When smart books get dumb covers

Girly covers are often slapped on books written by women–regardless of the content

Three and a half years ago, writer Kate Bolick graced the cover of The Atlantic, holding a glass of champagne and gazing into middle distance above the headline: “All the Single Ladies”–her own cover story explaining why she, in her late 30s, remained unmarried, and exploring why more and more American women were choosing to stay single.

This month, Bolick is drinking a cup of tea out of a porcelain teacup and perching on a gilded sofa on the cover of her new book, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own (out Tuesday), which builds on that viral cover story. In Spinster, Bolick meditates on her love affair with solitude, and weaves stories from her own life in with biographies of literary women who also refrained from settling down or led somehow unconventional romantic lives, including poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, author Edith Wharton and journalist Neith Boyce.

Spinster: Making a Life on One's Own by Kate Bolick

Spinster: Making a Life on One’s Own by Kate Bolick

While Bolick’s original Atlantic story was somewhat flippant, the book is much more ambitious. But you wouldn’t guess that from the cover. Like many smart books by women, Spinster has been packaged and illustrated to look like a fluffy self-help book. This is a book that New Yorker writer Elif Batuman called “moving, insightful and important,” that Rebecca Mead called “wise and subtle.” But this is a book I was embarrassed to read on the subway.

In an otherwise positive review for the New York Times, Heather Havrilesky compared the jacket to a shampoo ad that erroneously suggests Bolick occupies herself with “nail-salon-friendly themes.” The irony of the title–Bolick’s is trying to reappropriate the word “spinster” and strip it of its negative connotations–is lost in the frilly marketing.

After Bolick’s Atlantic piece came out, blogger Freddie DeBoer wrote that the magazine’s decision to put a picture of Bolick on the cover undermined her very argument–that women were remaining single because they no longer needed to rely on marriage for financial security or sex. “For all the talk of the declining fortunes of men relative to women, and how women are gaining the upper hand in the romantic and sexual marketplace, women’s desirability continues to be largely determined by their physical appearance,” wrote DeBoer. “Bolick’s desirability can’t be meaningfully conveyed without showing what she looks like.”

The jacket makes the same mistake, emphasizing an undercurrent of defensiveness that runs throughout the book. As Laura Kipnis noted in her review for Slate, Bolick wants to makes sure we all understand that she is a “spinster” by choice, that her single status is not a reflection of a lack of offers.“Slim and exceptionally pretty, with lustrous red-hair cascading down her shoulders, shapely legs crossed—clearly she’s a spinster by choice!” writes Kipnis. “She could be married in a heartbeat! Message received.”

Bolick, of course, is hardly the first female author to have a girly cover slapped on a serious book. Particularly painful recent examples include an edition of Alice Munro’s The View From Castle Rock illustrated by a woman’s lower body on a pink beach towel, and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar illustrated with a blush compact.

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