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It has just occurred to me that my last four books, all works of fiction, have had an image of a woman on the cover. The books, however, largely represent masculine points of view. One of the books is even called Young Men. It still has a beautiful girl on the cover.
The reason for this repeated imagery is simple and economic: Most readers of fiction in North America are, by a wide margin, women. The books are being marketed to them. I am perfectly happy with this. I know where my bread is buttered.
This kind of marketing is troubling, though, to many authors – particularly to female authors, who may fear that if their work is given too girly a packaging, it will be dismissed as “commercial.” Commercial is a fluid and puzzling concept in publishing these days, almost impossible to define (the most intellectual writers can be commercial successes, too), but in this discussion, commercial means a book about relationships and family that ends predictably, with adversity overcome and lessons learned. To be shunted into this category means you may sell well, but you may not be taken seriously by literary critics – and indeed may not even receive reviews in mainstream media.
A highbrow literary critic may have a problem with the concept of “women’s fiction” – why should there be such a category at all? Are the best writers not fascinating to readers of all genders regardless of the subject matter? Are women exclusively interested in family and romance? Why is Alice Munro not labelled in this way? Elfriede Jelinek? But protest as we might, the category exists in business. Especially on Amazon, where the label is used to push even canonical works such as Jane Eyre.
The tropes of the women’s fiction aesthetic wrapping are familiar. Cover images rely on: cottage dock, laundry on line, beach and umbrella, high-heeled shoe, martini glass (frequently with wedding ring in it), and endless variations on woman-with-her-back-turned (woman in half profile, in silhouette, woman lying down or upside down). Colours tend to pastels, especially pink, or sepia (for historical ones).
These conventions have been drawing fire in particular in relation to the work of a highly literary writer. Elena Ferrante – the mysterious Italian darling of critics, academics and serious readers for her series of books describing the 50-year friendship of a couple of women in Naples (the last one is called The Story of the Lost Child) – does, like Alice Munro, write about the lives of women. But she has been elevated to the category of the serious and sociopolitical, and so therefore never gets labelled as “women’s fiction.” And she seems to be equally admired among male critics. Why then, many detractors say, do her book covers look all girly, as if they are romances? Her publisher in the U.S., Europa, seems to be pushing her into the pink shelves, with its subdued images of sunny shores and weddings. This, say some angry commentators, reduces her seriousness, for her work is not just “women’s fiction”; it is human fiction.
An interesting counter-argument was made recently in The Atlantic: Writer Emily Harnett pointed out that Europa’s deliberate use of stereotypically commercial covers may itself be a political argument, a subtle reclaiming or reappropriation of the dismissed women’s label. It might be showing that commercial fiction should not be dismissed after all. (This has been the public position of U.S. chick-lit novelist Jennifer Weiner for some time: She has said that commercial fiction is trivialized for sexist reasons, not literary ones, and that male equivalents – dick-lit such as Nick Hornby – are given more respect.) Ferrante’s publishers themselves say that they knew the imagery was “kitsch.”
A parallel and not unrelated controversy arose the same week in the United States, with the publication of an essay in the New Republic by journalist Suki Kim, author of Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. Kim reveals that her publisher insisted the book – the result of several years undercover in North Korea – be subtitled “a memoir,” because memoirs sell better than reporting does. (This is true – memoirs do sell better.) She claims that the book was judged in a different light as a result – a misogynist light, as memoirs, being akin to personal expression rather than hard facts, are seen as a more feminine domain. She writes, “I was being moved from a position of authority – What do you know? – to the realm of emotion: How did you feel?”
This, like the book-cover question, is a question of marketing, of packaging. Kim’s publisher wants quite naturally to maximize sales, as this is a publisher’s job. Should it respect the author’s delicate views about category, to spare her feelings? Most publishers would opt for the cynical and pragmatic choice. To feminize a book is simply good business practice.
Canadian novelist Marissa Stapley, author of Mating for Life, knows this conundrum. Her book, about a family of women, has been resolutely categorized as women’s or commercial (sometimes with the caveat “upmarket women’s,” meant to signify that her writing isn’t bad), and it has done well by it. The first edition had a dock and a sunset; the new cover is pink. But still she wonders if she has been taken less seriously for it.
“It’s definitely a ghetto,” she wrote to me in an e-mail, “but how can you chafe against your books being marketed to the people who buy the most fiction?” She wishes men were given permission to read her work, too.
This is a tough choice faced by many authors. I wish I had more male readers, too. But until we can convince boys that made-up stories not involving superheroes can be quite interesting, we cannot blame the marketing departments for their taste in pink.