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Books

Cover girls

How lipstick, bathing suits, and naked backs discredit women’s fiction

Consider “Superior Women,” Alice Adams’s epic novel about class, sex, and national politics explored through the intertwined lives of five Radcliffe grads over a 40-year span. When the paperback was released in the mid-1980s, the inside front cover was that of a romance novel, with illustrations of elaborately coiffed, makeup-spackled women gazing into the middle distance, one locked in a passionate embrace with a man bearing an uncanny resemblance to an old-school JC Penney model.

At a Radcliffe alumni panel a few weeks ago, novelist Gish Jen flashed a slide of images from “Superior Women” to show the audience just how pandering the publishing industry can be. The audience—which was mostly women with a sprinkling of men—looked only a little different from the current readership of the US fiction market in which about 80 percent of book buyers are women. Jen and her fellow panelists — The Atlantic books and culture editor Ann Hurlbert, Grove Atlantic vice president and executive editor Elisabeth Schmitz, and the novelist Claire Messud — had convened to discuss why women writers lack the same cultural authority as their male counterparts. With gendered book covers she said, “literary women are often dragged into the field of the very kind of fiction against which literary [fiction] is defined.”

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Women of letters have been marginalized since the dawn of Western literature. It is nonetheless surprising that this predicament remains so entrenched. In a yearly study VIDA, an organization for women in the literary arts, reliably finds that major publications still carry more male bylines and cover more books authored by men.

Although their impact is unquantifiable, book covers certainly have something to do with this disparity. Marketing affects the way readers of both genders perceive the artistic merits of a book. Stereotypically feminine signifiers— a lipstick tube, a woman’s naked back — can inadvertently disqualify a novel from the world of serious literature.

Romance novels, with their corseted bosoms, shirtless pirates, and overwhelmingly female readership, have never been taken seriously. At another Radcliffe event, “Why Books?,’’ held in 2010, literary sociologist Elizabeth Long related an anecdote about romance readers who, when taking public transit, hide their breathless maidens with leather book sleeves. The dawn of e-readers, Long said, has freed these readers from the shame of liking something so plainly associated with feminine triviality. Soon, she speculated, romance novels will disappear into the cloud.

But the implied correlation between feminine imagery and literary inferiority somehow hasn’t stopped publishers seeking wider sales from trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Faber’s 50th anniversary reissue of “The Bell Jar,” for instance, tarted up Sylvia Plath’s classic novel of existential despondency with an illustration of a woman wearing gobs of eyeliner sneering into a compact. Readers new to the book would never suspect its colossal cultural importance or that its author had stuck her head in an oven weeks before its British publication.

The public outcry was encouraging: In addition to an abundance of op-eds about the cover’s sickening deceptiveness, people designed their own parody reissues of classic novels and shared them on Twitter. The best of these came courtesy of Stuart Houghton, who festooned Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” with doodles of a pacifier, a baby bottle, and a hoop-skirted woman wheeling a pram. As funny as Houghton’s sendup was, it points to something deeper; namely, that such a book would have terrible trouble being taken seriously.

So how does a publisher signal to a manly reader that a woman-authored book he has in his hands won’t offend him with talk of motherhood, makeup, and menstruation? How do they assure him this novel is worthy of his time, and possibly a literary prize?

Enter the “man trap,’’ a phrase Schmitz coined for her Radcliffe talk. Schmitz defines the man-trap cover as “splashier, brighter, more iconic” and “less gendered” than its pink ghetto counterparts. She proffered Rachel Kushner’s National Book Award-nominated “The Flamethrowers” as a case study. Although the novel concerns a female protagonist’s sexual and artistic awakening, it also dealt with modern art, revolution, and motorcycle racing. Its cover image — a decidedly arty, text-heavy affair with an orange-hued photograph of a blond woman’s face with tape over her mouth — lacked all vestiges of feminine frippery.

In the shortlist for this year’s Baileys Prize, the women’s fiction award formerly known as the Orange Prize, the man trap abounds. None of these covers look particularly gendered. Most are designed in either browns or blues. All are text heavy — no lipstick or kisses to be found.

To be sure, books with hyper-masculine covers aren’t often awarded literary prizes. Clive Cussler, whose recent covers featured a picture of a careening cruise ship, a burning helicopter, a burning pirate ship, and a burning biplane, has never won the National Book Award. But when men write literary fiction that courts a male audience, look out. Consider, as speaker Claire Messud did, “The Art of Fielding,” a debut novel about baseball, enrapturing critics and earning debut novelist Chad Harbach a $650,000 advance.

Harbach’s all-text cover has a hand-drawn, cursive script (for ladies) on a navy blue background (for men). It is done in a deliberately casual style, reminiscent of letterpress posters and jars of artisanal pickles, that’s become graphic shorthand for “young, hip, serious novelist.” (See also: selected works of Jonathan Safran Foer and Emma Straub.)

“Recently, it seems like literary writers prefer type-dominant covers and commercial writers, marketers, and the sales department want people on the cover,” Schmitz said. While she did not explain the shelf appeal of book covers with people on them, the reasons literary writers — especially female ones — may prefer type-dominant covers couldn’t be more obvious.

In recent years, many of the people on book covers have been women without faces. So prevalent is this visual cliché that the publishing industry has cycled through at least two well-documented iterations. The first, the Headless Woman, features some poor thing cut off above the neck, like the swimsuit-clad beachgoer on Alice Munro’s story collection “The View from Castle Rock.” The website Goodreads’s Headless Women page has 416 entries. Last year, the Headless Woman was supplanted by the Sexy Back, in which a woman is shown from behind, often gazing out over a vista.

The Radcliffe panelists were encouraged by recent developments in the publishing, like Pamela Paul’s editorship of the New York Times Book Review and the incremental improvement of the VIDA count. As women gain a stronger foothold in the literary establishment, there’s a chance these covers may disappear. In the meantime, publishers can do as Vintage did: Between the sandy foot and shapely knee of the headless woman on the paperback edition of “The View from Castle Rock,” they slapped a gold sticker bearing glad tidings: “Winner of the Nobel Prize.”

Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor living in Somerville. She can be reached at eugenia.williamson@ gmail.com.

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