A few weeks ago I attended a writers conference (or writer’s conference, I’m never sure which is correct) and one of the topics discussed was that of book covers. The cover of a book is important and lots of attention is paid to book covers. The cover—so they tell me—has a lot to do with selling a book. People do judge a book by its cover whether we authors like it or not, and publishers take considerable time and care to produce a cover that will help sales. A good cover can actually spur sales. Colors seem to be particularly important in book covers: some say reds and yellows don’t sell well, others disagree and look for a lot of red on their covers. I’m not one to say much about covers since I haven’t had one designed for my books yet, though I’m hopeful I will be going through that process soon. What I do want to talk about here is the presence of representations of people—presumably one or more of the characters of the book—on the cover
One of the main subtopics of discussion in the meeting was the use of people, either in face or whole body, on the cover of a book. Not all books use a figure, though many do. But I was struck by the dichotomy of the discussion about how to use a character’s likeness. If you put a man on a cover, either as just a face or an entire figure, then it’s a man. Period. But if you put a woman on the cover, it must be a strong woman, a weak woman—heaven forbid!—will not do. A man, okay; but not just any woman, a strong woman. No one ever says, “We have to put a strong man on the cover.”
We seem to have divided characters of fiction into two broad groups, men and strong women, as though any man is acceptable as a protagonist, but not just any woman. A male character is assumed to be a strong man, but female characters are divided into weak and strong, and no one wants anything to do with a weak woman. Especially not on the cover of a book. I’m not sure I can name any weak women off the top of my head, perhaps one or two of the March sisters from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. But strong female characters are all the rage now, and if you’re writing a book about a female character, it must be about a strong one. Physically strong, as for example, Wonder Woman, or endowed with strength of character, as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With The Wind.” Agents and publishers are not looking for weak-willed women. Not a good role model. But does anyone ever question whether a male character is strong—in the same sense that we require a female to be strong? Certainly if someone wrote a book about a man who is constantly run over or put down by his peers, as for example, Caspar Milquetoast of the comic strip “The Timid Soul,” or Mr. Peepers, played by Wally Cox, of the TV series in the 1950’s, it might not even be picked up by a publisher. The “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series by Jeff Kinney has sold well, though. Yet, in some ways, those characters had qualities that gave them a type of strength we can admire. If not “strength” in the physical sense, then in a “persistence” sense. They picked themselves up and continued on, only to be knocked down again. They didn’t quit; it was not in their nature. I wonder if a book or TV series about a woman who is similarly kicked around would work.
But a “weak” woman on the cover of a book? Not likely. Eventually I hope we will be able to divide the heroes of books—and this is true especially of science fiction—into two groups: male and female, without having to use a modifier for females. The protagonist of any story has to be strong, of course, but do we need to divide by gender into men and strong women? I suspect that when agents and publishers say they want stories about strong women, they’re really saying is they want stories about women who, if you were to replace them with a man, would be a likeable and saleable character. Nobody wants weak men or weak women, except in very unusual circumstances.