The Persuasion of Book Covers, and vice versa

I just read an article in my Sunday paper. Note here that I get a Sunday paper, which I am using as a rather crude indicator that I count as an educated woman – that will be important shortly.

This article stated that We Need to Talk About Kevin author Lionel Shriver spoke at the Hay Festival about the use of ‘pastel colours and pretty pictures’ on the covers of ‘serious words by female authors’. According to the article, Shriver ‘said it was “bizarre” to think that educated women would be seduced by such branding’, with specific reference to the visual similarity to “chick-lit”.

I’ve got three points to make about that.

Back in Yorkshire (I’m currently elsewhere so can’t take a picture to illustrate this) I have a set of Jane Austen’s novels that meet this description. They are a variety of shades of pink, lilac and blue, and illustrated on the cover with silver and gold Regency ladies and flowers. They are unequivocally girly. They are definitely the kind of thing to which Shriver was referring.

Point 1: As I stated earlier, I think I’m an educated woman, by which I mean that I am familiar with Austen’s novels. We have a few old copies of some of them on the bookshelves around the house, and you can get them for free on Kindle. I buy books, these days, as artefacts, as attractive or interesting ways of framing the text of books I like, and rarely primarily as the text itself. I have these particular pretty editions because they’re pretty. They look good in my bedroom, like a poster than you can open up and read. I don’t feel “insulted on an aesthetic level”, Shriver, that a publisher offered me the choice to have the books I like in covers that suit my tastes.

Point 2: Suppose that an “uneducated woman”, by which I’m assuming Shriver means people who read chick-lit (a strange distinction to me, but clearly the insinuation) were to pick up my copy of Persuasion with no knowledge of Austen beyond a vaguely wistful notion of Colin Firth. I would not be the one to smack it from her hand and say, “No! This is not a Catherine Alliott! Return to your tales of clumsy receptionists and hot male advertising executives, plebeian!” Actually, I’d think, “Great. This person’s choosing to read one of my favourite books. I hope she likes it.” If any seduction is happening on an aesthetic level, I’d suggest that it is not the “educated women” who are being seduced. Any cover is an advertisement of some sort, and what is wrong with finding a way to target new audiences for great work? Simply because a woman hasn’t read Persuasion and is therefore, in this particular context, not “educated”, does not mean that she lacks the intelligence, wit and compassion to enjoy a book of such intelligence, wit and compassion. The likelihood is that she will. And if she does, and finishes it, she will come out the other end in some way “educated” and, having given me back my pretty lilac edition, she might download it for free on Kindle, or she might go out and choose a copy for herself, knowing that she can see a green leather Persuasion or a flowery pink paperback Persuasion and, knowing the text is the same inside, make an educated decision.

Point 3: People who enjoy chick-lit are not universally ill-educated, and not all chick-lit deserves the stereotype slurs to which I alluded in Point 2. I’m proud and happy to say that my pastel Austens sit beside a number of Marian Keyes books on my shelf. They look good together, because of, you know, the covers. But more than that. Keyes is a law graduate and therefore probably counts as an educated woman. She writes with intelligence, wit and compassion about challenging issues affecting women. Having faced great difficulty in her own life, she never ignores the darknesses of reality but allows her characters idealised happily-ever-afters. I think Keyes and Austen sit pretty comfortably side by side on my shelf. And, thanks to my choice of editions, they look like they do.

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4 thoughts on “The Persuasion of Book Covers, and vice versa

    • Thank you. It would probably be more appropriate to write to Ms Shriver as the paper was only reporting on her comments, but I might consider editing it down to the kind of length that acceptably has “Sir” at the start of it. Glad you enjoyed it. Do you have any thoughts on the matter?

  1. I can see both points of view but I incline more towards Lionel Shriver’s . I am attracted to books with darker covers, particularly ones with that scratchy old style italic script. I do favour novels that have a darker tale to tell.
    Mind you my Phillipa Gregory collection with their gold embossed covers tell another tale. ..

    • Ooh, I love a good hefty tome – give me those yellowing pages and dark creaky spines! But surely the fact that you can tell me right off the bat that you are drawn to books that look a certain way is very much an argument FOR books with a certain visual aesthetic, one that might attract an audience that otherwise might not choose to access those books?

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