Literature, with the naughty bits

Thursday, August 7, 2008

On judging books, and authors, by their covers

I have a whole new reason to write as E.A., rather than Elizabeth: what the Guardian is calling The Great Chick-Lit Cover-Up.

Chick lit is a wildly successful genre, of course, so publishers are evidently attempting to make every book by a female author look like chick lit. Now, this is insulting in several ways.

One, it's incredibly condescending to the female readers who want to read chick lit: do publishers actually think these readers won't notice the difference? And won't the readers be disappointed? If you're hoping for chick lit, you don't want a book full of subtle lyricism and intricate symbolism, no matter how much you might enjoy that book on another day. And you're bound to resent an author whose book isn't what you expected. So the publishers are actually doing a disservice to these authors, in the name of a quick sell.

Two, think about the typical covers of Big Important Literary Books. They do not look like chick lit (which typically proclaims its status with candy-bright colors). They look like they've been designed by Chip Kidd, or one of his imitators. Or, if enough time has passed, they have the little orange band that designates a Penguin Classic, or the logo that says the book has passed into public domain and Barnes & Noble is going to put out its own damn edition. But if all female authors are denied these designations, then hey, guess what, it doesn't matter how profitable our books are, or how well we've written them: we're all being kept out of the canon. It doesn't matter how meaty the book is, if bookstores everywhere are proclaiming it's candy. Far more people will walk past the shop windows than will ever crack the book.

And once an author has a reputation for candy, she's going to have a hard time convincing people she can write anything that isn't candy. (Just ask Stephen King.) What if you're Toni Morrison, and your books are entitled Paradise and Song of Solomon and Beloved, and they get rebranded with big swishy shiny letters, and suddenly everyone expects them to be bodice-rippers? How long do you think you'd have to wait for the Nobel committee to call?

I will admit, however, that I'm a teeny bit curious about how the chick-lit covers would look for, say, The Corrections or White Noise. For the former, I envision a close-up of a flat chest in a Wonderbra, and a lipstick scrawl of a title; for the latter...oh, it could be the typical cartoon of the skinny, harried young mother, with a shopping cart overflowing with name-brand products and a comical black cloud in the distance.

That suggests a bit of a guerrilla art project, doesn't it? A little fun for a feminist with a color printer. Just fold on the new dust jackets, move the Big Important Men's Literary Books to the chick lit table, and see who notices.

Wow, if anyone actually does that, I hope they'll send me the designs.

Monday, August 4, 2008

R.I.P. Alexander Sozhenitsyn

In case you have any doubt of the power of a single voice raised against oppression, take a look at an obituary for Alexander Solzhenitsyn. (For those who prefer biography to hagiography, the New York Times offers a much more detailed life history, including descriptions of a seriously cantankerous Solzhenitsyn in exile.)

In any case, let's raise a glass to the memory of a man who believed that "it is within the power of defeat the lie."