Don’t discriminate a book by its cover

Last week’s Sunday Book Review section of the New York Times has an essay by Meg Wolitzer, “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women“. It’s yet another discussion about the disparities between published men and women authors, and she takes a closer look at book covers and how even those tend to convey sentiments of the books and their authors to the public.

Look at some of the jackets of novels by women. Laundry hanging on a line. A little girl in a field of wildflowers. A pair of shoes on a beach. An empty swing on the porch of an old yellow house.

I took semiotics back at Brown University in the same heyday of deconstruction in which Eugenides’s novel takes place (he and I were in a writing workshop together), but I don’t need to remember anything about signifiers to understand that just like the jumbo, block-lettered masculine typeface, feminine cover illustrations are code. Certain images, whether they

summon a kind of Walker Evans poverty nostalgia or offer a glimpse into quilted domesticity, are geared toward women as strongly as an ad for “calcium plus D.” These covers might as well have a hex sign slapped on them, along with the words: “Stay away, men! Go read Cormac ­McCarthy instead!”

It’s interesting to think about, given how size and shape are associated with men and women’s actual appearances. Shelley Jackson, in the FWO panel last week, described good writing — per critics — as being “lean”, and someone remarked the other day about how few women writers can write as sparsely as Hemingway. Perhaps there’s something to the declarative all-text titles on book covers by men that women’s books state less aggressively, but are starting to adopt more actively nowadays?

–Aditi Sriram

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