Bookcovers, marketing and the extra work female writers need to do

In a discussion of a novelist who has used his storytelling techniques to craft a novel, screenwriting guru John Truby describes the following:

[T]he ending was when Lehr chose to give her hero moral, as well as psychological, flaws. Not only does this make for a better story, it also prevents critics from labeling and dismissing the book as “chick lit.” This isn’t just about a woman’s emotional attachment to her child, which however valid is still totally within a woman’s world. The story is also about the central moral issue of being a parent.

What A Mother Knows

I’m not going to disagree with anything he’s saying here, but I find the reality of this publishing world depressing. What he seems to be saying here is that women can’t find widespread success if we are to write about purely female concerns. Being female isn’t quite enough, however ‘valid’ the subject matter. We are to appeal more broadly or risk labelling.

I would like to point out that appealing broadly does not in fact prevent female writers from being marketed as chick-lit, even when said author changes her name from Margaret to Lionel. The deeply satirical and perverse and interesting questions found in the work of Lionel Shriven often come packaged in chick-lit pastels.



When I picked up this novel, I had no idea of its author. I thought Lionel Shriver was a man.  I remember thinking, ‘Hmm. Cupcake, wedding ring, pastel colour scheme. This is an unusual cover for a book written by a man’. Proof positive: I have been conditioned to expect feminine covers on novels written by female authors.

This isn’t right.

Then I happened to see Lionel Shriver on TV. She spoke to The First Tuesday Book Club. I was impressed with her feistiness, expected a feisty book and brought The Post-Birthday World to the top of my reading pile.

Part way through reading, I was surprised at the content, not because of the author – who, in person, is a great advertisement for her writing – but because of the cover. The Post-Birthday World is a brutally honest and unflinching journey into a woman’s dissatisfaction, neediness and sexuality. I remember flipping back to the cover thinking, ‘This cover is just not right for the book.’ I did like the cover. It’s why I bought the book. Ihappened to love the novel, but not because I got what I thought I was getting. That was dumb luck. I read the book because of that TV panel discussion in which I got the sense of an unflinching author who doesn’t take crap.

When I’d finished Shriver’s novel I read some reviews on LibraryThing. Turns out I wasn’t the only reader who picked up The Post-Birthday World expecting something else. Many women hated it. They expected to identify with the protagonist. Instead, they hated her, and hated the book. I don’t remember seeing any reviews written by a man.

But Lionel Shriver does not write women’s fiction. She does not write chick-lit. Shriver writes political commentaries with misanthropic, confronting and divisive themes. I see no reason why many men would not get something out of Shriver’s work but I can see no reason why your average bloke would even consider picking up one of her girly-looking books.

But even her women readers were misled. The cover suggests women’s fiction. But in women’s fiction – more so in chick-lit – the protagonist must be likeable – at least likeable enough to engender reader identification. That seems to be a rule of the genre. The readers who left scathing reviews on LibraryThing wanted something else and it’s not fair that they got something different altogether. They wasted their time and money. Meanwhile, Lionel Shriver probably hoped a different sort of reader would pick up her book. But did they?

Lionel Shriver was a midlist seller for many years before hitting the big time with We Need To Talk About Kevin. I have heard her ask audiences to give her earlier books a little love, since they tend to languish unread.

Do male writers need to worry about their work being dismissed as ‘dick-lit’, even though women in their fifties are keeping the fiction publishing afloat?

Does this attitude trickle down into kidlit world?

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