WRITING ON THE ETHER: Are Your Books’ Covers Sexist?

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Digital Book 2013, IDPF, BEA 2013

Table of Contents

  1. Ether En-Gendered
  2. Judging Your Books’ Covers: Are They Sexist?
  3. A Game of Thrones, reinterpreted by Electric Sheep Comix
  4. Stardust, Reinterpreted by Librarian Monica Fumarolo
  5. Throne of Glass, Reinterpreted by Ardawling
  6. Franzen’s Freedom, Reinterpreted by Book Revels
  7. A Clockwork Orange, Reinterpreted by “Brandy”
  8. Lord of the Flies, Reinterpreted by BGM
  9. And Claire Messud: No Reinterpretation Needed

 

Ether En-Gendered

I proposed a little experiment on Twitter. I asked people to take a well-known book, then to imagine the author of that book was of the opposite gender, or was gender-queer, and imagine what that cover might look like. Because we have these expectations in our heads already.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones

Maureen Johnson

And author Maureen Johnson’s “little experiment” helps me seed our cloud of weekly single-issue Ether here on Thursdays at JaneFriedman.com with a cluster of topics I want to focus on from time to time in coming months.

I want to tell you about it here first and see if I can get some outlines on a legendarily unweildy subject. Then we’ll have some structure. Maybe.

I’m thinking Ether En-Gendered because to “engender” means, primarily, “to produce by a union of the sexes.”

Literature—of absolutely all types, just turn off your genre head for a moment, please—should be en-gendered (not un-gendered, quit snarling), engendered as a thing of both male and female impulse and availability. 


Yes, some writings may be created mainly for men or mainly for women, nothing wrong with that.

But in the aggregate, the overall compendium, the uber pile of pages and pixels, the idea of literature, of books, should be the first art we expect to escape the scourge of gender discrimination. 


In purest form, literature:

  • Is working in words, not pictures (as in visual art, for example, or ballet or modern dance, or film);
  • Is accomplished in the stir and stretch of a reader’s imagination, not in Dolby sound (as in vocal music and its sexually charged seat in our popular culture today); and
  • Is housed in the mind, both of the author and of the reader (not in the marble realm of sculptural majesty or the granite might of architecture).

Because our stories ride the ethers of each other’s guesses and dreams, you’d think we’d have got ’round those flesh-and-blood traps set for other art forms.


But we’ve long known we were failing on this. We’ve known that literature wasn’t escaping that surly bond of our fixation on the gender divides. As in so many things, we’ve turned away from the gaze-direct at the problem, and let it flicker off on the side, as inconsequential as that boilerplate that tells us any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental…

You never believed that, did you? Well, of course you didn’t.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Digital Book 2013, IDPF, BEA 2013

Edward Nawotka

In January, for example, Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief at Publishing Perspectives, my host-site for Ether for Authors on Mondays, gave us It’s Time Publishing Tries Something Radical To Entice Readers.

In it, Nawotka asked, in essence, if all of us in publishing wouldn’t run, not walk, if we could woo 47 percent of Americans who don’t routinely buy books.

Oddly, we didn’t run. We didn’t even walk. Know why? Because the biggest part of that target crowd is men.

Nawotka:

Perhaps it’s time for the publishing community to do something radical to entice new readers. I don’t know what that might be, but I might suggest that we start with something specifically targeted at men. My guess is that an overwhelming number of that 47% is male and it seems like a sensible proposition to target the most obvious group we know who don’t regularly buy books and read.

Mind you, as Nawotka pointed out, you can always find a glimmer of hope on the horizon, something promising, an inch taken where a mile is needed.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Digital Book 2013, IDPF, BEA 2013

Darrelyn Saloom

Darrelyn Saloom, Ether sponsor (My Call to the Ring with Deirdre Gogarty) was one of only three readers to drop a comment on Nawotka’s post, but it’s a good one:

Southern Living has done it by adding author and Alabama native Rick Bragg to write a monthly column for the magazine. I attended two of his events this year in South Louisiana, and burly, oil-field men were there and saying how much they look forward to reading every new issue of Southern Living.

Just as an aside, Nawotka is also a member of a men’s reading group in Houston. It’s named, with unassailable accuracy, the Men’s Book Club. Guess how long they’ve been at it? Sixteen  years. And in Texas. I throw no stone, I’m a South Carolinian.

But don’t tell me “men won’t read,” I’m sick of hearing that, and you should be, too.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Digital Book 2013, IDPF, BEA 2013

Eoin Purcell

Just this week, I was tweeting with Eoin Purcell, our good colleague in Dublin, about the fine set of MOS’s about e-reading (“man on the street” comments in broadcast-speak) that precede an interview show he did on UK ebook adoption. It’s the RTE Media Show from Athena Media.

The last voice we hear talking about e-reading in that pre-interview tape is a man who says he likes reading on the train with an e-reader because it’s:

More private, people don’t know what you’re reading.

Tuck that away for now. It’s an important clue, I believe, to the difference in how men and women read today. It may have to do with why we’re told that men are reading so much less than women (or won’t read fiction, or won’t talk about their reading, or won’t read anything without an explosion in each chapter, etc.).


For now, it’s enough to establish one shapely leg of the Ether En-Gendered conversation we’ll visit from time to time. Let’s summarize its issues:

Are Men Not Reading? Who Told Us That? Is It True? How Can We Get More of Them Doing It? And What Subtle Signals May the Industry Deploy In Its Presentation of Books To Men?

Relax, we won’t go to that one today. It’s one of my faves, but we have another topic, thanks to Johnson and her associates at Huffington Post Books.

    That part of this ongoing discussion, we’ll encapsulate as: How Do Women Fare Both As Writers and Readers? What Subtle Signals May the Industry Deploy to Skew Our Perceptions of Women’s Writing? And Is There a Chance That Women Unwittingly Could Be Helping To Hinder Men Reading?

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Digital Book 2013, IDPF, BEA 2013

Jane Friedman

Here, my other Ether-eal host, for the original Writing on the Ether, Jane Friedman, is standing by to offer you a grand compendium of literature-themed articles on women and feminism, in her role as digital editor to Virginia Quarterly Journal. Her array of online writings paralleling the Autumn 2012 edition of the journal (on feminism, “The Female Conscience”) is rich with insights and provocative viewpoints.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Digital Book 2013, IDPF, BEA 2013

Jennifer Niesslein

There’s the down-to-earth near-cinematic progression of scenes in Notes on One’s Self-Identity by author Jennifer Niesslein:

Heads or tails, mothers or not, we’re doing our best to create a rewarding personal life in a culture that’s overly concerned with maternity, and we’re trying to create a professional legacy in a culture that’s biased against women—and might still be after we’re both long dead.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Digital Book 2013, IDPF, BEA 2013

Hallie Ephron

And there’s a pretty intriguing look at News Obituaries: Another Gender Gap from novelist Hallie Ephron, who writes:

Though women live on average five years longer than men, it’s no secret that their death rates are identical. One hundred percent, male or female, all of us die. So, if there were equal opportunity in news obituaries as there is in paid death notices, there should be an equal number of women and men whose lives get written up in the newspaper. But it’s far from equal—at least that’s been my impression reading The Boston Globe.

 


 
Regular Ether readers will be glad to know we’re not headed for another round of “Where Are the Men at Writing Conferences?”  In this long spring of conference-going, I’ve actually seen a better gender balance among attendees than in the past at major writing events.

 

               

                  • agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Digital Book 2013, IDPF, BEA 2013At Writer’s Digest Conference East in New York, there was what looked like a far better blend of men and women in attendance this year than we’ve seen there in past years, maybe as many as 40 percent of the crowd male and highly active in Q&A, etc. (not always the case for guys at confabs).

 

                 

 

        So we’ll let that irritating conference-attendees subject rest for now, the blue buses and the pink buses are parking in more of the same lots, and I call that progress. Today, let’s pick up on the element of En-Gendered Ether that Johnson has provided: What Subtle Signals May the Industry Deploy to Skew Our Perceptions of Women’s Writing? Back to Table of Contents    
 


       

Judging Your Books’ Covers: Are They Sexist?

Shirtless Men Kissing Beautiful Women. How long have I been going on about these romance covers that choke the ebook lists? The trend is somewhere from merely tedious to outright infuriating for all but the millions of romance consumers and the folks feeding that frenzy. (More power to you—the fact that I’d like to see what I hash as #legitlit in sway isn’t your problem. You keep those guys shirtless as long as the ride lasts. I’m just trying to get pants onto the literary team.) Where Johnson takes us this week is in the nearby neighborhood of that ubiquitous cover smooch.  
 
https://twitter.com/Laura_Jennings/status/332454844021501952
 
In The Gender Coverup at Huffington Post Books, she does a thoroughgoing job of hitting the inequities now all but indigenous in the world of books—particularly their presentation to young minds (she writes YA).

So, we’re thinking about boys and girls and what they read. The assumption, as I understand it, is that females are flexible and accepting creatures who can read absolutely anything. We’re like acrobats. We can tie our legs over our heads…Boys, on the other hand, are much more delicately balanced. To ask them to read “girl” stories (whatever those might be) will cause the whole venture to fall apart. They are finely tuned, like Formula One cars, which require preheated fluids and warmed tires in order to operate.

It’s a good article, I hope you’ll read it all.

Maybe this idea that there are “girl books” and “boy books” and “chick lit” and “whatever is the guy equivalent of chick lit” gives credit to absolutely no one, especially not the boys who will happily read stories by women, about women. As a lover of books and someone who supports readers and writers of both sexes, I would love a world in which books are freed from some of these constraints.

Where she’s leading, and where we’re going, is that experiment she mentioned.

  What she asked people to do was to reinterpret how the covers of known books might go if those books’ authors were, “of the opposite gender, or was gender-queer.” Cool results. And it’s the heart of our focus today.

We’re told not to judge books by [their covers], but… EVERYBODY DOES. That is what they are for. They are the packages that get your attention, that give you messages about what to expect.

The Post’s team put some of these reinterpretations into a gallery with books’ original covers, in Coverflip: Maureen Johnson Calls For An End To Gendered Book Covers With An Amazing Challenge. I want to take a few of them in pairs, side by side, for comparison. One of the few drawbacks of online galleries is that we tend to bomb through them as fast as our clicks can carry us, and it might be hard to get some nuance at such a clip. In some cases, responding cover designers (re-designers?) changed the author names to help put across the concept.
Back to Table of Contents

A Game of Thrones, reinterpreted by Electric Sheep Comix

We have the original cover for George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones in the Book 1 (A Song of Ice and Fire) paperback edition from Bantam, and we have Electric Sheep Comix’s (Patrick Sean Farley) reinterpretation.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Digital Book 2013, IDPF, BEA 2013

From Huffington Post Books, an original cover for A Game of Thrones, left, and a reinterpretation by Electric Sheep Comix

In the reinterpretation, you’ll notice that Martin has become not only Georgette (and a one-R. Martin, not two) but also “The Reigning Queen of modern fantasy.” From Johnson, on the exercise as a whole, not just in terms of this book’s real and reimagined covers:

The simple fact of the matter is, if you are a female author, you are much more likely to get the package that suggests the book is of a lower perceived quality.

Do you agree with that?
Back to Table of Contents

 

Stardust, Reinterpreted by Librarian Monica Fumarolo

At her site, Monica Fumarolo writes:

This is my play on Stardust by Neil Gaiman. Had a woman written it, I feel like the romance side of things would have been played up much more than the action/adventure aspects.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Digital Book 2013, IDPF, BEA 2013

From Huffington Post Books, the first UK edition cover for Neil Gaiman’s Stardust , left, and a reinterpretation by Monica Fumarolo

As you can see, in this instance, Mr. Amanda Palmer has become “Nellie Gaiman” for a new play on the Stardust cover. I’d say Fumarolo might only want to take out that bit of the guy’s collar in the lower right corner. We like our Men Shirtless when Kissing Beautiful Women, you know.

Back to Table of Contents

Throne of Glass, Reinterpreted by Ardawling

We’re going the other direction in this one, the hardback cover from the Bloomsbury USA release Throne of Glass, reinterpreted by self-described “graphic hobbyist” Ardawling. Be sure to get “throne” into your next title, right? Ironically, author Sarah J. Maas does tweet as @SJMaas, the masculine-ized name Ardawling gives her on the reinterpreted cover. And even more ironically—as panelists at the Grub Street the Muse and the Marketplace conference this weekend discussed—this thing of women writing under initials has become so prevalent that it’s almost always a sign of a female author, not male.

From Huffington Post Books, the Bloomsbury USA hardcover for Sarah J. Maas' Throne of Glass, left, and a reinterpretation by Ardawling

From Huffington Post Books, the Bloomsbury USA hardcover for Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass, left, and a reinterpretation by Ardawling

Looking at the brittle, Deco-structural interpretation Ardawling produces brings Maureen Johnson’s comments to mind:

If we [women] sell more — and we often don’t — it is simply because we produce candy, and who doesn’t like candy? We’re the high fructose corn syrup of literature, even when our products are the same. It’s okay to sell the girls as long as we have some men to provide protein.

That pretty handily predicts the next one.

Back to Table of Contents

Franzen’s Freedom, Reinterpreted by Book Revels

Book Revels is a site for “young adult books and pop culture ramblings” from “Ellie”—who describes herself as “a twenty-something librarian completely obsessed with YA literature.” She gives us what Johnson calls “the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it.” Which, especially on a title like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom from Farrar, Straus & Giroux, easily reminds us, in the reinterpretation, of the “feminine products” advertising context, no?

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Digital Book 2013, IDPF, BEA 2013

From Huffington Post Books, the FSG original cover for Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, left, reinterpreted by Book Revels

About her reinterpretation, “Ellie” at Book Revels writes:

Here’s my take on Freedom by Jonathan Franzen as if it were written by a female author. I went with an image of a girl whose entire face you can’t see with a blurred background (i.e. the typical YA cover). I also chose a cursive font, which I see a lot of on “girl” books.

Back to Table of Contents

A Clockwork Orange, Reinterpreted by “Brandy”

Anthony Burgess becomes Antonia, and we go from the 50th-anniversary Norton hardcover artwork to a conspicuously stylish reinterpretation by “Brandy.”


agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Digital Book 2013, IDPF, BEA 2013

From Huffington Post Books, the W.W. Norton hardcover anniversary artwork for Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, left, and “Brandy’s’ reinterpretation

“Brandy” writes about her reinterpretation:

I did the coverflip. I tried my best… hopefully it reflects both the challenge and the themes of the book, A Clockwork Orange, as written by Anthony Burgess. All in all, Maureen’s a genius.

One more. Back to Table of Contents

Lord of the Flies, Reinterpreted by BGM

This is the original UK cover for William Golding’s classic, then a reinterpretation by Toronto’s BGM. (Just as an unrelated observation, it’s interesting to see how many folks still don’t identify themselves online, even at their sites and on Twitter. They use pseudonyms, first names only, etc. Happily, we don’t have to work on that one today. It’s just worth noting that even as we encourage authors to identify themselves fully and use their names and faces as IDs, handles and avatars for best networking, an awful lot of Netizens do nothing of the sort.)

From Huffington Post Books, the UK cover for William Golding's Lord of the Flies, left, and a reinterpretation by "BGM"

From Huffington Post Books, the UK cover for William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, left, and a reinterpretation by “BGM”

Note what happens here to Lord of the Flies as the author name switches to Willa Golding and this nurturing, protective evocation of the eternal victim, poor bespectacled Piggy.

There are more covers and reinterpretations in the gallery, which is well worth a bit of your time.

Back to Table of Contents

And Claire Messud: No Reinterpretation Needed

I’d be remiss in getting out of this edition of the Ether without mentioning the nicely pointed commentary from author Claire Messud in her short interview with Annasue McCleave Wilson at Publishers Weekly, An Unseemly Emotion: PW Talks with Claire Messud.

agent, author, books, digital, ebooks, Jane Friedman, Porter Anderson, publisher, publishing, Writing on the Ether, blog, blogging, journalism, Publishing Perspectives, Ether for Authors, Ed Nawotka, The Bookseller, FutureBook, Philip Jones, Digital Book 2013, IDPF, BEA 2013

Claire Messud

While this incident didn’t involve subtle (and not so subtle) signals transmitted by cover art, it has sparked plenty of healthy comment and debate. Wilson at PW points out that Messud’s character Nora Eldridge in The Woman Upstairs is “angry, really angry.”

Messud’s response invokes Chekhov’s line about not having to defend horse thieves and making a terrific statement about the expectation that women in fiction must not be allowed the harsher emotions male characters are granted. She makes herself perfectly clear on the point while also clarifying that Nora is a complex and rounded character, hardly an emblem of anger:

If it’s unseemly and possibly dangerous for a man to be angry, it’s totally unacceptable for a woman to be angry. I wanted to write a voice that for me, as a reader, had been missing from the chorus: the voice of an angry woman. So yes, Nora Eldridge is middle aged and yes, she is angry. I’m not trying to deliver some “message”—I’m not suggesting that middle age and anger are synonymous, or that being single makes you angry, or anything like that. Nora is an individual, one particular person, whose psyche has been formed by temperament and a series of circumstances. She has just emerged from a long period of suffering, the care for and loss of her mother to a hideous illness. She is trying—like each of us—to do the best she can.

 

And the interview gets even better when Wilson asks Messud, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora, would you? Her outlook is almost unbearably grim.”

As if friendship potential is the criterion for a proper character.

Messud’s “For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” response has been repeated and celebrated for the past week. Part of Messud’s response:

If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.

It’s an enlightening exchange, now being reinterpreted, itself, in many ways by folks discussing and sharing it.

So now it’s your turn: Expectations, signals, clues, interpretations, thrown by cover art in particular—how gender-biased can they be? How conscious is the publisher or designer of such bias and message? How aware of this element of bookselling are you on a regular basis? Fill me in, I’m all ears.



Main image: iStockphoto: ep_stock

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Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson

View posts by Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson

Porter Anderson (@Porter_Anderson) is a journalist and consultant in publishing. He's The Bookseller's (London) Associate Editor in charge of The FutureBook. He's a featured writer with Thought Catalog (New York), which carries his reports, commentary, and frequent Music for Writers interviews with composers and musicians. And he's a regular contributor of "Provocations in Publishing" with Writer Unboxed. Through his consultancy, Porter Anderson Media, Porter covers, programs, and speaks at publishing conferences and other events in Europe and the US, and works with various players in publishing, such as Library Journal's SELF-e, Frankfurt Book Fair's Business Club, and authors. You can follow his editorial output at Porter Anderson Media, and via this RSS link.

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