Sexy Backs and Headless Women: A Book Cover Manifesto

1. Before I saw the cover of my second novel, I worried about it. My greatest fear was this: A woman, looking out to sea. Her back is to the reader. Her hair is thrown up in a vague style that if nothing else can be described as “timeless.” Her stance evokes a wistful, feminine longing—for a man, perhaps, or for a dinner she doesn’t have to cook. You know this cover. Hundreds of versions exist. There are covers that display only a woman’s head—from behind—and countless others that show a woman’s body, without the head. Sometimes, a complete woman is shown. My first novel got this treatment. Originally, it got no woman at all, just a beautiful, font-only cover. Then a “step-back” was added, one of those glossy pages that sticks out from behind the actual cover to catch the reader’s eye. The step-back showed a woman—from behind—standing in a field in a lilac-colored dress while looking off into some middle distance, and was presumably meant to assure readers that however muted (i.e. perhaps literary) the cover, the story did indeed include a woman who might, if called upon for marketing purposes, stand out on the prairie, not holding anything, not doing anything, just looking wistfully away. In the years between that first book and the second, these sorts of covers had begun to make my heart seize. Their ubiquity might almost be laughable, if it didn’t reflect and result in serious inequities. Walk into a bookstore and see which authors receive what Eugenia Williamson, in a wonderful essay on “the implied correlation between feminine imagery and literary inferiority,” aptly terms the “Sexy Back” or “Headless Woman.” I’ll save you the work: they’re rarely men. Even when male authors write novels that include women and sex—and let’s face it, how many novels don’t?—their covers are more likely to feature large font, maybe an abstract image, perhaps a landscape. In a survey of covers by South Asian writers, Mary Anne Mohanraj notes that the books by male authors displayed “ancient paintings, people in motion, buildings or cities, large landscape features, such as bridges or mountains, abstract images, the author’s name or title, and the color blue.” Mohanraj’s own collection of stories, Bodies in Motion, was first given a cover showing the open pages of a book, but this was nixed by her marketing teams and replaced by a woman—headless, of course—in a red sari. While her critique addresses the gendering of South Asian literature in particular, the trend is global. Cristina Henríquez's second novel, The Book of Unknown Americans, went through a similar twist: an initial cover by acclaimed designer Chip Kidd that featured a semi-abstract, red-and-blue couple in embrace was rejected in favor of a girl’s head against an aqua backdrop, viewed—yep—from behind. The messaging is clear. These covers are code for “women’s fiction”—i.e. breezy, easy, accessible. For many women authors who don’t happen to write breezy fiction, we feel caught in a double bind, with a cover that demeans the book in the eyes of the literary establishment while also promising readers a kind of book we didn’t necessarily write. When the book doesn’t sell in a huge way—and most don’t—we’re left feeling like we lost on both fronts. 2. The night I finally got an email with the subject line “Cover!” I was out for a drink with a friend. I glanced at the downloading image for only a second before passing my phone like a hot potato to my friend. I felt ready to fight this time, for my second novel—no woman on my cover! I winced, waiting, until my friend said, “Oh!” and showed me. I loved it right away: the bold colors, the big letters, the feeling I had looking at it that I was on the verge of something. And then I saw what I was looking at: a painting of a woman, standing on a rock by the sea. She was not facing away. She was not doing nothing. (She was reading a book.) She was neither headless nor bodiless. But she was a woman. And she was on my cover. I was miffed, because it was what I’d known would happen, and because I loved it. 3. A couple days later, I was looking at the cover again when I noticed something strange on the rocks next to the woman. What were they? I nosed closer. A pair of boots. Someone was lying on the rock—another woman, judging by the boots. So there was not just one woman on the cover of my book but two! And yet, despite myself, I loved it even more, because the boots made the second woman a mystery. They opened up the cover for me. They seemed to be the feet of all the characters I had created, all of them at once, lying on a rock together, listening to this other woman reading their stories to them. 4. A while after that, my editor sent me another email: “Thought you’d like to see this.” She linked to the larger painting from which the cover had been drawn. The boots turned out to be attached to a woman in a black dress, who is looking out—though not at the viewer—with what I can only describe as a delightfully illegible expression. She might be half-asleep. She might be judging the woman reading to her. She might have to pee. She might—my favorite interpretation—be aware of the viewer and proudly ignoring us. “Will it wrap around the book?” I asked. Because I wanted this woman, too. 5. Once I saw the whole painting, called "Summertime Cornwall", I wanted to know about the painter. I looked her up and learned that Laura Knight, a British artist born in 1877, managed to be both wildly popular and a pioneer: in 1936, she was the first woman elected to the Royal Academy; decades later, she was the first woman to whom the Academy gave a large retrospective. Most striking to me was the controversy Knight stirred in 1913 when she made a painting called "Self Portrait with Nude". At the time, women artists were restricted to using casts of the human body, not live models. So when Knight’s painting was shown, depicting herself in her studio painting a sensually positioned model—her back to Knight (and us), her arms lifted to cradle her head, her hip tilted, the pale curve of one breast visible—the art world was shaken. The Royal Academy rejected the painting. The Daily Telegraph called it “vulgar.” Others embraced her challenge to the establishment. She became a sensation. The more I look at Self Portrait with Nude, the less I focus on the model. I notice Knight herself. She is dressed in plain work clothes, another affront to custom, for women painters typically painted themselves as conventional subjects, dressed in finery. I am reminded of Marilynne Robinson talking about how she likes to write on her couch in clothes that “disappear,” how her body drops away and leaves her mind freer. Looking in this light at Knight, in her frumpy jacket and loose skirt, I see that she is asserting her right—at least for a period of time, in her own studio—to not be looked at, but to look. 6. My publisher kept the cover for the paperback version. Laura Knight’s two women are still there, one reading her book, the other looking out with her unknowable gaze. I still love them, though I can’t explain exactly why. And I keep seeing other wonderful book covers with women on them. On the cover of Claire Dederer’s new memoir, Love and Trouble, a young Dederer stares out at us as if to say, What are you staring at? A similarly assertive woman, holding a baby, faces us on Janet Benton’s debut novel, Lilli de Jong. There is even a woman—albeit a very tiny, blurry one, largely overwhelmed by large blue font—on Jonathan Franzen’s last novel, Purity. Maybe the point isn’t banishing the women from the covers. And maybe it’s not even that the women should be more active and less sexualized—though there are still plenty of covers that shamelessly traffic in women’s backs and belittle authors and their work. The bigger problem may be how the women on book covers are received, and not only by top review outlets that routinely cover men’s books in egregious disproportion to those by women—check out the Vida Count if you’re unfamiliar with this issue—but by women ourselves. We’ve internalized the establishment’s dismissal to the point where we can write a book about women, and maybe about children, too, and sex, and then feel pissed off when women and children and sex show up on our covers. What if we were to reclaim them, as Important Subjects? We know that they are. And we know that they are tied up inextricably in the subjects deemed important by the patriarchy: war and death and politics and business. We have written all this into our books, in fact, though perhaps with different emphasis, or in different form. My novel, for one, concerns itself with World War One, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Prohibition...and men! Straight men, gay men, men being dicks, men getting their hearts broken. Still, it’s fair to say that the most central characters are women. Why should I be ashamed of that? I’m a woman, too. If a man doesn't want to read my book because there’s a woman on it—and my publisher hasn’t given it what Williamson calls the “man trap” treatment (really, you should read her essay)—so be it. The painter Laura Knight was engaged in a project that sounds, like so many difficult projects do, very simple: asserting that women and our lives are of equal value to men and their lives. It sounds so simple that it’s easy for me to forget sometimes that the very fact of my working is an assertion. Last week I met a woman who had written a book arguing that women should make their children their top priority until the age of three, and blaming a plethora of childhood disorders on less-than-present mothers. Hearing this was enough to drive me home to my kitchen table, where I sit now, writing, and where I’ll stay, writing, until I have to make dinner for my kids. Or, maybe, I’ll stay at this table until the instant I have to pick them up, and not cook at all. Mac and cheese has yet to kill anyone. But work—good work—has the power to keep us fully alive. That’s why I’m wearing worn out clothes, like Laura Knight in her self-portrait. There is always time to be seen. For now, I sit, in my version of a studio. This is what I see. Previously: "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Designing a Book Jacket..."

Are You My Mother? On Maternal Abandonment in Literature

When I write fiction, at least a first draft of something, I try not to think too much. Or maybe it’s that I try to keep my thoughts small: words, images, rhythms, a character’s particular way of holding a key. I try not to think about the symbolic meaning of said key -- if keys keep showing up, I try not to think about why. In revision, sure. The keys will have to go. But for the first draft I willfully maintain a half-state of ignorance. This is how I was able to write basically the same short story twice. (I like to think the second “version,” published years later, is better.) It’s how I build parallels and thematic arcs into my work before I recognize them as such and risk overdoing them. It’s how I got many drafts into my first novel, The Little Bride, before I realized -- when my editor brought it up, as a simple matter of fact -- that the two central mother figures in the book leave their husbands and children. They don’t say goodbye, or leave notes, or send word of where they’ve gone. They just disappear, and don’t come back. Initially, I was drawn to Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, by its premise: the book tells the story of the Lees, a multiracial family in 1970s Ohio reeling from the mysterious death of their middle child, Lydia. I found myself reading late into the night, fascinated by Ng’s imperfect characters working their way -- imperfectly -- through grief, moved by her restrained yet startlingly emotive prose, in awe of her masterful use of an omniscient narrator who switches points-of-view mid-scene as soundlessly as Marilyn Lee opens the door to her daughter’s empty bedroom. Then, mid-book, I found myself holding my breath as the narrative flashed back to one summer, years ago, when Marilyn cooked her family’s favorite meals, dug out her textbooks from her long-abandoned college career, and without a word moved an hour away to Toledo, where she rented an efficiency apartment and attempted to start again as a student. Eventually, Marilyn returned. The family moved on, not speaking of her disappearance -- when we meet them at the beginning of the book, we hear nothing of it. Marilyn’s great defection has been silenced. But of course it hangs over them, as it hung over me. Ng’s portrait of ambivalence is heart-breaking: “often, when she opened her books, Marilyn’s mind whirled. Equations jumbled and rejumbled, hidden messages jumping out at her. NaOH became Nath, his small face wide-eyed and reproachful...” Marilyn begins calling the house to listen silently to her family’s voices, to get just enough of them to shore herself up -- not to face a lover or a boss, but herself. Literature is full of disappearing mothers. Many of them die -- think of all the orphans. A significant number commit suicide, including Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier, and Helen in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Others are forced away by war (Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Amy Bloom’s Away), or oppressive governments (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). Other mothers only imagine killing themselves, or leave for a couple hours (Laura Brown in The Hours does both) only to pretend neither happened. Less common are the women who are neither psychically wrecked nor physically threatened but simply and unbearably torn between motherhood and selfhood, tormented by their feeling that the two can’t coexist. These are characters like Marilyn Lee, or the narrator in Alice Munro’s story “Nettles,” whose separation from her husband costs her her daughters, or Leda in Elana Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, whose explanation for her three-year abandonment of her young daughters speaks to the central, wrenching paradox all these authors explore: “I loved them too much and it seemed to me that love for them would keep me from becoming myself.” Why so much motherly abandonment? It makes for good conflict, of course. It can help define characters and set plots in motion. Most importantly, it’s an act that even in 2014 remains, in many ways, the ultimate taboo. Granted, plenty of literary fathers leave, too. But when Rabbit goes running, when Francis Phelan tragically drops -- and kills -- his newborn son and leaves town in William Kennedy’s Ironweed, a reader (at least this reader) feels sorrow, disappointment, grief, a certain amount of anger, but not shock. Their leaving, it seems, in these and countless other stories, is part of their condition. Whereas when a mother leaves, we assume she must defy her very nature. Celeste Ng –– who was kind enough to correspond with me, via email –– wonders if this assumption lies partly in our -- limited -- notions of what’s “natural.” She points out: “Plenty of animal mothers leave their offspring as a matter of routine. Harp seals abandon their pups early on. Cuckoos notoriously lay their eggs in other birds' nests and abandon them -- tricking other birds into raising a chick that isn't theirs. Even cute, cuddly, pandas often have twins and then abandon the one that seems weaker. And many animals, when stressed or starved, abandon their young -- or eat them.” Our tendency to forget this, Ng says, shows up in the first stories we’re told. “Look at the classic children’s book, Are You My Mother? The baby bird goes looking for his mother, and because he's never seen her, he thinks a cat, a dog, a cow, a hen, a plane, a car, and even a boat might be his mother. So from a very early age, we get the idea that without a mother, you have no real sense of self -- you have zero idea who you are or what you're supposed to do in your life. I'm being a bit facetious here -- and I'm not saying that we're wrong about how important mothers are, either -- just that mothers hold a very revered place in our culture and our psyche. Maybe that's why this plotline appears so often in literature. Losing the one person who's supposed to nurture and protect you in your most vulnerable years -- what a fundamental fear.” This fear belongs primarily -- and primally -- to children. Which may be why telling the story of a mother’s leaving not from a child’s point-of-view (Where’d You Go, Bernadette, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) but from the mother’s can feel risky. Writers are all too aware -- however hard we may try to ignore it -- of the reading public’s impatience with “unsympathetic” characters, and it can be tempting to put sympathy before truth. Ng says that in an earlier, “melodramatic” draft of Everything I Never Told You, Marilyn’s frustrations with her life led to a breakdown and visit to a mental hospital, until Ng took the leap and rewrote her as “a stronger character, with particular desires, who made the choice to leave her family.” It’s striking, too, that Marilyn bolsters her resolve to leave by thinking of her mother’s old, spine-cracked Betty Crocker cookbook, while in The Hours, Laura Brown urges herself on -- and ultimately comforts herself -- with Mrs. Dalloway. Emma Bovary, of course, chain-reads romance novels. It’s as if the authors of these books, knowing the challenges they face in portraying mothers who call it quits, brought in iconic texts as units of cultural precedent, backsplashes for the mothers to fling themselves against, asking what they want, and facing what they are. A mother abandoning her children is an inversion of the orphan tale. It may even feel to some readers like a perversion. It’s a story that’s easy to read and say, without thinking, “I can’t imagine.” And yet, most of us can. What parent hasn’t at some point longed to flee, even for a day? Parents who are passionate about their work perhaps experience this more acutely. I know I’m guilty of frequent mental abandonment, whether I’m wrestling with a plot problem as my daughter performs “Let it Go” or jotting notes in magic marker for the novel I’m now revising though I’ve promised to draw a tree. I’ve come to accept this as part of the deal, part of my commitment to being both a mother and a writer: I go away in my mind so that I can stay. I should mention. That novel I’m revising? It begins with a teenage mother leaving her baby in a pear orchard. Don’t ask if I was thinking, when I first wrote this opening scene, about its resonance with my first novel, or all the other novels in which mothers disappear. I wasn’t. But I am now. And I’m thinking about how maybe my cultivated first-draft obliviousness is a little like the trips I take in my mind as a mother: a benign and necessary neglect. If you read the latest woo-woo about parenting, you know that “they” are now recommending we leave our kids alone more, not alone alone, but with enough space that they can figure things out, take risks, make mistakes. Maybe I’ve just known, all along, that my work needs space, too. In any case, I intend to keep up my willed inattention, and let all of us -- the kids, and the books, and me (me!) -- grow strong, and a little wild. Image Credit: Wikipedia

Joshua Henkin Doesn’t Want You to Make Fiction a Lie: The Millions Interview

When I first read a plot summary of Joshua Henkin's newest novel, The World Without You, my second thought -- after, this sounds like a great story -- was: this sounds like women's fiction! As a woman who writes fiction and bristles against such categories, brandishing the latest VIDA stats to anyone who will listen, I was a bit horrified by my own reaction. If I think like that, how can I expect others not to? I was curious to know what male authors -- or one male author, at least -- make of such labels. And since I’m lucky enough to know Henkin -- an acclaimed short story writer, director of the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College, and author of the novels Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book, and Swimming Across The Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book -- I decided to ask. Anna Solomon: The catalyst for The World Without You is a public one -- journalist Leo Frankel is killed in Iraq -- yet the story itself is remarkably private. It takes place in and around the Frankel family’s old summer house, on the one year anniversary of Leo’s death, and for all the outer conflict that drives the plot -- Leo’s parents are separating, his three sisters are struggling with their own relationships and marriages, his widow comes bearing her own secret -- I think the book’s greatest strength lies in the quiet, patient unspooling of these characters’ inner lives. These categories -- public v. private, outer v. inner -- how conscious of them were you as you conceived of and wrote this book? Joshua Henkin: When I write, I'm not conscious of much, as least for the first draft. You need to cede control and see where the book takes you. Flannery O'Connor once said that a fiction writer needs a certain measure of stupidity, and I agree. In terms of public versus private, the characters in The World Without You are deeply engaged with the outside world and with politics, so the public sphere certainly plays a role in the book, but it's an indirect role, through character, which is how it should be. I'm suspicious of fiction writers who are driven by big ideas. I see it in my graduate students' stories, and I see it, too, in published work -- fiction too obviously driven by grand ideas, where the characters feel like mouthpieces for the writer and the book ends up being a lie. Here, too, I agree with O'Connor, who said that if you want to truck in grand ideas then fiction writing is too humble for you. Go be a sociologist, or a politician, or a rabbi, or a priest. It's not that there aren't ideas in good novels, but ideas aren't principally what a good novel is about. For me, it's fairly straightforward, though of course very difficult to achieve. I aim to tell a story. I try to plumb the depths of my characters' inner lives because that's what good fiction can do in a way that nothing else can. I strive to make characters so real the reader will feel that she knows them as well as or better than she knows the people in her own life. That's what fiction writing is to me -- no more and no less. AS: I love these Flannery O’Connor quotes. I also experience writing fiction as a very humbling act; it puts what one notices, feels, imagines, above what one knows. So where do you think the “grand idea” impulse comes from? Are the writers you’re talking about truly meant to be sociologists and politicians? Or are they responding to some pressure -- an idea they have about what constitutes Literature, or what kind of Literature sells? JH: I think the issue may be more fundamental than that. A friend of mine wrote her undergraduate psychology thesis on how adults group objects versus how kids group objects. The adults group the apple with the banana, whereas the kids group the monkey with the banana. This is another way of saying that children are more natural storytellers than adults are. In fact, I’d go further and say that the process of becoming an adult, of functioning in the adult world, involves having our innate storytelling ability leached out of us. Adults think in terms of category, in terms of concept. In order to buy dessert for my family in the most efficient way possible I need to understand that apples and bananas are generally housed together. But what makes for a good dessert purchaser doesn’t make for a good fiction writer. Adults think in abstractions, and abstractions are the death of a fiction writer. Kids, on the other hand, don’t think in abstractions. Consider a toddler learning to talk. She speaks almost exclusively in concrete nouns and verbs. Although she doesn’t realize it, she’s following Isaac Babel’s dictum to eschew adjectives and adverbs and rely on nouns and verbs. I’m always telling my graduate students to think monkey-banana, not apple-banana -- so much so that the last night of class one semester they showed up to workshop wearing t-shirts they had made with a monkey and a banana emblazoned across the front. Are there people trying to be novelists who are really meant to be sociologists or politicians or theologians? Absolutely. The world is filled with extremely intelligent people who want to be novelists but whose intelligence doesn’t help them in that regard. In fact, it often hurts them. Lionel Trilling, arguably the greatest literary critic of the 20th century, famously wanted to be a novelist, but he just wasn’t good at it. This is not to say that there aren’t good critics who are also good novelists, nor is it to say that critical skills don’t help a writer (I think they’re very important for revision), but the two skill sets are quite different and there are many absolutely brilliant people who wouldn’t begin to know how to write a novel. I do think we’ve been living in a time when certain kinds of “big-idea” writing are in vogue. When I was starting to write fiction, in the late '80s and early '90s, traditional realist fiction reigned. Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff -- those were the writers who were hugely influential for my graduate school classmates and me. Ten years later the pendulum swung, and now it may be swinging back. That’s just how it is. Fashions come and fashions go, but what doesn’t change is good writing. I think there’s also something psychologically complicated at work here, which has to do with the anxiety of influence. Someone once said that there are only two kinds of stories, Stranger Comes to Town and Person Goes on a Trip -- which is really just one kind of story, since Stranger Comes to Town is simply Person Goes on a Trip from a different point of view. I don’t find this particularly perturbing. Yes, every story has been told, but it’s the way of telling -- the how -- that makes every writer unique, and if you have a distinct voice, if there’s emotional truth to your characters, if you use language in service of this voice and these characters, then your book will be distinct. I mean, look at the world around us. We don’t say, Why fall in love, why have a job, that’s been done already by billions of people. We don’t not get married just because everyone’s been doing that forever. But I think this feeling that every story has been told does concern a lot of writers, often to their detriment. They’re insufficiently confident that the story they’re telling is worth telling, and so they dress it up with a lot of grandiosity and big ideas; they deck it out in pyrotechnics. You read a lot of novels that smack of, I’m John, hear me roar, I’m Jane, hear me roar. Reading these writers, I find myself thinking, Would you please just chill? There’s an underconfidence at work that comes in the guise of overconfidence. Whatever it is, it does bad things to the fiction -- it makes it a lie. One of the paradoxes is that novels that try to be big often end up being small, whereas novels that, on the surface, seem more curtailed in their ambitions, end up being bigger. Take Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which to my mind is one of the great novels of the last 30 years. Now, you could say that the book is about the Vietnam War, and I suppose on some level it is, but you can be sure that O’Brien didn’t sit down to write a book about the Vietnam War. He sat down to write a book about his characters, and the war filtered in because that’s who his characters are -- they’re soldiers, grunts. And because his characters are so real, so complex, so true, because the language, while never showing off, is so lovely, O’Brien touches our souls and we have a much richer and deeper sense of the war than we would if he were making big pronouncements. Good fiction is fundamentally about the particular, not about the general. Put another way, it is through the particular that the novelist gets at the general. In other words, if you do the particular sufficiently well, the book will feel general in the best sense -- that is, universal. AS: Big/small, abstract/concrete, public/private -- these terms are often correlated with the masculine/feminine dichotomy, too. I’m curious what role gender played as you wrote The World Without You. Not on a “grand idea” level but in the particular choices you made about character and point-of-view. Of the six main characters in the book (I’m defining "main" as those whose points-of-view you regularly visit) five are female, while only one -- the father -- is male. Do you remember how you decided on this cast of characters? Were you at all wary, as a male writer, of writing a novel that not only could be described as “domestic,” but that’s dominated by women, too? JH: I’m afraid this answer may not be very satisfying, but I really don’t think about such things. My characters simply come to me as they are. Their gender, their dispositions, their hair color, their allergies, do they sleep on their backs or their stomachs or their sides -- it’s all extremely important, but none of it is a conscious decision. I follow my characters to where they take me. I’m not saying gender isn’t important. I come from a family of three boys, and now I’m a father of two girls, so I think about gender a lot. But it’s not like I sat down to write about a family of women any more than I sat down to write about a family of redheads, which is something else the Frankels are. Wary? Wary of what? Of being a man writing from a female point of view? Flaubert did it pretty well if you ask me. And women write successfully from a male point of view all the time. If you don’t want to descend into solipsism, you’re always going to write about people different from yourself. Shy people write about gregarious people, young people write about old people. Why should gender be any different? Wary of writing domestic drama? What’s Madame Bovary if not domestic drama? What’s Anna Karenina, ultimately? I’ll probably get some disagreement here, but I think “The Dead” is Joyce’s greatest work. Whether or not it is, it’s important to remember that the same person who wrote Ulysses also wrote Dubliners. Much of the world’s greatest literature (most of it, I would argue) is domestic drama. It makes sense. We are born into families, and the majority of us eventually start families of our own. We live public lives, certainly, but for most of us our private lives are what make us who we are, and it’s the plumbing of these private lives, the exploration of what’s internal, that fiction is uniquely suited to do. It’s what makes it sui generis. AS: I ask if you’re wary because I think a lot of women writers today are wary of writing books that can easily be summed up -- perhaps dismissed -- as domestic drama. If not wary, then aware. Maybe not as they write but certainly as they work toward publication and watch how their book is presented to the world and received. In a recent New York Times essay, Meg Wolitzer asks if Jeffrey Eugenides' latest, The Marriage Plot, if written by a woman, “would...have been relegated to ‘Women’s Fiction,’ that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated?” So maybe I should be asking you this: after all the writing and revising, did you consider how your book might be categorized, packaged, marketed? Did the term "Women’s Fiction" ever cross your mind? JH: That’s a reasonable question, and in my case it’s not an academic one. My last novel was called Matrimony, and title aside, it had some significant similarities to Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. It’s about a love triangle, much of it takes place on college campuses, and it’s a domestic drama. One key difference was that I was relatively unknown at the time of its publication (I’d published just one novel at the time, 10 years before), so I didn’t have Eugenides’s reputation to protect me. But the book was treated seriously by the literary world. Would that have been the case if I’d been a woman? I hope so, but you never know. Might it have been consigned to “women’s fiction”? I suppose it’s possible. On the other hand, I was published by Pantheon, a very literary house, and that would have given me some protection, just as FSG’s name protects Eugenides. Would The Marriage Plot have been consigned to “women’s fiction” if it had been written by a woman? It depends on the woman. If Lorrie Moore had written it, she would have been taken as seriously as Eugenides is. The same goes for Alice Munro, who writes nothing but domestic fiction and is considered by some of the people I respect most to be the best living writer in English. Look at the titles of Munro’s books. Lives of Girls and WomenThe Progress of LoveThe Love of a Good WomanHateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.  This is not exactly Infinite Jest. And if you look at the paperback covers for Munro’s The View from Castle Rock and Runaway, it appears as if they’re being marketed as “women’s fiction” (whatever else, “women’s fiction” sells more than literary fiction), and none of this has hurt Munro in the slightest. On the other hand, she’s Munro, and she’s developed a reputation over many years. What I’d say is this. There are a number of things that can protect a writer. If you’re already established in the literary world, that helps a lot. If you write short stories, that helps, too, because short stories tend to be the territory of literary fiction. If you teach in or are otherwise associated with a good MFA program, that’s also helpful. And if you have an edgier sensibility (here Lorrie Moore is a good example), that, too, is protective. Are there female writers of domestic fiction who would never get consigned to the “women’s fiction” shelf? Absolutely. Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer for a book of domestic fiction, as did Jhumpa Lahiri, Carol Shields, Jane Smiley,and Anne Tyler. Julia Glass and Alice McDermott won the National Book Award. And just to be clear, there’s plenty of domestic fiction written by women that just isn’t any good. There are women writing novels that have scant literary merit just as there are men writing novels that have scant literary merit. Neither gender has a monopoly on good or bad writing. But is the bar set higher for women? I believe it is. In fact, it would be strange if it weren’t.  There are biases, conscious and unconscious, against women doctors, lawyers, scientists, and CEOs; why wouldn’t it also be true for writers? We’ve come a long way since George Eliot had to call herself George Eliot, but you’d have to be blind to think we live in an equal world. AS: One complaint from women writers (and I’m talking about writers of literary fiction, not schlock) is that while women readers are interested in reading about men’s lives, men aren’t as interested in reading about women’s lives. Do you think men will be as drawn to your book as women are? Should they be? What about for you, as a reader? Do you ever find yourself (consciously or not) choosing which books you want to read based on whether their protagonists are male or female? JH: Every writer wants as many readers as possible, so of course I hope that men will read my novel as much as women do. But the fact is -- and this has nothing to do with my book -- women are much bigger readers of literary fiction than men are. Any publisher will tell you that. There’s even a reference to this in The World Without You. David, more of a fiction reader than most men (he recently retired as a high school English teacher), nonetheless is reading a biography of Ulysses S. Grant, and when Noelle comes into the room and catches him he says, self-derisively, “...women read fiction and men read biographies of Civil War heroes.”  As for which books I choose to read, I don’t think I have the tendency you’re referring to, though it’s hard for me, of course, to know what I do subconsciously. But I just looked over the novels and stories I’ve read recently, and I don’t see a bias toward fiction with male protagonists. I’d also say that, as someone who reads 500 MFA applications a year, I find the women are generally better than the men. That’s a huge generalization, of course, and there are certainly exceptions, but when someone on the committee once said said, “Jesus, we’re going to have to institute some affirmative action for these men,” I understood what they were saying.  AS: You mention covers -- let’s talk about covers. It doesn’t take long to see that a lot of fiction by women is adorned with a nameless girl or woman. She’s headless, or we see her from the back, staring off at a house or the ocean or (gasp) the endless prairie. The picture overwhelms the title, certainly the author’s name. You mentioned to me a while back that your publisher tried about 30 covers for The World Without You before settling on the final one -- black, with big serif font letters. Can you tell me a bit about some of those other covers, and what factors you think went into picking the final one? JH: Everyone tells you not to judge a book by its cover, but the fact is the cover is the first thing a potential reader sees, so it’s tremendously important, and now, because books are so often bought online, the cover has to work online too. I can’t say enough good things about the art department at Pantheon. They came up with many, many possibilities, most of which I didn’t even see (my editor only passed on the ones that seemed possible), and although some of them were clearly wrong for the book, they were all incredibly well done and looked very professional. Toward the end of the process we were focused on a very type-driven cover, with both my name and the name of the book in bold. There was a cover whose type both my editor and I loved, and there was something beautiful about the image too -- it was a watercolor painting on a matte background, but the image was of a bare tree, which felt too forlorn even for a book about someone who has died, and the book takes place over the summer and the image screamed fall or winter. My agent and I liked the idea of fireworks -- both because the book takes place over July 4th and because fireworks evoke, among other things, violence and explosions, which is how Leo was killed. So the artist went back and did a fireworks image with the type that we loved, and while this image, too, was beautiful, it didn’t seem sufficiently clear that it was fireworks. I mean, it could have been fireworks, but it just as easily could have been flowers or a Jack-in-the-box popping out or a really interesting acid trip. So the art department went back and tried to get the artist to make the image be more clearly fireworks, but it didn’t work out in the end, and so they scrapped the oil painting idea and went with a photograph of fireworks against a black background. It took a long time to get there, but it was the right cover for the book -- I’m thrilled with it. AS: The World Without You is your third novel. As you kick off your tour, how are the highs and lows of your previous launches figuring into your approach now? What has all this book-wrangling taught you, or is it like starting from scratch each time? JH: This is my third tour, and I’m keenly aware that with rare exceptions book tours are a thing of the past, so I’m grateful for the faith my publisher has placed in me. Anyone who thinks that a book tour is the literary equivalent of a rock tour doesn’t have a clue. That’s so 1989, and it wasn’t even true in 1989. It’s never been -- and certainly isn’t now -- roll out the expense account and invite your friends out for sushi and cocaine. It’s a job and I’m keenly aware of it as one. My goal is to spend my time and my publisher’s money wisely. In most ways it’s gotten harder—there are fewer local media outlets for fiction, less local radio, fewer book review pages.  On the other hand, since Matrimony did pretty well I’m positioned better than I was last time.  But you never know what will happen. You write your book, then you go out into the world and try to help it however you can, and then you go back home and start your next one. Image Credit: Flickr/Tilemahos Efthimiadis