Back in May of this year, YA author Maureen Johnson issued a Tumblr challenge to her followers: coverflip a book. What exactly she meant by that was unclear, so as she explained it:
1. Take a well-known book. (It’s up to you to define well-known.)
2. Imagine that book was written by an author of the OPPOSITE GENDER. Or a genderqueer author. Imagine all the things you think of when you think GIRL book or BOY book or GENDERLESS book (do they EXIST?). And I’m not saying that these categorizations are RIGHT—but make no mistake, they’re there.
The saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” has been around for eons, but Johnson’s challenge made the point that yes, we do judge books (and books’ readers) by their covers. As covers are the first thing anyone sees about a book, it’s easy to formulate an (often incorrect) idea of the author’s intent from a graphic and a name. Does the cover feature half of a smiling girl’s face, two people kissing, or generally have a lot of bright colors? Probably written by a girl. Check the name. Does it sound like a girl’s name? Okay, I’m not in the mood for chick-lit romance today, I’m going to go for that book over there with a dragon on it! It looks like it’s written by a guy, so it’ll probably have a lot of action and adventure!
A bit simplistic, perhaps, but you get my point.
After Johnson’s throwdown, artistically-inclined fans rushed to create examples of coverflipped books. One such example was with George R. R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series. The original cover for Game of Thrones shows a sword on a blue background: typical high fantasy fare. The coverflip, however, shows two girls bravely battling unseen odds, with a blonde man lurking in the background. Patrick Farley, the coverflip artist (and book cover illustrator by trade) explained his reasoning:
Here’s what I heard the invisible art director telling me as I composed it:
“Emphasize bonding between female characters. De-emphasize conflict, but make sure the female leads are plucky. Include a small dragon and a white wolf; make sure neither is snarling. In the background include a handsome young male in clean armor, e.g. Jaime Lannister… Blondes have been proven to sell more books.”
So let’s recap: The original was a book with a sword on it. It doesn’t hint at any of the book’s contents and screams “generic high fantasy”, which may or may not be what GRRM wanted, but it’s a classically-themed cover that lends an aura of gravitas to its perceived contents. The coverflip may say “high fantasy” too, but it also says “sparkly romance and girly feelings”. Anyone who has read the books will know that those are not two integral parts of the series.
This example was particularly effective for me, because I’d read and liked Stardust, and until I saw the coverflipped version of the cover, I’d forgotten there had even been a romance in the novel. It’s certainly not the main point—the book is about a male protagonist going about the archetypal route of discovering his true purpose in life, and, at the risk of spoiling all the readers of this blog, the romance doesn’t even turn out that well for the people involved. But as a self-described cynic who despises the romance genre, I wouldn’t have touched Stardust by Nellie Gaiman with a ten-foot pole. And I would have been missing out big time.
The same thing might happen today with boys who want to read books by female authors, but are turned off by the stereotypically feminine covers which are given to female authors. Maybe a boy wants to read What’s Up With Jody Barton? by Hayley Long, as author James Dawson points out in his post about coverflipping. Well, he should. It’s a fantastic book which deals with issues like bullying and sexual orientation, targeted towards a teenage audience, which arguably is the audience that most needs literature about these issues. But the cover, aside from not depicting any of these issues, is sadly so garishly pink that I doubt any boy would read it in public (or dare to check it out from a library). For a variety of reasons, society already tells young boys it’s “uncool” to be readers—does anyone really think toting around a book that looks like that one, regardless of its contents, will help?
The issue here is not to shame people for the covers they like (some people do like stereotypically feminine or masculine covers, and that’s completely fine), but to tell publishers that they can still manage to sell books even if the covers aren’t gendered. In a follow-up post to her Tumblr challenge, Johnson said:
Coverflip’s ultimate goal is to show that books have no gender. Let’s stop pre-determining what’s for boys and what’s for girls. And it aims to do this by playing around with the cover image to show that covers are simply covers, and you can switch them around and change perception in a heartbeat. The media is not going to fix this. And publishers can’t really fix it. It’s up to readers. To paraphrase John and Yoko, “Gendered books are over, if you want it.”
It may even be that non-gendered covers can help books sell better than gendered ones. YA author John Green recently wrote a post about why he felt his latest novel, The Fault in Our Stars, was such a bestseller. As just one of many reasons, he says that the sales and marketing team in charge of the book reportedly wanted a “girl-oriented” YA cover to suit the book’s deft weaving together of life, love, and loss through the first-person narration of a female protagonist. His editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, had to fight the team’s hesitation before finally getting the minimalist, literary cover that the book now has.
But I think the most interesting question raised by Johnson’s Coveflip challenge is this question of perceived intent. The book an author writes and what’s understood from the cover of that book are two different things. The latter is what I mean by “perceived intent”. It’s this idea that, by judging a book by its cover, a thing we all do, we can just “tell” what the book is going to be about and if we’ll like it. We base idle speculation on false stereotypes and run with it—books written by female authors are going to be about romance and feelings; books by male authors are going to be plot-heavy or reveal deep messages about the human psyche.
Can perceived intent be as simple and as damning as the name on a book cover? If you noticed, all the coverflipping examples changed the name of the author from male to female, female to male, or female to “neutral initials”. If The Fault In Our Stars had been written by Jane Green, with the same cover, would it have been hailed for its “spin on universal themes” (as one of the blurbs on my copy says), or would it have been reduced to the tragic romance of Hazel and Augustus?
Take J.K. Rowling’s newest book, The Cuckoo’s Calling, as another example. It was written in a stereotypically male genre, crime fiction, and under a masculine pseudonym, Robert Galbraith. The author’s bio was even slanted as to lend further authenticity to her voice, labeling the author as “a former plainclothes military policeman who had left the Army in 2003 to work in the private security industry”. Would readers not have bought The Cuckoo’s Calling if they’d thought it was written by a woman, regardless of who that woman was? Even if the woman were in truth an ex-policewoman who now worked in the private security industry?
And for that matter, would the Harry Potter series itself have been shoved into the chick-lit genre if Joanne Rowling had published it instead of J.K. Rowling? When the first Harry Potter book was published by Bloomsbury, all the way back in 1997, the publishers decided “to use initials instead of a name to attract boy readers”, and Telegraph contributor Richard Savill even claimed in that same article, “The use of the author’s initials instead of her full name was a marketing ploy designed to make her work acceptable to boys, who actively choose not to read books by women.”
So the question of perceived intent is this: does the cover art or the author’s name really have that much of an impact on us as readers? Can our subconscious (or our fear of public ridicule) really prevent us from enjoying great works of literature? The question is, how much are we affected by what we read before we even read it?