The Problems with Coverflip

In case you missed it, YA author Maureen Johnson started a bit of a revolution (in, you know, the YA Twitter world) last month when she proposed a coverflip experiment. She asked readers to redesign the covers of famous books as if they had been written by an author of the opposite gender. The results were really interesting, and made a statement about the way that publishers package books based on author gender, rather than necessarily on the content of the book itself. But since then, things have gone a bit pearshaped.

One coverflipped book has stuck in my head. This version of the Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian:

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I would read this book. I would probably be more likely to read this book than I would be to read it with its original cover. This book has been on my "to read" list for a very long time, but I've yet to pick it up, partly because the cover doesn't appeal to me. The cover above, on the other hand, (along with its gender-flipped protagonist) says "YA, young female protagonist, in a similar category to Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, Courtney Summers, that sort of contemporary thing." Whether or not that's accurate, it goes a long way to say, "Hey. This is the sort of book you might enjoy." And on the other hand, some of the redesigned "male author covers" featured in Coverflip don't appeal to me.

But the dialogue on the coverflip experiment has twisted to suggest that that is a very bad thing. Originally, Maureen Johnson suggested the experiment to highlight the different ways that male and female authors are treated when it comes to covers. Male authors are more likely to have abstract, literary-looking covers, while female authors are more likely to have pictures of girls or flowers (just compare John Green's covers to the covers of people like Gayle Forman and Lauren Oliver). Sometimes, this misrepresents a book, either because of the cover itself or because of the associations it creates (anyone who thinks Courtney Summer writes light highschool dramas based on this cover will be in for a shock). Sometimes, it contributes to the fact that female authors are taken less seriously in literary circles. And often, in the realm of literary fiction, it is just another factor in the assumption that men write "literary fiction" and women write "chick lit," even if the only difference in subject matter is whether the protagonist is male or female.

But. But. I think the discussion has been distorted, especially when it comes to YA. People have started to argue that female writers in the YA genre are getting inferior covers. That the covers need to be more "gender neutral" (aka appealing to male readers) or else both the writers and the readers are being done a disservice.

Most YA covers are designed to appeal to young female readers. That is, after all, the genre's primary demographic. And love them or hate them, that plan often works. I love walking into the YA section of a bookshop. I love covers of girls in flowing, fairytale dresses, of girls looking pensively away from the camera, of the current floating-in-water trend. They're often gorgeous and appealing and I want them on my bookshelf. And there is nothing wrong with that. By saying that these covers are second best, the discussion of this issue is implying lots of concerning things. That girliness is "bad." That things that appeal to girls are second rate, and so must be made more masculine instead. That if male readers don't want to pick up YA books, we should change the books to appeal to this all-important demographic, rather than changing the attitudes that make them think "girly" is "stupid" in the first place.

Instead of attacking the successful conventions of YA covers, why not instead work to ensure that serious literary fiction writers of both genders get similar treatment (in covers, in blurbs, in reviews, in everything), while dispelling the myth that covers designed to appeal to female readers (or simply a cover that has a girl or woman on the cover) means that the book is trashy, shallow, and only for trashy, shallow-minded girls or women. That is where the problem lies: in our perceptions, not in the existence of "female-reader focussed" covers themselves.