We all know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but if book buying data and design trends have taught us anything it’s that judging a book by its cover is what we do best. So what can we make of Elena Ferrante’s quartet covers? With just a single up-down you’re reminded of the kitschy romance cover you saw a fellow commuter reading on the subway yesterday. That and just about every ‘chick-lit’ book you’ve seen in your life. If you’ve read any one of the books in her four-part series, you also know that the covers do a ‘disservice’ to her impeccable writing. Why pair wonderful literature with such tacky covers? The reasons are more than cover deep.
Image courtesy of Jezebel.
Ferrante’s Neapolitan series amasses an entire culture of womanhood, adorned with childhood, parenting, abuse, and the full swing of female experience into two characters. Between the four books, our dual protagonists cover 50 years together and some 1,500 pages. The women are strong and ambitious, and their enduring friendship a testimony to both traits. Even so, buyers have had more than a few complaints about the cover according to the Atlantic, and many seem to miss the point: the cover image was designed intentionally, chosen by Ferrante herself. It’s a subversive nod to sexism in publishing and a very clever move on the part of the author.
Women’s lit (flash back to your subway partner’s book) has always had a bad rap and rarely found itself in the hum of literary praise. On the contrary, it’s often demoted to ‘bad’, ‘cheap’ literature, the kind you could probably sniff out at your local drug store. Good or bad, it’s the relationship between female authors and their work that is troubling to Ferrante. The relationship is one rooted centuries deep and unfortunately, still intact. For talented female authors today, it’s one that’s incredibly difficult to side-step. Beyond romance, it’s an association that bleeds into other genres and stitches itself to female authors more generally. Ferrante understands this, and rather than blatantly saying so, she toys with the misguided preconception, bringing us four heinous covers with awesome ulterior motives. It’s “dressing a refined story with a touch of vulgarity,” Ferrante’s art director, Sandra Ozzola, told Slate last year.
The real women of Ferrante’s quartet (Image courtesy of Getty)
Looking at the response of so many buyers is evidence enough for the strength of the stereotype. The feeling of horror you feel when looking at the covers is a testimony to the sexist notion, not to mention the way we privilege look and feel over quality of content. It’s a coy and playful hint at the nature of Ferrante’s work and a showcase for the sexism that still plagues the publishing world.
The association between male authors and ‘good’ literature, and ‘chick-lit’ and ‘bad’ literature is a destructive stigma that needs to be cracked — and cracked again when we realize it’s 2016 and sexism still lurks in a reader’s mind. Although there’s plenty of other covers we’d rather look at, the subtext of Ferrante’s cover images are better than any glossy minimalist paperback.
Featured image courtesy of Daily Mail