September 23, 2011 / Education, Opportunity

Woman Author Says: Enough with the Girly Covers!


The opinions expressed herein are those of the author, and not necessarily those of The New Agenda.

Mary Johnson will discuss her memoir, Mother Teresa in Search of Love, Service, and an Authentic Life, at the Brooklyn Museum this Sunday, September 25, 2011 at 2:00 p.m. (Travel directions.)

My new book has a very girly cover. There’s nothing inherently wrong about a book cover on which red and white petals fall on a panel of dark wood—but my book is about having been a nun for twenty years with Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Let’s be clear: I’ve never been a girly girl. Until I started doing public presentations under bright lights in my 50s, I’d never worn make-up. As a nun, I belonged to the most radical, get-your-hands-dirty-while-laboring-in-the-slums group that I could find. In high school I was on the debate team. You wouldn’t have caught me dead in heels.

What were they thinking, putting flower petals on the cover of my memoir? I called my agent and told him I was afraid the cover screamed, “Men need not look at this book.” He told me, “Mary, you have to face facts. Men are not going to read this book. I’ve read it—and I love it. Your husband has read it. Maybe your dad will read it, but you can’t expect that most men are ever going to touch this book.”

Infuriated, I took the mock-up to my local coffee shop, where I’d written much of the book over steaming tea and apricot scones. Yelcin, the German-born owner of the coffee shop, calls each person who walks through the door by name and knows who takes soy milk in her latte and which guy pays him only on Fridays.

Yelcin also reads. We’d discussed The Green Mile and McCullough’s John Adams bio. He keeps the café’s rack of news magazines meticulously current.

“Yelcin,” I said, showing him the mock-up, “Would you pick this up in a bookstore?”

Yelcin peered at the cover, and took the book in hand while he heated my scone. “Never,” he said. “But not because of the flowers.”

He looked me straight in the eyes and said, without a touch of irony, “I never read books written by women.”

Reeling, I grabbed my scone and took a seat by the window.

At the table next to me, a guy peered over a copy of National Geographic. “I don’t read books by women, either,” he said. “Women just complain. I get enough of that from my wife.”

Other guys began to chime in. The only one who would admit to reading books by women was the teenager who helped in the kitchen. “When they’re assigned,” he said. “Last semester a story by Toni Morrison and last week a Canadian, Margaret something. Not bad,” he said with a shrug.

The lone woman in the coffee shop willing to join the conversation countered, “But I read books by men and women.”

“So do I,” I said. “Do you guys think women have nothing to say?” The general consensus was that women had plenty to say and were always saying it. When a guy took time to read he wanted escape from women, not immersion in their words.

Despite my protests, my publisher went forward with the flowery cover. The advance Amazon reviews began pouring in. I was very heartened that so many readers seemed engaged by the book. Both men and women wrote paragraph after paragraph of fervent discussion. Not everyone used a full name, so it wasn’t always possible to tell the reviewer’s gender, but I began to discern a pattern.

A few men loved it and a few women found it offensive, but more often than not, women reviewing my book called it “gripping, important, a page turner,” while men said, “not too much happens.” Women called my book “authentic” and “courageous.” Men called it “boring” and “too human.”

A few years ago, researchers at Queen Mary College in London asked one hundred academics, critics and writers to discuss the books they’d read most recently. According to the Guardian, “four out of five men said the last novel they read was by a man, whereas women were almost as likely to have read a book by a male author as a female. When asked what novel by a woman they had read most recently, a majority of men found it hard to recall or could not answer.”

I’m still not in love with my admittedly pretty book cover, but I’m willing to admit that its logic may reflect a sad truth: Too often, men still don’t read women’s stories, and when they do, they frequently find it hard to connect. In her book The Female Brain, Louann Brizendine explores the theory that men’s relative paucity of mirror neurons renders difficult the empathy required to relate to characters different from themselves. Male author G. Neri claims that forcing high school boys to read Jane Austen before they’re old enough to appreciate her permanently turns them off books written by women. All this means that I’ll continue to advocate for a gender-neutral cover for my book. Maybe for the paperback—

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  • samsmom

    It starts young. Middle school boys not only won’t read anything written by a woman, they won’t read anything written by a man that has a woman as the main character. So we have JoAnn Rowling, under the name “J.K. Rowling” to be as gender neutral as possible on the cover, writing about an adolescent boy to attract young readers. While her gender wasn’t the secret of the century, it wasn’t well publicized until the characters in the book had sucked in the younger generation. (And all of the adults I know who read more than the first book are women.) But even if “JoAnn” had been “John”, if the story had centered on Hermione, my male students would have passed on the book. So when we sat down at curriculum meetings to decide what books to read in class, the “girl books” were always put on the summer reading lists, but not read in class. The lament was, “Why assign a book that you know half the class won’t read?”

  • Kali

    Until my 20s, I used to read books by both men and women equally. Since my mid-20s I’ve been reading books by women almost exclusively. I find the books written by men emotionally cold and boring. I make an exception for P.G. Wodehouse, whose gentle humour I love.

  • yttik

    Good subject, this is an issue that infuriates me. I think it’s pure and simple sexism that starts so young, perhaps some boys and men aren’t even aware of it anymore. To this day women must use masculine sounding names like J.K. Rowling in order to get read, sometimes just to get published. If people think it was written by a man, they’ll read it. Many women have experienced this on the internet, people will respond to you completely differently if they think you’re male. If you’re male you know what you’re talking about, you have something to say, you’re an authority. Women, not so much.

    I don’t think men and women’s brains are wired all that differently. Boys, men, are really taught from day one not to empathize with women. It’s not that they can’t relate to female characters, it’s that society tells them over and over again that they should not. Think about a teen boy sitting on a bus reading that book with the flowers on it and “Mary” showing on the cover. He’d be ridiculed and mocked by his peers for reading such a girly book. Do that for about 18 yrs and it becomes learned behavior to simply reject anything connected to women.

  • Bes

    Hopefully E-readers will help some. No one can tell what you are reading or what you are purchasing. I’m not even aware of the covers of the books I read on the reader. Also they make books cheaper to sell and to bring to market so you don’t have to go through a male skewing publisher to get published. I can’t remember the last time I read a book by a male author.

    Of course TV and Movies are completely malecentric. Even if you start with a female authored story by the time you run it by male script writers, casting couch owners, producers, directors, film editors, publicists, etc, etc, etc the women characters are unrecognizable. Also have you ever noticed the idiotic genres men invent and call “Women’s Content”. The one that I find stunning is the lingerie empowerment genre. This includes female superheros, movies like “Sucker Punch, Charlie’s Angles, Playboy Club etc etc etc. How on earth do they link women prancing around in underwear with empowerment and once one of this genre bombs why do they keep making more of them? What ever, I am done with malecentric content. I would guess that men don’t read books by women because they are saturated with malecentric content from birth and so they don’t learn to look at the world through different eyes. In fact they tend to think the male view is the only view, certainly the only valid view.

  • yttik

    “In fact they tend to think the male view is the only view, certainly the only valid view.”

    Isn’t that the truth, Bes?

    Something else they do on TV and movies is that they pornofy the female characters. I don’t care if the woman was a serial killer or a mobster, we’re still going to make sure that the actress who portrays her is gorgeous and properly decked out in stilettos. Who those women really were, their story, is almost completely erased in the process.

  • BevWKY

    Ummm, Bes, do you honestly believe they’re attempting to sell those shows to a female audience?

    Male author G. Neri claims that forcing high school boys to read Jane Austen before they’re old enough to appreciate her permanently turns them off books written by women. All this means that I’ll continue to advocate for a gender-neutral cover for my book. Maybe for the paperback—

    Huh, now that’s one I hadn’t heard before. Here I always thought it was the fragile young female psyche that needed protecting. 😉

    Seriously, though, and to get back on topic, first let me say that I don’t think that cover bad at all. Honestly. At first glance, it looks like flower petals? Maybe. But unless it was shelved WITH women’s fiction, I wouldn’t necessarily think that cover alone screamed “by a woman”.

    If someone is interested in the topic, male or female, they’ll find the book and the cover isn’t going to stop them. If they’re not, same difference. As some have said, more than likely, a recognizable female author’s name will stop them faster than the cover will anyway.

  • Bes

    Yttik: As well as all women victims in Movies and TV die nude and exposed to the camera. We really need the option of Cable TV a la carte so women consumers can freeze out all these garbage portrayals of female characters. The men in charge do not have the capacity to understand the problem. If you bring it up they just list off the BS “women’s Content” they have completely oblivious to the fact that women don’t want or watch this so called “Women’s Content”. I know several women who have recently cut the cable cord and are using a logitech box to watch TV. They get enough shows and don’t have to subsidize the malecentric programing or the idiotic “women’s content” produced by men.

  • Bes

    Book covers do put me off although less so now that I use the Nook. They are communicating what the book is about or they should be. I remember reading one book my daughter was assigned in high school, it had a young woman’s back laced into old fashioned underwear with flowing long hair but no face on the cover. I remember thinking “what a piece of trash” based only on the cover and although I am not opposed to reading trash I am opposed to it being assigned by schools. It turned out to be a good book but I would never have chosen it because it looked like an old fashion bodice ripper by the cover.

    Regarding the underwear empowerment genre of movies and TV today. Yes I do think men are trying to sell that crap to women. Either it is a complex conspiracy, and I don’t think men are that organized or intelligent, or they are simply making the only thing they can make over and over and over and remaining baffled as to why it doesn’t sell over and over and over. I think the reason why is because men think the only view of the world is the male view, so they try to sell women their place in a distorted unattractive male fantasy and they honestly can’t fathom that women have their own fantasy life which doesn’t involve assuming their position in male fantasy. If they ever do figure it out (and I wouldn’t bet on that happening) it will just scare the hell out of them and they still won’t be able to produce anything of interest to the female audience.

    The way men have taken over media culture is by being amazingly prolific producers of their mind numbing distorted crap while simultaneously blocking all efforts of women and girls to produce or distribute an alternate view. In fact media men’s gatekeeping behaviors have been so intense that there isn’t even a producer of content women will pay to consume for them to buy out should they ever realize that we are available consumers, and they have nothing to sell us.