Don’t judge a book by its chick-lit cover

The UK’s Lionel Shriver weighs in on the Franzen fracas–aka “Franzenfreude” (need to get up to speed?  Ruth Franklin has an excellent roundup in The New Republic) :

A female novelist would never enjoy a Franzen-scale frenzy of adulation in America, which maintains two distinct tiers in fiction. The heavy hitters – cultural icons who often produce great doorstop novels that no one ever argues are under-edited – are exclusively male. Rising literati like Rick Moody and Jonathan Franzen efficiently assume the spots left unoccupied by John Updike and Norman Mailer, like a rigged game of musical chairs. Then there’s everybody else – including a raft
of female writers who keep the publishing industry afloat by selling to its primary consumers: women.

From there, however, Shriver moves on to the subject of book covers, and in particular takes issue with the apparently compulsive need of her publishers to dress her books in “chick lit” covers.  As the title of her Guardian piece puts it, ” I write a nasty book. And they want a girly cover on it.” Shriver writes:

With merciful exceptions, my publishers constantly send prospective covers for my books that play to what “women readers” supposedly want. Take the American reissue of my fourth novel Game Control – a wicked, nasty novel about a plot to kill two billion people overnight. The main character is a man, the focal subject demography. Yet what cover do I first get sent? A winsome young lass in a floppy hat, gazing soulfully to the horizon in a windblown field – soft focus, in pastels.

There are complicated issues at work here–among other things, the tension between art and marketing.  Is a book cover’s job to sell the book or is its job to tell you about the book?  Of course, the ideal answer is “both,” but practically speaking, some books are hard to sum up in a cover.  On the other hand, it is difficult to see how a novel about a plot to kill 2 billion people overnight really cries out for floppy hats and soulful gazing. And more to the point, do those kinds of covers really sell books?  Not to this reader–but then, my epitaph could read, “Never a member of the target demographic.”

And finally, by the way, I like Shriver’s little throwaway line in the first ‘graph: “…that no
one ever argues are under-edited.”

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One Response to Don’t judge a book by its chick-lit cover

  1. Poetic Zest says:

    From what I’ve heard from published writers, the cover art is the most argued aspect of the publishing process between writer and publisher.
    I agree with you regarding not selling me a book cover showing floppy hats and soulful gazing. It’s clichéd and hasn’t changed with the times.
    Nowadays, there are plenty of options.

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