Why is the faceless woman so ubiquitous? Artists from Ingres to Irving Penn have shown that a woman’s back can be a beautiful, erotic thing — and it’s probably the largest swath of skin that can be exposed without setting off the censors. Sex sells, and this reference to the body without obvious objectification must appeal to an industry that overwhelmingly attracts and employs women. (A 2010 Publishers Weekly survey determined that 85 % of book industry employees with less than three years of experience were women.) If feminists were scrutinizing book covers, I imagine it’s stilettos, shiny lips and fishnet stockings that they would object to.
And editors, according to Julianna Lee, an art director at Little, Brown & Company, often explicitly instruct designers not to show a woman’s face: “A little bit of mystery allows the reader to use their imagination,” she says. Furthermore, omitting individualizing details spares jacket designers from the charge (by authors and readers) that they haven’t rendered characters faithfully. Even when depicted from the front, headless women are common on covers. It’s worth noting, too, that it can be difficult for writers to combat these pressures; the publishing house has the book’s best interests at heart — who are writers to object if they’re less than happy with the design?
Perhaps the trend is more inadvertent than pernicious. The ubiquitous book-cover back suggests to potential readers that the book is about bodies and the forces contained therein, and there’s nothing wrong with that — in fact, it’s a fairly accurate description of all novels. The irony is that this design has become so prevalent that it undermines the very purpose of the book cover: to whet the appetite for the real meal. As my novelist friend put it, “A book jacket seems, to me, like the single most efficient way to signal whether a book has substance or not.” But these books offer only skin, which is all surface.
Chloë Schama is a story editor at The New Republic.