Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Gendered Book Covers: ‘End of Imagination’?


From Australia to the journals in USA, an interesting and disturbing discussion about the clichéd (and with boring regularity) portrayal of women, especially their back, on various book covers seems to have caught on.  In recent times, the issue was first highlighted in the journal The Australian by its literary editor Stephen Romei. In his article, “How too soft a sell can get a girl's back up” published on May 15, 2013, Romei wonders how books as different in themes as ‘silent movie era’ and ‘nazi obsession with fashion’ adorn similar image of back of a woman on their cover. He makes an insightful observation which should be of concern to and interest of all publishing professionals, especially book cover designers and editors (marketing people not the least):

“Both have the same elegant woman on the cover, draped in the same backless dress. The photograph is a stock image from a picture agency and is not inappropriate for either novel, but why it is on both is puzzling. The respective publishers, Serpent's Tail and Simon & Schuster, are about 800m apart in central London. An attentive staff member in either office might have spotted the potential double-up by looking out the window.”

Here the book covers in question are of Petite Mort, the debut novel of London filmmaker Beatrice Hitchman, and Black Roses, a thriller by British journalist and author Jane Thynne. Another important point which has been highlighted, before we start making presumptions, is that the trend is not limited to what we call bestsellers. The cover of Ancient Light, the latest novel by Booker Prize winner John Banville underlines that serious ‘stuff’ are also beaten by this bug.
Image of book covers with the article in The Australian
In fact, this point is underlined and emphasised to a greater degree in Chloe Schama’s essay ‘Show Some Spine’  in The New York Times published on June 20 2013. Her essay starting with the line, “A plague of women’s backs is upon us in the book cover world’, states:

“This cover cliché is not confined to pulp fiction or books that might be described as chick-lit. One of the proposed jackets for a literary novel written by a friend of mine had a woman sitting cross-legged on the beach, her back to us.”

However, it appears that through the title of her essay, Schama seems to be appealing to the large number of women who are employed in the publishing industry (of course she is writing from the perspective of the Western world) and who presumably approve these covers rather mindlessly or indiscriminately. In fact, while quoting “a 2010 Publishers Weekly survey determined that 85 percent of book industry employees with less than three years of experience were women”, Schama wonders if the feminists are only worried about ‘stilettos, shiny lips and fishnet stockings’, whereas the back of a woman is as much used with the intention to titillate the reader.   

Image of book covers published with the article in The New York Times
On the more serious level of gender 'typification,' the repeated use of the ‘face of the woman turned away from the reader’, as it has been put, also brings us to the issue of using a ‘soft’ cover for women writers and ‘hard’ cover for male writers. I would rather do well to quote from Romei’s article to show how deeply ingrained gender-prejudices work even in the world which feels itself to be the arbiter of intellectual modernity. To quote:

“In her speech at the inaugural Stella Prize last month, Helen Garner pined for a day when a prize for women's writing was no longer needed, when "doctors and lawyers no longer said to me, 'Pleased to meet you, Helen. My wife's read all your books'", when "designers no longer reflexively put a picture of a vase of flowers or a teacup on a woman's book cover, even when the book is about hypodermics and vomiting and rage and the longing to murder".
Garner's most recent novel, The Spare Room, about a woman dying of cancer and the friend who nurses her, has on its cover a blue and white coffee mug with red leaves sticking out of it.”


I think this is a debate that the publishing editors and book designers will have to settle with the marketing people because it is not really paying any dividend as the slip is showing. However, as the ‘Publisher Weekly’ data above shows, it may be that the women are not in the driver’s seat and mostly doing the job of lower staff (‘less than 3 years of experience as it says).

Just to substantiate and do a kind of personal experiment, I searched for my book shelves and found three books with such covers, one published abroad and two others in India: Brida by Paulo Coelho,  Alma Kabutari (English translation) by Maitreyi Pushpa and If You Are Afraid of Heights by Raj Kamal Jha. The fourth one Smell by Radhika Jha has the face of woman looking down--and not her back really.

I have flagged this issue and it needs more probing in the Indian context, because as the things stand now, in the globalised world when all ideas are having a trickling down effect, we may soon have many such back of women staring down at us readers...

Quotations and images from Stepehn Morei’s article are courtesy: http://www.theaustralian.com.au

 Quotations and images from Chloe Schama’s article are courtesy: http://www.nytimes.com