Ranty-pants: Judging a book by its cover

Hallo, poppinjays! Busy busy fortnight and a half here in Helheim. Slowly recovering from a severe case of ABH (Awesome Book Hangover) – the books in question being Stacia Kane’s Chess Putnam books, of course. Got a few books in the queue to very soon review (accidental rhyme, make a wish!) but today, I think I’m going to switch my usual villainess trousers for a pair of ranty-pants and step onto my soapbox. Don’t worry, it will be brief (not like the great e-reader rant of 2011).

Last night, I was finishing up the lovely Siege and Storm, the second in Leigh Bardugo’s wunderbar Grisha trilogy, when I realized that it and its predecessor featured that rarest of rarities, the gender-neutral cover. Behold, and be amazed:

siege and storm

Gorgeous, and inclusive!

Now, I realized I am a bit late to the gendered book cover discussion. Way back in May, YA author Maureen Johnson raised the issue on her Twitter, and wrote about it on the Huffington Post – which also featured a truly eye-opening gallery of cover-flips (check it out if you haven’t already seen it!). It’s not just a YA issue either – the reissue of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar caused quite an uproar a couple of months ago, and any stroll through the bookstore reveals some distressingly conspicuous design trends.

It’s ridiculous, of course, but it’s also upsetting. Gendering book covers is a feminist issue because, as the Guardian notes, female authors are the ones most likely to be negatively affected by covers featuring loopy type and a picture of a headless chick’s naked back. The unhappy truth is that some dudes just won’t read a book with a girly cover. They are yet to realize that a guy holding a book  – ANY book – automatically becomes the most beautiful guy in the… room (in the whole wide room), even if the book looks like this…

pride and prejudice cover

Actually, that would be pretty hot. I would totally buy that guy a kebab.

Anyway. The point is, whatever the reasons, gendered book covers are a thing and that sucks. I should mention that white-washed book covers are also a thing and that sucks even harder, but since I promised a short rant and really don’t fancy giving myself an embolism this afternoon, I’m not even going to touch that one. And damn it, there’s yet another problem in the form of genre cover tropes, which Chuck Wendig recently discussed. It’s bad enough that I read romances, but damn it, do they all have to have the same naked man’s torso on the front of them, advertising not only my low-brow tastes in ‘literature’ but my inherent, inconvenient, and utterly calamitous romanticism? Ugh.

Of course, it’s not all bad. There are some phenomenal covers out there, too. You’ve all had to endure my hero-worship of Joey Hi-Fi, designer of the drool-worthy covers of Wendig’s Miriam Black novels. Libba Bray’s The Diviners, the adult covers of the Harry Potter series, and basically every John Green novel are some examples of books whose covers are gender-neutral. We just need more like these, where the cover actually reflects the story being told within, and has nothing at all to do with the perceived and/or desired readership based – probably arbitrarily – on the flawed calculations of the publisher’s penny-pinchers.

Another cause for hope is the Recovering the Classics project, which is a “crowdsourced collection of original covers for 50 of the greatest books in the public domain.” And it is off the hizook. There are some bloody gorgeous covers (and you can order them as prints!). While there isn’t a large representation of female authors, and okay, yes, the few covers that have been submitted for books like Pride and Prejudice and Little Women are pretty stereotypically girly, I think the idea of crowd-sourcing covers is a great tactic for ending the deluge of covers featuring cupcakes and teapots and six-packs (manly ones, not beer-y ones).

My suggestion is a lot less imaginative and, yeah, maybe a little Orwellian. I propose a return to the extreme simplicity of the classic Penguin covers:

everything is illuminated cover

The cons: uniformity, of course, an undeniable absence of visual engagement, and a maybe a touch of authoritarianism.

The pros: sleek. So very, very sleek. Also, the use of uniform covers would obviously remove any gendering or white-washing or tired genre tropes, and would force readers to select books based on the synopsis alone. We would have to be… cover-blind (sorry, couldn’t resist). And on a more personal note, these covers would also put an end to my endless quest to own every different edition of Wuthering Heights. My bookshelf and my wallet would be very grateful.

There’s a happy medium lurking in between these two extremes, probably. Perhaps, in the place of that delightfully quizzical bird, each book could feature a small illustration, so that the book cover designers don’t find themselves as unemployed as me.

And on that note – Book Cat!

book cat book tower

Oh no, Librarian, please, keep taking pictures and DON’T worry about rescuing me from being crushed by a precariously leaning tower of library books. (Rolls eyes, attacks.)

Cranky, cranky. Note to self: don’t interrupt Book Cat’s slumber to take 347 pictures with fancy new phone.

Exeunt, pursued by a bear!