This week, we read a great article by Meg Wolitzer in The New York Times about the ways in which novels written by men and women are perceived differently — both by readers and by publishers. She has many great points, and the article is definitely worth reading as a whole if you’re interested in the state of gender and book publishing, but one of the ideas that stuck out to us was Wolitzer’s discussion about the primary way in which books are marketed — their covers. She writes,
“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. Compare these with the typeface-only jacket of Chad Harbach’s novel, “The Art of Fielding,” or the jumbo lettering on “The Corrections.” Such covers, according to a book publicist I spoke to, tell the readers, “This book is an event.” Eugenides’s gold ring may appear to be an exception, though it has a geometric abstraction about it: the Möbius strip ring suggesting that an Escher-like, unsolvable puzzle lies within. The illustration might have been more conventional and included the slender fingers and wrist of a woman, had it not been designated a major literary undertaking.”
Wolitzer posits that this is part of the reason that books by women sometimes get ignored by male readers: their feminine covers “might as well have a hex sign slapped on them, along with the words: “Stay away, men! Go read Cormac McCarthy instead!”” We have to agree. To try to get a visual handle on her point, we’ve pulled just a few covers of recent, critically acclaimed books by men and by women — several of which Wolitzer mentions in her article — though of course any grouping is likely to yield slightly different results. Click through to see our conclusions, and be sure to weigh in yourself in the comments.
Wolitzer is right on the money, at least in this grouping — the text is large and blocky or scripted in fat marker lettering, the colors neutral or, in the case of The Art of Fielding, decidedly masculine. The Marriage Plot doesn’t seem the least bit out of order to us, the ring, as Wolitzer points out, barely registers as a wedding band, even with that title sitting on top of it — instead it seems mathematical, a comment on infinity rather than fidelity. David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King is the most subdued of the bunch, but he doesn’t need any extra flash — everyone knew this novel as going to be an event whether the letters were writ large or no. Still though, they’re all in caps, and there’s nothing frilly about the art — just a king and some words. The Tragedy of Arthur is an interesting case — the hardcover fits snugly in with its loud letting, but the paperback seems to be telling a different story altogether. We wonder what that change is about?
Indeed, the book covers by women are by and large more delicate, both in lettering and illustration — the images are fuzzy, painted or hazy or quirkily drawn, and there seems, for some reason, to be a heck of a lot more serifs than on the men’s covers. Plus, without us trying for it, there’s a double showing of that golden yellow color that we seem to see everywhere these days. Was there a focus group that said that color made ladies want to buy books more than others? We bet there was. The notable exception to the rule in this grouping is A Visit From the Goon Squad, which looks like it belongs on the boys’ shelf with its large block letters, unfeminine colors, and bold and simple design. We hate to say it, but maybe that’s part of the reason the book got so much attention (well, that and its sheer brilliance, of course).