Two award-winning writers. Each writes a historical novel, one set in the eighteenth century, the other in the nineteenth. Both novels feature a young female prostitute in London. Both novels are frank and unsentimental about prostitution.
One of the book covers features a sepia-tinted photo of a city at night. A man could pick this book off the shelf without too much embarrassment.
The other book cover features two breasts. You can’t really say it features a woman; she’s a headless torso. The woman doesn’t have a head of her own, let alone a mind or room of her own. She’s a pair of boobs, conveniently stripped of thoughts and opinions.
The book featuring a street scene (The Crimson Petal and the White) was written by a man (Michel Faber). The book featuring cleavage (Slammerkin) was written by a woman (Emma Donoghue).
The cover of Slammerkin, with its bosom and red corset, is misleading. This novel is not a titilating romp, not a mindless ‘bodice ripper’. It’s an angry book with a grim conclusion. The Crimson Petal has a saucier, more ironic tone.
Heterosexual men might leer at the cover of Slammerkin, but would they be seen reading it on the train? On a business flight? Would they actually buy it with this cover?
If your book cover is feminine, your potential readership is halved.
Emma Donoghue’s later novel, Room, was shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. Will she now be granted ‘serious’ or androgynous covers to get her out of the woman writer’s ghetto?
In my satirical post, How to win the Booker prize (or at least get shortlisted), I should have added one essential instruction for writers who want to be taken seriously: