Here at the Wenches, we like to discuss covers. We talk about covers we’ve had (Cover Girl) and covers we wish we had (A Makeover for Lady M). Our covers, other authors’ covers (Art vs. Commerce), good covers, bad covers, and really, really ugly covers. I suspect much of our fascination with covers is that authors often have very little input into what goes on the front of our books. We open those jpg files from art directors with great trepidation, each time hoping against hope that we got a “good one.”
So imagine my surprise to see that the subject of cover-art is suddenly considered big-time news in the rest of the (non-Wench) world. There it was, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the third-oldest surviving newspaper in the country, a venerable journal that has won eighteen Pulitzer Prizes –– there, on the front page of the section, a bold-faced headline that couldn’t be missed:
These book covers say women are dumb
Well! Not much grey area in a headline like that, is there? The article that followed was written by one of the Inquirer’s most popular columnists, Karen Heller, and here’s the link so you can read it yourself.
On first reading, I completely agreed with Ms. Heller. I, too, am heartily sick of the cover-art conventions for books targeted towards women readers, from cheesy clinches to empty Adirondack chairs to the random, faceless body parts favored for chick-lit. (Yes, I know, my last two covers have featured headless women, and yes, I would have preferred they have had heads, and we’ll leave it at that.)
I also agree that a writer’s entire career can be determined by the pigeon-hole of a cover. Consider all the fantastic books out there that will never even be seen by a wider audience, let alone purchased or read, because they have the single word “romance” printed on the spine, and a “romance” cover on the front. (A good many excellent Wench books would surely fall into this category.) Ditto “women’s fiction.” Why are so many women writers singled out and branded like that? Books like The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks or Love Story by Erich Segal or even Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy aren’t labeled women’s fiction, though in theory they could be. They’re just fiction, suitable for all readers, and not banished to the “girl ghetto” section.
It’s worked in reverse as well. Consider an author like Louise Erdrich, whose complex, spiritual novels of families and lovers evolve from her own Chippewa heritage. Currently she’s regarded as one of the most important American novelists of her generation, and deserves to be, too. But what would have happened to her career if, in the beginning, some misguided art director had given her a “western romance” type cover? Would she have ever found her audience of both male and female readers, and the literary reputation that’s come with it? (OK, so most likely she would, but in the wonderful world of publishing, believe me, ANYTHING is possible.)
I was getting up a righteous head of steam to match Ms. Heller’s, with all kinds of proof to back it up. But then I began to think a bit further, and realized it’s not quite so easy to win the argument with feminist indignation.
Because women DO read more than men, and buy many more books than men, too. Every bookseller will tell you that. Therefore tailoring cover art to the biggest possible readership makes sense, doesn’t it? And if romance-reading-women-readers are the largest group of book-buyers, then offering them books that look like every other book they’ve already bought and enjoyed –– books that tell them in an instant what's inside –– is good business sense, isn’t it? Why fix it if it ain’t broke?
As the wise man says, I dunno. But maybe you do, or at least you’ll have an opinion you’d like to share.
Do you agree with Ms. Heller that these book covers say women are dumb? Is it demeaning to women readers and writers to have such “Lifetime fuzz” (Ms. Heller’s term) and other hearts-and-flowers-Barbie-pink clichés on the covers of our books? Or is it just smart marketing?