Am I destined for the Chick Lit shelf?

I’m writing a novel. I’m about 60,000 words in – with about 20,000 more to go. When not writing my novel, I like to daydream about it being published one day, and about what the cover might look like when it appears in bookshops all over the country (maybe even the world!). I’m allowed these thoughts because it’s a dayDREAM.

But sometimes I think SHIT! What if my publisher (to be) decides that my finely-crafted piece of art will be best marketed as chick lit, with my intelligent protagonist reduced to a full-lipped, long-haired, long-legged (my protagonist has short legs) beauty on the front cover? My worries might be somewhat hypothetical and so misplaced but at this stage, it COULD become a real life dilemma – as it has been for Caitlin Davies and Joanna Briscoe, two Archway-based authors who gave a wonderful talk last Saturday as part of Archway with Words literary festival.

In the Q&A, the authors were asked (by my mum, perhaps she’s concerned about my future book cover too. Probably not) whether they had a say in the book covers for their novels. They said, basically: no. There is apparently some leniency – but the publishers (well, the marketing peeps) will want a cover designed to sell loads of copies of the novel and make plenty of dosh. Now an author has to decide whether she should go with them ($$ signs in her eyes) or stand her ground. Of course, writers need – and deserve – to make a good living from their writing. So it’s a toughy.

Joanna Briscoe said that she hadn’t liked the first cover for You but didn’t mind a later version. She went with the publisher, however, assuming that they must know best.

Here are two of her novels:

joanna 1

joanna 2

I read You after buying a ticket for the talk and thought it was great – a novel about obsessive love set in the present day and flashing back to the protagonist’s teenage years spent in the shires, attending an unconventional hippie school and falling for her teacher, Mr Dahl. There is definitely romance – but what novel doesn’t contain romance? There’s love in Dickens and Shakespeare and Don Delillo and Salmon Rushdie novels too. And yet they get cool, simple covers – not glossy images of scantily clad young women.

These ‘chick lit’ books are (apparently) written by women, for women. And are marketed accordingly. Except they’re not, are they? A writer writes a story worth telling, not a story that women might enjoy. But we’re so accustomed to reading the work of male writers, with male protagonists, that we assume a woman’s book with a female lead will surely only appeal to other women.

Even if that were true, the publishers play a part in dictating what this ‘genre’ of book looks like in general – and so have the power to change it. It can still be light, and un-daunting (if that’s the criteria) but why not make it look a bit classier? Joanna Briscoe’s writing IS classy – it deserves to be packaged to reflect that. Better still, why not scrap the ‘chick lit’ genre and just classify the books as novels?

Caitlin Davies had a different issue with her book cover. Her leading lady was black and the cover had a white woman on the front: “Because that’s what sells”. Davies lived in Africa and has based novels on her experiences – living in safari camps, listening to the stories of African people. So imagine how it must feel – for her – to then see a white, non African woman, on the cover of her book? Another book had a group of white girls on the front cover. Davies explained that one of the friendship group was black. She was told that one of the white girls could be coloured in. And that’s what happened.

A publisher’s argument, in both cases, might be that an image of a young, white girl will attract more customers than old, or black women would – but in adhering to this heinous stereotype, they’re simply promoting racism, ageism and sexism.

Davies said that if you look at women’s novels, they’ll most often have an image of a (young, white) woman but she’ll be headless and footless. Apparently women then relate to her. That’s exactly what Briscoe’s novel has. But Davies worked with her publishers on the cover for Family Likeness, and they settled on the face of a young black girl (as was appropriate for this novel):


My gripe is with women’s writing being labelled as chick lit. NO women’s writing should be labelled thus. Because writing by women isn’t necessarily for women, like writing by men can be read by both sexes. As is often referenced in discussions like this: David Nicholl’s love-story-novel One Day doesn’t have a tacky, glossy cover:


It has a quirky cover that can appeal to anyone: young, old, female, male, black, white.

So why don’t we start marketing women’s writing similarly? For everyone. If those women who buy into the ‘chick lit’ genre suddenly found themselves with no glossy-covered-books to read, what do you think they’d do? Stop reading? No. They’d just pick up a book with a classy cover, give it a read and realise that there’s just as much love and grit and beauty and accessibility in this book as there is in the glossy-covered books. And then we’d be one step closer to female/ male equality in the literary world (with both writers AND readers).

Now I’m off to ponder the gender neutral cover for my (nearly finished) novel. One solution, of course, is to self publish – then you get to make all those decisions yourself.

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