The Vagenda

Judging A Book By Its Cover

A few months ago I was sat in the library writing my dissertation on Edith Wharton and Dorothy Parker: two notable American authors of their respective generations. I suddenly noticed that for every time I’d written a comparison between the two it read ‘these two female authors’ – it was as if I was suggesting that their gender and their profession was a remarkable anomaly. A woman AND an author? ‘Surely not!’ the T.S Eliot-style critic in my head unnervingly resounded. 
I’m not naive enough (cough, T. S., cough) to think that gender and literature are mutually exclusive ideas. But if my essay had been on two male authors, would the presence of a penis have been relevant to my discussion? Doubtful (unless maybe it was Ulysses, but that’s another issue entirely.)
The course of the female author is a turbulent history. The Victorian era notably saw many women undertake sex changes (in pen, rather than practice) in order to be taken seriously by a society which saw her surrounded by children rather than ink-stains and piles of discarded manuscript. Ellis, Currer and Acton Bell (Emily, Charlotte and Anne Bronte respectively) and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) are significant literary transsexuals of this type; curiously, Eliot is still known under this name rather than her actual Christian one. 
But that was totally one-hundred-plus years ago, it’s totally 2K13, and this is totally the age of powerful women from Shakira to Hillary Clinton. Ostensibly, we have the same rights as men and blah blah blah, etc etc. It’s a bit disappointing, then, that J K Rowling is still known under a gender ambiguous title. Her forward-thinking publishers suggested that ‘Joanne Rowling’ might be a put off for young boys who might not want to read a wizardry book by, ick, a woman - a specimen that’s about as attractive to a male child as a Deatheater. The problem is that these publishers know what they’re doing. They’re probably right.
Harper Lee, author of ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ also omitted her first name (Nelle) when she published her book in 1960 because it was too much of a giveaway that she was a woman. I mentioned this to a friend the other day and he turned round in genuine surprise and  said, ‘Really, it was written by a woman?’ I resisted the urge to take up my hard copy of the book and enact the verb in the title of the novel. 
Although he can’t really be blamed for this – after all, that was the point in making sure Nelle Harper Lee was never known as the true author of the book. And it feels uncomfortable that Rowling, publishing in 1997, nearly forty years after Lee and 143 years after Emily-Bronte-cum-Ellis-Bell, should face the same prejudice. 
There was outrage a few months ago about an edition of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables’ that appeared on Amazon’s self-publishing platform ‘CreateSpace’. The cover could easily be mistaken for a Tommy Hilfiger advert. The girl in a 90’s style farm checked shirt looks suggestively out of the photo, a ‘come-hither’ hand running through her tousled blonde hair. I’m glad that I saw this cover, because if I hadn’t I probably would have forgotten that Anne was a sexually-charged American Barbie doll on a one woman mission to seduce every man, woman or object that came into her sultry stare. 
The thing is that I’ve read the book, and unless I interpreted it completely wrong the real Anne of Green Gables would probably be Hilfiger’s last choice for a campaign girl. Firstly, she is from Edward Island, Canada, rather than the United States; she has red hair; and she would be more likely to give you a piece of her mind rather than her ass. I imagine the creator of this work would regret ever having heard the words ‘Amazon CreateSpace’ if Anne got her hands on them. 
Anne hasn’t been the only victim of her sexuality. Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’ also underwent a similar kind of revamp on a much larger scale when Faber and Faber bought out a 50th Anniversary edition of the novel. There are times when you should judge a book by its cover, and this was one of them. Plath’s painful story of a female’s struggle to fit into a stereotype of glossy womanhood and her successive mental breakdown was packaged into a cover which bore the image of a woman with ruby red lips powdering her face. 
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for red lipstick – in fact, hell, I love it – and I’ve powdered my shiny face a fair few times before. But the problem was that this aesthetic decision mocked the plight of Plath’s heroine, who is driven to near madness through her inability to be the kind of woman adorning the dustcover. Worst irony ever.
My quarrel is that female authors seem to have had about the same command over their branding as peanut butter and jelly: their names and their female characters have been reworked in order to exaggerate or suppress their possession of XX chromosomes more than anything else. And – bear with me – in a day and age where peanut butter and jam is marketed unashamedly as a pair, women and authorship also can’t be as honest about their relationship. 
I would understand if someone sat down with these two condiments and asked them to keep their relationship on the DL for a while until people got used to them. What I don’t get is why the public still has to be fooled into thinking that women aren’t authors. ‘City of Dark Magic’ by Magnus Flyte, published at the end of last year is actually by Christina Lynch and Meg Howrey who adopted this male pseudonym in order to allure the XY public. This is because, according to recent studies that they read, whilst women are less influenced by the sex of the author; men are still much more likely to buy books by men.
I’m not saying that attitudes haven’t changed towards women writers: they have, but the literary marketplace still has some way to go in terms of gender equality. The female author and her female characters are still in many ways at the mercy of an economy inclined to hide or flaunt femininity in order to achieve higher book sales. 
In sixth form, my English teacher (a real prodigy) dissected the term ‘Penis Envy’ to read ‘Pen is Envy’. Now, I don’t think that there’s any correlation between the penis and literary talent – apart from possibly the phallic nature of a pen -  so the argument begins to break down pretty fast (after all, who would mount a fountain pen?) And you know what? I’m proud of my vagina.
Edith Wharton wouldn’t thank me for suggesting that she had a vagina. Dorothy Parker would be angry if I didn’t state it. 
Regardless, I changed all my ‘female writers’ in my dissertation to simply ‘writers’ and, I hope, part of my attitude along with it. 

5 thoughts on “Judging A Book By Its Cover

  1. I want to read Anne of Green Gables now, she sounds kick-ass! Will have to find a copy with a good cover though.

    I hadn’t ever considered the fact that George Eliot is still known by her “man” name, but now that you mention it…
    There’s a French author by the name of George Sand, whose real name was Aurore Dupin, but it seems she adopted her pseudonym voluntarily, and was fond of dressing like a man (I used to get her confused with Eliot, because George should be spelt with an “s” at then end in French). She seems to have been quite scandalous for the times, if you judge by her Wikipedia entry
    The French version states that, as an author, she was on the same level as her male contemporaries such as Victor Hugo or Balzac, rather than being seen as a “female author”.

    It’s pretty sad that this “tradition” of making female authors sound male still exists. I didn’t realise, until the Beckhams named their daughter Harper, that Harper Lee was female… (Oh, the shame!!!!!!)
    I guess that, too often, books written by women are seen to be “women’s interests” only?