Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Women's Covers and Male Privilege

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Women's Covers and Male Privilege

The default look for works of literary fiction, especially those written by women, was once this: “A stock image of a woman with her back to the camera, gazing over a shoreline.”

(Or a tree. Or a field. Or a blurred-out countryside.)

That’s how designer Jennifer Heuer describes the covers she often gets asked to create, despite the fact that her strengths as a designer lie in creating striking, memorable images using type and illustration. In an essay for Literary Hub, Heuer writes about the fraught gender politics that surround cover design:

"I love what I do and I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of amazing art directors on a lot of great projects. I’m always grateful for the work I get. But I’ve talked to a lot of women in the industry over the years, and there is a clear pattern we’ve all experienced. One day a few months ago, I was commissioned to work on the backlist of a prolific women’s lit author. Minutes later, an art director called about a memoir in which the author was “always the bridesmaid.” Later that day: a novel about a wife dealing with her husband’s indifference while balancing her new career and motherhood. Three projects from three different art directors. All aimed directly at women readers.

I doubt that many of my male colleagues have had the same experience. And that day wasn’t an anomaly."

The same thing happens to female authors, by the way: I have writer friends who fought with their publishers to keep the dreaded soft-focus, faceless lady off their covers – not always successfully. I don’t know Rachel Cusk, but I have a feeling she wasn't happy to see her fierce and unsettling memoir about becoming a mother go out into the world looking like this, or this, or this. Those are the book cover equivalents of the age-old parody trailer for The Shining.

The fact that women represent the majority of book buyers in North America are women is a blessing and a curse. Books that appeal to women have a natural advantage in the marketplace, but the effort to make a book appeal to female readers often prompts publishers to trot out tired visual clichés, no matter what the subject matter or tone of the book itself. Male writers (and designers) rarely face the same pressure.

It’s a handy example of male privilege: even when guys lose, we win.


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Nathan Whitlock

Nathan Whitlock’s award-winning fiction and non-fiction has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, National Post, Toronto Life, Report on Business, Flare, Fashion, Geist, Maisonneuve, and Best Canadian Essays, and he has appeared on radio and television discussing books and culture. He is a contributing editor for Quill & Quire. He lives in Toronto with his wife and children.

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Go to Nathan Whitlock’s Author Page