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Spinal Tap: Women back off on book covers

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Back by design: Women reveal only one side of themselves on an assortment of recent book covers
Chloë Schama’s intriguing essay on the current trend on book covers, published on 20 June in The New York Times, raises so many questions I reproduce it in full here. The sociological implications go far beyond the visual – is there a more insidious message here? Your responses please.
A plague of women’s backs is upon us in the book cover world. We’ve recently seen Finding Casey, by Jo-Ann Mapson; The Unruly Passion of Eugénie R., by Carole DeSanti; and The Headmaster’s Wager, by Vincent Lam, all showcasing a nape-and-shoulder combo on the jacket. The Pretty One, by Lucinda Rosenfeld, features three women with their backs turned; The Smart One, by Jennifer Close, has its heroine turned away, undoing her wrap dress; and a bride stands facing a beach on Beautiful Day, by Elin Hilderbrand.
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. “Who is this woman?” my friend asked. “What yoga DVD did she escape from?” The cover of John Irving’s latest novel, In One Person, depicts the bare back of someone who is either clasping or unclasping a bra. On the British cover of While the Women Are Sleeping, by Javier Marías, just a sliver of a figure’s face is visible in a mirror. The British cover for Siri Hustvedt’s recent essay collection, Living, Thinking, Looking, shows a woman presumably engaged in these activities, although it’s hard to confirm; her back is to us. To be fair, book jackets occasionally feature men in this pose — The Forgotten, by David Baldacci; The Jackal’s Share, by Chris Morgan Jones; and some of James Patterson’s Michael Bennett books come to mind — but it’s much less common, and man-in-somewhat-dishevelled-suit seems the more dominant motif.

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.

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Author: Dina Ross

Dina is a writer, reviewer, journalist and broadcaster. It goes without saying that she loves books. Her blog, Books Now! can be viewed on www.dinaross.com.au and offers news, reviews and interviews with writers from around the corner to across the world.

2 thoughts on “Spinal Tap: Women back off on book covers

  1. Very interesting, Dina! That’s quite a compilation of book covers. My copy of Sweet Tooth (the UK hardback) is different – it shows the character from the front – but still her head is turned and the face is almost completely hidden. I suppose the designers don’t want to impose an image of the character on the reader, but I suspect there’s more going on here, especially since it’s predominantly women according to the article. The showing of skin may well be a selling technique, as the writer suggests. I also can’t help thinking of Manet’s Olympia and how controversial it was in those days that Olympia looked back directly at the predominantly male gaze, rather than demurely looking away as in other paintings of the era. I hope we’ve made a little progress since then, but maybe these things are still floating around in our subconscious minds (or those of book designers/publishers).

    On a slightly different note, I’ve seen several books about black women illustrated by cover images of white women. That I find deeply depressing.

    • Andrew, your comments about white faces appearing on books about black women almost beggars belief: did this occur recently – appalling if it did. I posted the NYT article because I think it does hint at insidious misogyny – a face on a cover is more powerful than a back, it’s more direct, more confronting. Either that, or one illustrator is getting a great deal of work.

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