When they were teaching us not to judge books by covers, they meant literally too. So it may well be that Maine, J. Courtney Sullivan‘s 2011 novel, is a worthwhile work (the New York Times liked it). And authors, especially second-timers of literary novels, generally don’t get to design or approve their books’ covers.
So Ms. Sullivan is off the hook for the cover of her book, which caused me to do a double-take as I passed the notable selections table at Barnes & Noble. I had to check to make sure the model was wearing a swimsuit bottom. I may have been able to restrain myself from judging the book by its cover, but its publisher surely judged me. Show a little skin, and people will stop, maybe even pick up the thing.
Publishing is a ferociously competitive business, and it’s important to get that bit of attention that may lead to the tipping point of purchase. A few years ago, I noticed (as a frequent bookstore browser) that more and more suggestion — no, suggestiveness — was being used to draw attention. The vague promise of beachy sex (such as on Maine‘s cover) or a strident bit of legginess on a Jennifer Weiner novel — these have become common.
Time was when such bodice-showing was reserved for bodice-rippers, the Harlequin Romances and the like, which we English majors considered beneath us (or perhaps, at best, our desired partner’s prelude to beachy sex). It’s not clear what’s being promised on the cover of Maine, but I don’t think it’s the multi-generational women’s-summer-retreat novel that is really between the covers.
Of course, no one makes me stop and pick up such books. I have to admit that when I do, I feel a little manipulated. The covers rarely match the content, and if they do — well, what am I really looking for, anyway? What if one of my wife’s friends sees me? “I was on my way to the Hemingway, really…”.
Maybe that’s why I’m more comfortable in Mom-‘n’-Pop bookstores in big cities. Shelf upon shelf of titles on spines, and no one trolling for my libido, or anyone else’s…just the smell of old binding glue and the quiet of contemplation.
© 2013 Adam Barr, except for the book cover, which I really didn’t look at for very long