For the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s iconic The Bell Jar, normally sane British publisher Faber & Faber decided to gussy up the thing with a cover that was thought to be more … ahem … marketable. The result was downright degrading, looking like some pandering chick-lit nonsense about shopping and getting the guy.
This isn’t a new thing, as any even casual peruser of bookstore stacks has come to know, and as Eugenia Williamson examines in a piece for the Boston Globe. Books with male authors are more likely to feature dark, moody illustrations (Cormac McCarthy) or fanciful type-heavy designs (Jonathan Safran Foer), and they don’t have to even include people (Jonathan Franzen). It all signals seriousness, even though a majority of those books are still being read by women.
Whereas, books by lady authors are either slathered with pinks and enough accessories to stock a Macy’s window or end up featuring one of two by-now cliched design motifs. Per Williamson:
In recent years, many of the people on book covers have been women without faces. So prevalent is this visual cliché that the publishing industry has cycled through at least two well-documented iterations. The first, the Headless Woman, features some poor thing cut off above the neck, like the swimsuit-clad beachgoer on Alice Munro’s story collection “The View from Castle Rock.” The website Goodreads’s Headless Women page has 416 entries. Last year, the Headless Woman was supplanted by the Sexy Back, in which a woman is shown from behind, often gazing out over a vista.
Why this is seen as being something female readers want on their covers, of course, is anybody’s guess.