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In Defense of Girly Book Covers

I’m not unsympathetic to the arguments recently raised by Meg Wolitzer in The New York Times Book Review, and by my colleague Ruth Franklin, regarding the marginalization of “women’s fiction.” Yet both their pieces contained an irksome assumption: Female authors don’t want “women stuff” on their book covers. All that girly junk is just a means of marginalization. “Look at some of the jackets of novels by women,” Wolitzer writes:

Laundry hanging on a line. A little girl in a field of wildflowers. A pair of shoes on a beach. An empty swing on the porch of an old yellow house. Compare these with the typeface-only jacket of Chad Harbach’s novel, “The Art of Fielding,” or the jumbo lettering on “The Corrections.” Such covers, according to a book publicist I spoke to, tell the readers, “This book is an event.”

Franklin reiterates the point: “Big novels by men often have text-only covers, while novels by women tend to be illustrated by domestic images.”

Well, I wrote a book that depicted something even more egregious than “domestic images” on its cover—a bodice!—and I was more than happy with the design. Granted, my book is non-fiction—it tells the story of a nineteenth-century romance gone awry that resulted in a famous trial—but I like to think that it has some literary merit and that some of Wolitzer and Franklin’s cover-related arguments apply.

I had few thoughts on cover design when my British publisher pulled me aside in his London office and whispered conspiratorially, “What did you really think of the American cover?” The American version, which was printed a few months in advance of the U.K. edition, shows a Victorian-era woman perched on a cliff, overlooking a valley that is probably somewhere in Yosemite. She’s dwarfed by the landscape, but she still looks triumphant. It’s very American—very manifest destiny. It’s also very brown. Sepia would be the kinder term.

“Um, I liked it,” I told him. He looked at me skeptically. “I was thinking we might do something a little more exciting.” He waggled his eyebrows.

A few months later, a PDF of the British version arrived in my inbox. It featured an illustration of a man and a woman, from the neck down, their hands intertwined. The woman is wearing a flowing, satiny blue dress (tight in the torso, of course—remember the wagging eyebrows). The title is embossed in gold. Below my name, a ship chugs along, the watery horizon fading into the woman’s dress. Wolitzer, I think, would spot at least five denigrating cover-art clichés.

But I didn’t mind. I was happy that my editor altered the cover of my book, advertising it more transparently as a woman’s story. It opened doors for me, gaining me readers I probably would not have found otherwise. It struck me as smart marketing, if not a declaration of the major “event” that an all-text cover apparently spells. A work doesn’t depreciate when it’s placed in a certain genre. In some instances, I think, it can even be elevated. And ultimately, it stands or falls on the merits of what’s inside. Wolitzer talks about the confining effects that such cover art implies, but there’s an alternate effect as well, one that is basic and benign: It helps readers find what they might like. And in helping readers, it helps writers.

I recognize that Wolitzer and Franklin aren’t dismissing the idea of women’s literature entirely. They probably wouldn’t tell me that I’m wrong to welcome my placement in the genre. They object merely to the relegation that this ostensible separation through visual cues implies. But the substance of their distinctions strike me as arbitrary, and arbitrary rules don’t aid the effort to expose real inequality. Laundry, swings, sandals—bad; text—good. Where did that come from? Are women bound by their sandals along with their bras? Are both now fodder for the fire?

I applaud serious consideration of the statistics that outline the deplorable scarcity of women’s written work. Numbers are useful and important in the fight for sexual equality. The fact that there is much less serious written work by women out there in the world strikes me as important in a macro sense—the same way that it strikes me as extremely important that women are paid less, on average, than men, for the same work. I’m glad someone is keeping a tally on both these fronts. The proliferation of explanations based on impressions, anecdotes, and a few scattered examples pleases me less. (Wolitzer does admit that these distinctions are easily challenged).

On my desk I have the galley for a first novel by a young woman named Maggie Shipstead, who was recently nominated for a National Magazine Award and boasts a very impressive resume. (Full disclosure: Shipstead and I attended the same college at the same time.) There are no pictures, no patterns, just text. It must be a major event! Or not. I think I’ll read it before I make that call. You can only judge so much by a book’s cover.

Chloë Schama is a deputy editor at The New Republic. Follow her @ChloeSchama.