Laurie Toby Edison

Photographer

Boobs, Bodies, and Book Covers

Debbie says:

Lidia Yuknavitch has a marvelous post on The Rumpus on the decision she and her female publisher made to put a woman’s breast on the cover of her new book, The Chronology of Water.

book cover featuring breast with nipple

(cover photograph by Andy Mingo)

It’s a boob.

With full frontal nip.

What happened next of course is that the book went into design and production. We all understood we were making a cover that was at the very least atypical. Possibly controversial. Absolutely, as it turned out, problematic for some in terms of visually showcasing the cover. For example, Facebook does not “like” naked boobs.

Yuknavitch goes on to talk about the gender issue that arises when a book cover like this is chosen, designed, and supported by women, and is considered “unacceptable” by a system that is predominantly male. (Her publisher, Rhonda Hughes of Hawthorne Books, has created a wrapper that covers the tit, so in effect the book has a boob cover and a no-boob cover.)

When it comes to representation, it is not entirely OK for women to insist upon the representation of their own bodies in their own terms. And by OK, I mean culturally sanctioned, commercially viable, literarily or intellectually respected. And when I say in their own terms, I mean with a specific representational validity and aim, and without apology. You are just going to have to trust me with this next statement when I say, virtually NO agents or mainstream or commercial presses would touch this cover. Few literary presses would.

You don’t have to trust her with that statement; you can trust me instead. I’ve worked in book publishing on and off since 1988, and I do it now. Nipples are taboo in publishing. Laurie and I know exactly which Women En Large photographs we can send to newspapers and magazines, because the nipples are either not in the picture or not very visible. On book covers, nipples and pubic hair can’t even be discussed in the cover conference. Yuknavitch is also right that women’s bodies, which are used to sell everything else under the sun, are not common on “literary” book covers, perhaps because they are used to sell everything else under the sun, and literary books perceive themselves as different. The nipple rule is decades old. In the 1990s, when we discussed revisiting it at the publisher where I was working, we were told that it was not open to discussion.

In her discussion of people’s reaction to holding the book, Yuknavitch says:

… people would be embarrassed to be seen with a boob book in their hands. Though it’s true enough that LOTS of other people would be downright skippy and proud to hold one in public and wave it around – I have a boob book! HA! – she also meant, at least implicitly, you can’t have a nude woman on the cover of your book if you intend to be taken seriously by the wizards in charge of marketing and consumption in the literary industry.

I think she misses one point here: books are things that we hold. Advertisements are things that we look at, and either turn the page or keep driving. I expect people who understand most or all of Yuknavitch’s arguments about the body (we’re getting to those) might still feel a little uneasy holding that naked boob in their hand for the hours it takes to read the book, especially (but not only) in public.

She goes on to discuss the philosophy behind her choices. By philosophy, I mean an extremely appealing mixture of Plain Talk and references to famous philosophers.

Let me tell you why I became insistent about the cover. My memoir is, at its heart, about how I survived the life I was dealt, kind of like we all do. The central and enduring metaphor that holds the story together is swimming. And the central site of meaning in this story I have told about making a self from the ruins of a life is a body. A real body.

An eating, fucking, shitting, peeing, sweating, bleeding, body.

… Part of the dire problem is that it is quite difficult to make the assertion that one owns ones mode of representation and ones mode of production and the meaning making operations of ones body as a woman.

Yes, I mean that in the Marxist sense.

As it turns out, those ideas – commodity, labor, production, distribution, epistemology and ontology – seem unequivocally reserved for the realms of philosophic discourse, on the one hand – and in particular, whether we want it to be true or not, a rather patriarchal philosophical discourse, and on the other hand, market driven rules and regulations, another patriarchal bastion which does not include women owning the signification modes.

One of the things I kept thinking as I was reading was, “Well, yes, but the reader can’t tell that the cover was chosen and designed by women. From a purchaser’s, or advertiser’s, or even store bookbuyer’s point of view, what’s the difference? Yuknavitch answered me quite neatly by the end of her post:

That body ain’t no airbrushed hot model’s body. That boob is not “man-made.” That nip isn’t quite right – and what’s not quite right about it is that it’s a real nipple. It sits how it sits, is sags a bit, there are imperfections all around it. Also, I have it on good authority that it’s the boob and nip of a woman closing in on fifty years old.

… this is what happens when you put the mode of representation, production and distribution in the hands of, well, smarty women. There is no silicone or push-up bra or tantalizing sexualization, fetishization, or ironic stance. There are freckles and saggages and discolorations.

The cover is showing you something about an ordinary woman’s body. Inside, the text is saying something about how an ordinary woman found a self by and through her own body. Between seeing and saying, a dialogic exists.

Now she’s speaking Body Impolitic’s language: images of real bodies are the truly radical images of these times. The wizards in charge of marketing and consumption in the literary industry may shy away from all nipples, whether sagging and aging or perky and young, but the wizards in charge of marketing and consumption in the wider world love every image they can find of young women’s bodies (or at least Photoshopped young women’s bodies). No one but a few smarty women are smarty enough to love images of all bodies … and to be aware of just how transgressive it is to not just show, but showcase, the otherwise invisible ones.

As she makes all of these clear points, Yuknavitch references Kristeva, and Cixous, and Bakhtin, and Zizek, and Jhally, and more, all with links for those who don’t know their work.

Now I want to read the book.

Thanks to Alan Bostick for the pointer.

5 Responses to “Boobs, Bodies, and Book Covers”

  1. Lori S. Says:

    When I was at Black Books, we had a really long talk with our distributor about whether or not we could put a naked butt on our cover.

    For an erotica anthology. A nice, airbrushed, tanned and toned, modelriffic butt. Eventually, they said yes, since our publishing house was already so “edgy.” But just based on that conversation, I can well imagine the many mental gaskets blown by the decision to put a woman’s nipple on the cover of a literary memoir.

  2. Nancy Lebovitz Says:

    I never would have noticed that there was “something not quite right” about the nip.

    What I did notice about it was the amount of texture. There may be other unusual things about how it’s portrayed, but I figured out a while ago that eliminating texture is how things are visually idealized.

    That may be an over-generalization, but it hit me at an sf art show when I compared pretty art to horror art.

  3. aquaeri Says:

    I thought the difference was obvious immediately: this is not a young woman’s body, it’s been lived in. To me, this cover bears no resemblance to mainstream media representations of naked or near-naked women’s bodies for that, and several other reasons.

  4. Elizabeth Fox Says:

    I remember a big flap in Yoga Journal’s letters column over a cover that showed a butt crack. The picture wasn’t done in a salacious way, and I wasn’t offended by it, but I also think it would have been fine if the yoga pants had been up just a little higher.

    I also saw nothing “not quite right” about the nipple. But I cringe at Yuknavitch’s use of that ugly word “boob”, a word I never use for anything other than an idiot.

  5. Lidia Yuknavitch Says:

    i am so thrilled by this discussion–wish it happened everywhere all the time. thank you for engaging. and i love the work you all do too…sorry about the word “boob.” my mother was fond of it…reminds me of her now that she’s gone. i know what you mean though.

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