Sunday, December 6, 2015

Don’t Judge a Book by its Gender: Shifting Standards in YA Fiction

Do gendered covers steer YA readers away from books they might enjoy? Maureen Johnson's Coverflip initiative posed that question, and the internet responded. ♦ 
Color, script, design, funny little captions . . . readers expect the slightest of graphic design cues to tell them if a book is the right choice for their reading tastes. If the cues are misleading, it can be a little disorienting. For instance, if Paul Rudnik’s novel Gorgeous, with its image of a model in a gorgeous red number and its caption on “inner beauty,” is actually something along the lines of a crude comedy about obesity and social class, rather than more of a heartwarming and catty narrative that explores what it’s like to be a teen girl and super model, then you’re going likely going to have one confused reader. Clearly, cover design plays an important role in conveying the subject, tone, and feel of the novel it contains.
     In her 2013 initiative, Coverflip, Maureen Johnson, New York Times bestselling YA author, asked why. It all began with a casual tweet from Johnson reading “I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, ‘Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it. –signed, A Guy.’” Johnson lamented that marketing tactics and social views seem to define women’s work as less “literary” while pointing out that a man’s work is almost never called “fluff” or a “beach read.” Novels written by women aren’t nearly as commonplace on the reading lists of a high school or college literature classroom as novels written by men. Students read entire Shakespeare plays and Dickens novels, but only short poems by the likes of Emily Dickinson and Phillis Wheatley.
     Johnson’s Coverflip “asked people to take a well-known book, then to imagine the author of that book was of the opposite gender, or was genderqueer, and imagine what that cover might look like.” Johnson’s objective wasn’t to say that either masculine or feminine covers were better or worse than the other, but rather to point out that a cover is just one way of representing the story inside, and that it shouldn’t dictate what people feel comfortable reading.
     Internet users across America quickly embraced Coverflip, as bloggers and literature lovers of all ages generated hilarious and shocking content. One high school English teacher and blogger for The Reading Zone had her students read Johnson’s essay and create their own Coverflip images. Numerous literary bloggers began creating “feminized” versions of classic book covers like the one featured below.

     Some bloggers noted that even women shy away from books with stereotypically feminine covers, often dubbing them as “trashy” or “cliché.” Female readers may avoid books with such covers because they perceive them simply as stories that depict girls whose only apparent objective is to find love and killer stilettos. However, upon reading such novels, readers may come to find that there is much more to the stories than meets the eye. Perhaps the story has complex characters who tackle genuine struggles to stay true to themselves while navigating difficult friend or family relationships or maintaining a positive body image. However, it can be difficult to keep this judgment in check when, as was evident before the Twilight craze, the majority of YA bookshelves looked like this:

     Trying to convince a young male reader to pick up a book with one of these covers—featuring curling, serif fonts, shirtless men, closeups of shoes and gowns, or taglines mentioning love—provides that same heart-sinking feeling as when a friend cringes at the first line of a song we just dubbed our favorite. However, these books so often have hilarious, relatable stories with strong, three-dimensional characters of both genders, as well as compelling, thought-provoking, action-driven plots.
     Similarly, a high-school-aged female reader may frown at the sight of the gender-neutral The Hunger Games cover when her male friend recommends it to her. After reading the novel, though, she may discover that she was glad she read it, not only because of the phenomenal story, but also because it expanded her book jacket horizons. If the book had instead used the mysterious, female-focused German cover, her male friend may not have even chosen to read it in the first place. Every book lover has likely experienced this to some degree, and it directly illustrates Johnson’s point that readers really do judge books by their covers. But what’s to be done about it? Is it possible to make an entirely gender neutral cover? Should this be done, even if it doesn’t stay true to the book? Wouldn’t it be boring if all books had neutral tones and only featured a title?
     There is no easy answer to any of these questions. Johnson recommends that the cover should relate to the book’s content, rather than to what sells well in the genre. To determine the impact of Coverflip and examine how the current literary marketplace handles the genderizing covers, it would be interesting to explore the evolution of Johnson’s covers as well as those of two other prolific New York Times bestselling YA authors.
     Johnson’s most recent YA series is evidence of a dramatic shift in cover design that began in 2011 and continues in her most recent piece, published in 2015. In 2011, she launched her Shades of London murder mystery series which was quite a shift in topic from her Little Blue Envelope books, which involved romance, travel, mystery, and thievery.
     The cover of the first book in the London series features stark, ghostly lettering and a gender-neutral dark turquoise color, as well as a blurry image of a foggy park. Meanwhile, the first cover of Envelopes features a young, fashionably dressed teen, curly pink script, and a light blue envelope backdrop. The genderized nature of the Envelopes series may seem obvious from the cover and it could be argued that this is simply a matter of content. Still, London is, in essence, also about a girl traveling and uncovering a mystery. Technically, the marketing team could have slapped a female protagonist on the front, despite the story’s focus on a Jack the Ripper copycat. Their decision not to create a stereotypically feminine cover shows increased awareness of a broad audience, which begs the question: Why do marketers think boys are more interested in murder than romance? Boys travel. Boys fall in love.
     In fact they do both in John Green’s New York Times YA bestsellers Paper Towns and Looking For Alaska. It is worth noting that both novels feature gender-neutral covers: one depicts an extinguished candle and the other a road map. Both of these covers represent metaphors integral to the story plots, but both are a little less cute than the famed The Fault in Our Stars' clouds and attractive blue hue.
     New York Times bestseller Ransom Riggs' series Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children has become known for its eerie but captivating, freakshow-esque cover designs, which can, perhaps, be considered too strange to be gendered, and which continues to attract curious readers, both male and female. It is worth noting that nine of the fifteen YA bestsellers in early October 2015 were penned by men (a third of them by the prolific Green), as opposed to five of the nineteen in literary fiction written by men. The literary bestsellers often looked alike, with mostly blue covers and bold author bylines. Lee Child’s Make Me, Jan Karon’s Come Rain or Come Shine, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, and Josh Grisham’s Gray Mountain all follow this trend. However, there are a handful of outliers, like Andy Weir’s The Martian and David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web. The higher number of female authors on the list is likely representative of book buyers, nearly 75% of whom are female, according to a study by bookseller Joseph-Beth. Perhaps this recognizes that adults feel less pressure to submit to the gendered norms assigned to them by their peers, and more willing to read whatever they’re interested in.
     Perhaps, one day, young adult audiences will be able to do the same.
  • About the Author
    Samantha Silber will graduate from Miami University in May 2015 with a B.A. in professional and creative writing. She has interned with the Department of Education, Miami’s College of Arts and Science, and the Thurber House. Sam likes editing, singing with the car radio, chatting up fictional characters, and traveling as much as she can.

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