Red Sari: The Argument

I found in the covers I surveyed, the book covers designed by major American publishing houses for books authored by S. Asian women tended overwhelmingly to incorporate the following design elements:

  • women's bodies
  • truncated, often faceless/headless
  • bodies that were still, not in motion/active
  • sexualized poses
  • red saris
  • red in general
  • food
  • plants (generally small and/or related to cooking)
By contracts, books authored by S. Asian men featured:

  • ancient paintings
  • people in motion
  • buildings or cities
  • large landscape features, such as bridges, mountains
  • abstract images
  • just the author/title
  • blue
Interestingly, some women started out with the typical women's covers described above, but over the course of their career, as they won awards and gained critical acclaim, their later covers developed to look more like men's covers.  This would seem to indicate that the type of cover that S. Asian male authors receive by default are designed to signal 'this is a serious, literary work.'  Whereas women authors' covers are designed to signal something else entirely (that the books are sexy, accessible, popular, easy reading...), and if they want their work to be read and taken seriously, they have to earn that right before they're allowed covers that reflect that assumption.

The inherent danger in this for S. Asian women authors, of course, is that if they are writing serious literary works, but their books are being marketed as simply sexy popular fiction, then the books and authors stand in danger of a) missing their real audience, and b) being dismissed.

As an anecdotal piece of evidence for this claim, when I presented this paper at SALA, one of the audience members admitted afterwards that she had seen my book when it came out, and hadn't read it, because she had assumed based on the cover that she knew what would be inside, and had assumed that she wouldn't find the book interesting.  This is the sort of thing that makes a writer want to scream.

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