NOT Chick-Lit

I find myself feeling really irked lately by all the little fibs and misdirects that publishers believe it’s okay to blindside readers with, as if we were a herd of cattle needing to be prodded in a certain direction. I’ve been reading a very good book, All The Hopeful Lovers by William Nicholson, and I happened upon the blurb about the author that reads: ‘All The Hopeful Lovers is the brilliant follow-up to his first novel, The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life.’ This simply cannot be true as I am in possession of one of Nicholson’s earlier novels, The Trial of True Love, and there’s a bunch of others readily available on amazon. Why the pretence? What possible good can it do to act as though Nicholson hasn’t already published three or four novels, even if they were a) with a different publisher or b) not as successful. Wouldn’t you want to sell the backlist? It annoys me because it makes me feel like the publishers think I’m a sucker, easily fooled.

Then there’s the cover. Now over the years there have been a lot of cover-related complaints on the blogs, not least about novels that feature non-white skinned protagonists that nevertheless plaster white people over the jacket. That’s seriously wrong. My irritation with this cover is the old minor crime: it is not a chick-lit book, but it’s being portrayed as such. Here is the cover:

I would never have picked this up if I hadn’t recognised Nicholson’s name and known him to be a writer I liked. The book has a cast of thousands, but not one single protagonist could correspond to the woman depicted on the front. In fact what it makes me think of is the similar sort of cover for Pulitzer winner Olive Kitteridge, which featured the bare back of a young woman in evening dress. If there is a prize for the most misleading cover of all time, this one should surely be shortlisted. Olive Kitteridge was about an ill-tempered and rather dislikeable woman of late middle-age suffering the deprivations of later life as her children left home and her husband fell ill. It was a dark, dark collection of interlinked stories, exquisitely written but oh so bitter.

Chick-lit was an isolated phenomenon. It referred to novels written by young(ish) women about other young women, that dealt in a fun and frothy manner with the tribulations of juggling early stage careers and the search for a meaningful relationship. It was good old Bridget Jones and her consort: Sophie Kinsella’s shopaholics, Isabel Wolff (certainly no relative of Tobias) and her Tiffany Trotts, Katie fforde and her legions of women who liked to clean things for a living. It sold well once upon a time because it was new and fresh and dealt with a unique set of circumstances for women that had emerged after a period of intense social change, and about which they felt for the most part uncertain, hence the retrogressive pink and perky covers and the cheery oh-my-gosh sort of tone. I saw the article in the Guardian recently that had a lot of publicity online about the decline in chick-lit. This is not surprising. Now it’s an old-fashioned subset of a genre; the social climate has altered again, we are all sick to death of pink covers with silver embossed hearts and horseshoes. Now it’s not only an anachronism, it’s an insult to stick these covers on books that are interested in chronicling the latest stage of gender warfare within the contemporary culture in a completely different style.

Why are readers considered so incapable of distinguishing between different representations of domesticity? Despite everything that has happened culturally and socially, the domestic realm in bookselling is still held apart as an idealised zone, of interest only to women, plastered with hearts and flowers and pictures of pretty ladies. And so what is happening? Concurrent with the drop in interest in chick-lit is the publishing industry’s rising belief that ‘women’s fiction’ no longer sells. Gah! This is so not good enough. There must be a massive bedrock of prejudice lurking behind the frothy covers, even more unsettling when you realise how many women work in publishing.

Okay, enough ranting now. A brief word about William Nicholson’s book which is indeed a follow-up, even a sequel to The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life which I read last year and loved. Several of the characters from the latter turn up in it, only eight years have passed so for the most part they are the children who have now reached an age to be leaving home for university and starting out on their first relationships. Once again Nicholson progresses through the lives of a large number of characters over a restricted period of time, one week in December. In the last novel we were taken behind the façade of each character’s life to show the intense inner world that existed there. This time there is a pattern of lovers who are painfully dislocated because they inhabit very different emotional spaces. So one of the lead stories features Belinda, in late middle-age, contemplating in a jokey sort of way how nice it would be to have an affair, until she discovers this is just what her husband has been doing. After the ensuing crisis, Tom ends his liaison and wants life to return to normal; he doesn’t see what more he can do. But of course Belinda is still furious and in no position to pick up where they left off. Nicholson is an excellent writer and his novels work because he writes unsentimentally but with searing truthfulness about the way people behave in relationships.

There’s only one criticism I have to make of this novel: there’s about four characters too many. I’m really good at remembering all the names of protagonists in a novel and what their storyline is, and yet I find myself pausing at each new chapter, thinking, hmm, now this person would be…? So if you’re easily confused, this may not be the book for you. But if you like proper novels, with stories about how people live, written with insight and accessibility – and you can bear the cover – he is well worth a try.

16 thoughts on “NOT Chick-Lit

  1. I share your wrath at misjudged publicity – no, not misjudged, in fact, but publishers who deliberately mislead. One of the worst covers I’ve seen was for Rosy Thornton’s Hearts and Minds, an interesting novel about college life from the perspective of a female academic – the cover was all pastels and chick-litty, and the novel very much wasn’t. Thankfully her other novel(s?) – which I’ve yet to read – are marketed in a much more suitable manner.

    If I’d seen All The Hopeful Lovers in a shop… well, I wouldn’t even have seen it, as I’ve trained my eyes to scan right past covers like that.

  2. Publishers and their marketing departments will never cease to amaze me. The cover on this book might have nothing to do with its insides but on the bright side, at least it isn’t pink with silver hearts or high heeled shoes.

  3. Totally agree. I felt much the same about the U.S. cover of Dancing Backwards, which I never would have given a second glance had I not read your review. I saw several reviews on Goodreads complaining at how the book wasn’t what the readers expected (and fair enough given the cover), yet the readers who might have liked it never found it.

    But the whole way that “women’s fiction” is marketed gets on my nerves in general. Of course, men–and a lot of women–aren’t going to read “women’s fiction” when it’s all packaged to look sentimental or light and inconsequential. (Yet it’s assumed that women are happy to read what I’ve recently seen called the “white male f*ck-up novel” ala Jonathan Franzen, but that’s a separate rant.) Personally, I’d prefer not to see women’s fiction as a separate category by and about women–and men–sitting together in the bookstores and with appropriate packaging.

  4. I agree with you on the chick lit thing, but I think I CAN shed light on the whole “follow up to his first novel” thing. When an author switches publishers, his books that were previously published stay with the previous publisher, they don’t move to the new publisher. (So, for example, Dan Brown switched publishers before The Da Vinci Code, I think, so when he got really big, then his previous publisher started marketing Angels & Demons and his other books that they still had the rights to.) Therefore, it actually does NOT do the new publisher any good to acknowledge the author’s previous books, as they don’t get any benefit from them.

  5. Aren’t covers a whole interesting and meaningful subset of the art of the book themselves? I mean – one of my favorite books (Tracks but Louise Erdrich) I am nervous to be seen with in public! It doesn’t look like chick lit per sea, but it does look like a book that a woman would read (in other words, that the book can’t be meaningful for men as well). However Erdrich is a heavy-hitting fiction writer of caliber! And men like her!!!

    I wonder with the rise of the e-reader if we shall see a book’s cover de-emphasized? I am guessing that there will always be some sort of artwork, but what people see now is readers carrying around e-readers, not actual books (with artwork on the covers). Maybe this can lead to better artwork as it isn’t intended to be that seen-in-3-seconds billboard for the book… and maybe then, covers like the one above will be moot and we can be given something more on par with the themes and meanings of the novel…

  6. I still need to read his “first” novel… I would love to rant along with you… Misinformation and misleading…. And oh that cover… No way…. I don’t even understand why editors choose this type of cover. Potential readers might be driven away, others disappointed because they thought it would be something else…

  7. This is very anglo-saxon, I think. Covers are less cheesy over here. I like to include different covers of the same book (French and English mostly) in my reviews. It’s always interesting to see the difference in marketing strategies.
    What annoys me a lot in blurbs is when they tell too much about the plot, like American trailers for action movie. You don’t even have to see the film.

  8. I love your rant Litlove! Pink embossed covers or sexy portraits are imho a sign of major laziness from publishers. But if the publishers don’t want to make any effort to find the proper style or understand their readership, then I don’t see why I would spend my money on them. Duh. And perhaps we should collectively create a prize for misleading covers so as to shame lazy publishers.
    And I have a contender for this prize: Dante Gabriel Rossetti paintings for Jane Austen novels.

  9. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a comment or response from a few publishers here? I know I often see readers/bloggers who mention cover illustrations (my own personal complaint is to please quit it with all the headless–or partially headless-women! The first few times might have been eye catching but now I find it totally annoying), but I never hear any of it discussed from a publishing/marketing end. Maybe these books are selling even with the awful covers? How can they be so completely out of tune with their audience? And it is tiresome, to say nothing of being somewhat denigrating to women readers to assume we’ll all pick up books with pretty pink covers. Smaller presses seem to do a better job of illustrating their books well–catchy yet not really gender-specific (if that is indeed what they’re going for?). And by the way–I loved William Nicholson’s previous book and must remember to get this one–was hoping it would be published in the US like his last, but so far no listing. This cover doesn’t do much for me at all–certainly no hints as to what’s really in the book.

  10. It’s unfortunate–if only publishers would think more about books and stories again, and less about marketing gimicks, everyone would be better off. But they’re in a panic, like everyone else, and absorbing all the same propaganda.

  11. Ick. I read Rosy Thornton’s post about her own covers. While I think her covers are cute, it’s hard to say that they properly represent the full scope of what her books are about. The cover for The Tapestry of Love is, I suppose kind of close, but it’s also probably the most unoriginal one. And we see this mispackaging over and over. It’s a shame, because there’s a whole heap of books I’d never pick up because of this kind of marketing.

    I’ve no problem with cover shots of women, if there’s a main female character in the book, no matter whether it’s chick-lit or not. It seems perfectly appropriate to include a woman, as long as she’s a main focus in the book. However, the lack of diversity of the women who are shot (mostly of women under 30, mostly fitting with some established ideas about femininity), the way these women are shot and included on the covers (mostly missing part of their head (if not all), if it’s a head shot it’ll often focused on heavily made up lips or eyes, mostly sitting or standing in a pose of inaction) creates some problems. And the use of pink on the covers of books by, or about women isn’t a problem, but when it’s almost the only colour we see on those books (and it’s always used in such a traditional, way to imply sweetness and light) it becomes an issue.

  12. Pingback: Paola Calvetti, book club and covers « Book Around The Corner

  13. Simon – I couldn’t agree more about Rosy’s novel, and I did laugh at your comment about being trained to overlook certain covers. Well, of course! And that’s not a gender thing, as there are certain covers that put me off, too. It’s funny, I was thinking that this novel might well be overlooked in its time and reemerge with Persephone, supposing they were still in business 50 years hence. It’s got more expletives in than your average Pbook, and is very frank about sexual matters, but other than that, it had a similar sort of feel.

    Stefanie – oh lord, the high-heeled shoes! Well, yes we are spared those. And the colours are nice and attractive. But… well, you know the buts already!

    Teresa – absolutely. It’s crazy to insist that women’s novels about domestic situations should be viewed and marketed so differently to male-written novels about domestic situations (of which there are many). John Updike’s novel, Marry Me springs to mind as a book that, if penned by a woman, would have had the misfortune of being sold with a bright, pretty cover and some sort of hook line ‘can partner swapping ever be good?’ My cover on Dancing Backwards was sort of dark and indeterminate, but I shudder to think what could have happened to it along the line. Women statistically read more, and much more widely than men. To what extent do covers contribute to that, I wonder?

    Aarti – ah I see. Well, that’s certainly an incentive for the publisher, but they could just refrain from lying, I would have hoped, and skirted the issue instead! Ah well, I guess we’re stuck with it if they think it improves their competitive chances.

    Sparks – that’s a very interesting thought about ebooks, and one that will certainly address a large chunk of popular fiction where a lot of these sorts of marketing errors are made (although the publishers don’t think of them as errors, I’m sure). I really do hope that we might see a drop in the number of fluffy covers that are out there. And Louise Erdrich as chick-lit? Heaven help us!

    Caroline – exactly! The point of the chick-lit cover is to assure a certain kind of genre novel, I’d have thought. Surely you would risk alienating two different groups by misrepresenting the story inside.

    Emma – oh how many times have we been watching trailers for films and at the end said, well, we’ve seen all the best bits now. No need to watch the whole thing. French publishers must have the most restrained marketing departments in the world – it’s almost rare to find a blurb on the back of a book, and so many covers are plain. I would so love to know what difference that makes (or doesn’t) to sales, to the gender of the reader, to expectations – you’d think there was a PhD in that, wouldn’t you?

    Smithereens – Dante Gabriel Rossetti for Jane Austen??? Oh that’s SO funny, in a head-smacking sort of way. Whoever thought THAT was a good idea? You’re quite right – it is lazy (although the Rossetti is so wrong you almost think someone must have tried really hard).

    Danielle – let me know if it doesn’t come out over there and I’ll send you my old copy. Gah, the headless women! That is so annoying. The book I read about publishing earlier in the year said that the whole industry revolves around a collective web of belief. Or in other words, it’s all Emperor’s new clothes stuff – no one knows what makes a book sell, and so publishers rely on the most popular kinds of speculation. My feeling is that this belief about covers has had its day but no one is brave enough yet to quite let it go.

    Lilian – I completely agree – publishers are in a panic. But surely that’s the time to stop and think in a cool, clear way and to do things differently, better, than before? Ah well, I’m sure that’s easier said than done.

    Jodie – you add some much needed detail and refinement there, thank you! You’re quite right, it’s not women or pinkness per se on the cover, but how that representation is framed and presented. I happen to know that Rosy has another book coming out with a different publisher and the whole cover discussion has been completely different this time. Good news, I think.

  14. Great rant…. I do get annoyed when publishers assume that they have to make a book fit a pre-ordained criteria, as if we aren’t clever enough to make a judgement and choose our own book. I quite like chick-lit, a sparkly cover with hearts, handbags and shoes is bound to appeal to me. But it’s not the only kind of fiction that I like to read and would rather that books weren’t mis-sold to me.

    I also completely agree with your point about representations of non-whites on book covers. I think the only books I’ve seen with black faces (or bodies) on the front are those by Dorothy Komsoon.

  15. Thanks so much for the offer! Being unable to say no to books I really want, I ordered one of those 5 cent copies (how on earth can they afford to sell books so cheap–I almost feel guilty) and now have a nice used copy to read. Not sure when I will get to it, but I hope to soon as I really enjoyed his previous book! Have to agree now that I have it in hand–the cover really is pretty awful. I wonder how the author felt about it!

  16. Pingback: Chick Lit – what’s wrong with that? « Joanne Phillips

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