Cover Girl

booksYA author Maureen Johnson thinks too many people judge books by their covers–especially those in charge of designing the artwork intended to grab readers’ attention. Why so many female-centric cover designs? Why not more books with gender-neutral covers that appeal to all segments of the population–not just the excessively girly types?

I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised about the princessification (yes, I really did just make up that word) of book jackets. Somehow, Disney has managed to brainwash the under-eight set into believing that life is all about becoming a tiny-waisted, doe-eyed prince-magnet, complete with pastel-colored flouncy dresses. Taking their cue from this wildly-successful princess-industrial complex, designers and marketers (including those in the publishing industry) have apparently decided that when it comes to selling to the young ladies, the girlier the better.

As a female, I’ve been alert to this phenomenon, and often annoyed by covers that telegraph “chick lit” even for books that clearly aren’t. Princess-ness (however that theme may be interpreted by cover artists–rainbows? butterflies? girls with long Disney hair, blowing in the wind?) has never appealed to me–and has appealed even less over the last few years as dozens and dozens of uber-girly book jackets have tried to woo me with our shared “femininity.”

But what irks me more is that, in Ms. Johnson’s own words: “…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. Because it’s ‘girly,’ which is somehow inherently different and easier on the palate. A man and a woman can write books about the same subject matter, at the same level of quality, and that woman is simple more likely to get the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it.”

Every fiber of my women’s college-educated being joins with Johnson in railing against this kind of ghettoization. Because that’s what it is. It’s saying that books women write shouldn’t be taken seriously. Here’s just one interesting compare and contrast moment. Jennifer E. Smith and Pete Hautman both wrote books about falling in love. But check out the cover of The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight in comparison to the cover of The Big Crunch. Now try to tell me we don’t have a problem.

Alas, as much as I’d like to rail against the art departments of various publishing houses, I think the problem is bigger than that. Not just culturally bigger. I’m talking about a society-wide shift that needs to take place, and in fact, I think that shift has more to do with readers than it does those supplying us with books.

The problem, in my mind, comes down to the painful reality not just that we do judge books by their covers, but that we also judge readers by the covers of their books. It saddened me to hear that male readers feel uncomfortable picking up some of Johnson’s books because their jackets don’t exactly telegraph manliness. But to that I say: So what? Why should it matter what book a guy or girl reads? (Answer: It shouldn’t.) Why does it seem to matter? Because as a society, we’re simply too caught up in finding ways to assert our masculinity or femininity, or whatever aspect of our gender we feel is necessary to define us.

So while I’d love to see publishers exercise a little more creativity (and gender neutrality) in their design choices, ultimately, I think the burden is on us. The burden is on us to see that masculinity and femininity can be expressed in a million different ways–yes, by both genders–and that it’s just as possible for a woman to be strong as it is for her to be gentle, or for a guy to be sensitive as it is for him to be authoritative. We are more than our soft hips or broad shoulders. We are the thoughts we choose to think, and the qualities we choose to express. And our society (and, by extension, the publishing industry) will be benefited to the degree that we embrace this fact.

On the other hand, we could all just get e-readers. No one will ever know (or judge us for) what we’re reading again.

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