happening more than it used to, that I can’t say. I remember SF author Connie Willis talking about the romance cover they put on her book, “The Doomsday Book” which was hardly romance. A quick look at my shelves, I can see that the cover of Desai’s “The Inheritance of Loss” is a bit flowery and scrolly (US paperback edition), certainly more than the story probably warrants.

    I agree about the partial women pictures, what’s with that? (Just looking at headless nude backside on the cover of “The Mathematics of Love”). What’s with that? But, OTOH, are there pictures of men on books by men or those aimed at the male fiction reading consumer?

  • Char

    Last night I saw an ad on a bus for Erica James’ new book – the cover is a headless female body in a flowing red dress. I wanted to get a photo to post here but wasn’t quick enough!

    As for the covers on books by/for men, I have to admit that I don’t know what they’re like. But now you’ve asked the question I will do a random survey in a train station bookshop tomorrow!

  • Joyce

    I read the article, and I share her concern. I’m rather picky about the cover of books I buy. If I don’t like it, I wait until I find a better cover (most books I buy are at least a few years old, so the strategy actually works). I’ve noticed two related but different trends in books marked to women lately, and ever since they have really bothered me.

    The first is the vast number of books out there with covers that show the back of a woman’s head. The first twelve times it was kinda cool and arty looking–sort of a Degas thing with his cut off ballerinas (which sounds horrible as I type it, but from my art history training apparently it was all about mimicking early photography…now I’m thinking maybe there was something else going on there too). The first time I noticed it was The Sad Truth About Happiness by Anne Giardini and it sort of reminded me of those photos that don’t make it into the photo album. But now it’s become a cliche, and it irritates me.

    The second is the torso shot as popularized by the Phillipa Gregory books. It’s also such a cliche.

    What to make of this? Well, perhaps the publisher wants the reader to imagine herself in the book, and hence leaves out the identifying face.

    Or it could be more nefarious–add your list here. What do you think?

    And Char–at least you have book ads in the Tube. I can’t remember the last time I saw an advert on public transit for a book. And when I was in London last summer,I was so impressed by all the readers on the Tube. When I ride transit, I’m the only one. Everybody in Vancouver just talks on their cell phones.

  • Char

    I can see that publishers want women to be able to imagine themselves in the book, but that makes an assumption that women are a bit thick and can’t do that for themselves.

    I think it could be something more nefarious – something about the direct gaze of a woman that unnerves perhaps?

    Mind you, I had a look at the books on sale in a well-known British bookshop to look at the covers on ‘male’ books. Several used a silhouette of a man so not using a direct gaze. But these figures were in an active pose, running for example, rather than the passive, skirt-swirling images on women’s books.

  • Cait

    I just finished Lisa Moore’s February, and it has this type of cover – the back of a woman’s head and torso. Now, while a woman is the main character of the novel, her son and husband have very stories of their own as well, and really the central idea in the novel is the sinking of the Ocean Ranger in 1982. So I found the cover really inappropriate.

    For male covers, I often find they don’t have pictures at all. Looking at the John Grisham, Stephen King, and Tom Clancy novels owned by my Dad, they are all just the title and author’s name in very big, block letters, sometimes with some colour in the background. No picture though. Maybe simple, plain covers appeal more to male readers? I think a woman would be fine carrying a book with a guy on the cover, but a man wouldn’t want to be caught reading a novel with a woman on it.

  • F P Crawford

    Cait, one minor exception I see to this is in some the sci-fi novels my boyfriend has laying around our apartment – William Gibson’s Idoru and Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age both have female-looking faces on them. Although I wouldn’t say that these are necessarily “men’s books,” they are written by and presumably marketed toward men more than women. (I admit I haven’t read them.)

  • Jana

    I think genre covers often are the extremes, marketed oftentimes to some specific audience of one sex or another. F. P., I have read both books you mention and they both have enterprising female protagonists (if I remember correctly, it’s been ages).

    I think we’d have to limit ourselves to talking about the covers of literary fiction which, one would hope, would not be marketed to any one sex; in order to make any – even vague – generalizations.

    So is the partial or headless torso, or back view considered artful? Does it communicate that this book has female content women should take notice and men should beware?

  • Joyce

    I think a lot of men would be uncomfortable if seen reading a book with a typical “women’s” cover. Does that mean publishers are limiting their number of readers? Seems like a crazy business decision to me. Do publishers think that they will sell more books overall if they market directly to women then they would with a more gender-neutral approach?

    And, yes, I do find the torso and back views to be “arty.” But like any of trend, they’ve now become overdone. I think in the future when we come across these editions, we’ll laugh and say “look at that cover, it’s sooooo 2008!”

  • Joyce

    Here’s an interesting bit about headless women covers on recently rereleased Jean Plaidy books . . . turned out the publisher didn’t have money in the budget to hire a model, and used the editor instead. Hmmmm. (And it doesn’t address the covers that aren’t photographs).

110 Trackbacks / Pingbacks for this entry

Leave a Reply