During The History Quill’s winter Historical Fiction virtual conference (well done!🙌), while moderating a panel on CHANGES WE WANT TO SEE IN THE GENRE, #HFChitChat commiserated on the state of Historical Fiction covers: mainly, covers featuring female’s backs and headless torsos. Later, I tweeted about BOLD BEAUTIFUL covers on Day 2 of February’s HFChitChat daily chat on the same subject. I wrote this soon after, and somehow failed to post, so am posting now.
Aren’t these beautiful? Published in 2021 to brilliant success, THE LOST APOCOTHARY’s cover certainly helped its sales soar. The rest of these books have now published in 2022 and are amazing (I have read HORSE and TAKE MY HAND and highly recommend). It appears they paid attention to APOCOTHARY. This makes me happy, because it’s about time historical fiction jumped onto the bold, beautiful cover art band wagon. And, unless it truly serves the story, it's time to end cover art which purposelessly features a woman’s back or a woman’s body with her head cut off.
Please note I’m not saying that books (and their authors) with such covers are horrible, or that I won’t read them. I absolutely will! As will others, for a great story is a great story. Rather, I’m saying that strict adherence to the status quo of the recent plethora of such covers misses opportunities and sends the wrong message. I’m glad to say, over half way through 2022, the unfortunate trend has gotten much, much better. But with women’s rights gutted and our needs far underserved, it’s even more imperative to consider the message such covers send.
Now, look at all these beautiful women and colorful colors! How do these covers make you feel?
On the flip side, consider how "back" and headless torso covers make me and many other women feel.
Though there are exceptions (see further down below), I often cringe when I see a cover with only a woman’s back as the focal point, without even an artful depiction or side view. Yes, it’s fatigue of an idea being copied to its fullest thrill potential. Also, it’s that there are only so many interesting ways to show backs.
But it’s also much more: representation and power. Until fairly recently in most women’s lives, these have been lacking, and now they are revoked. Untold women face death and other major problems. While seemingly innocuous, ask yourself, how does a back view or a headless torso contribute to women’s stories not being seen as important?
Women’s stories are finally—finally—being significantly covered in biographical fiction. Women are also being shown to have more agency in all historical fiction. Who knew that women were so involved in World War II? I didn’t, but do now. Who knew that men received full credit for their work? While that thought may have been in the back of my head over the years, recent books have highlighted the issue for me, making me want to help spread the word and stop the injustice.
I hope these stories are here to stay. There are many more suppressed stories to bring forward. That being the case, it’s hard to keep seeing women’s stories backs and torsoless heads on such stories.
The argument is that this gives the reader the freedom to substitute herself. This can be accomplished by showing the side angle of the face, (even with the back, such as in the amazing WILD WOMEN AND THE BLUES above), or bold cover art, or blurred features as if on a painting, or many various ways of covering the eyes, (such as with a fan, a hat, or a design feature like a geometric shape).
The eyes are the window to the soul, right? So its fine to hide the eyes if needed, especially since the book, and our interpretation of it, does that interpretation. I admit that this is a subjective distinction, but, for me, if a woman’s profile and part of her face can be seen, she’s been given the agency to show herself and to speak. Look at the fantastic LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY—we see she’s a woman, that she’s smart (love the pencil stash), and that she has a brain of her own (those questioning eyes).
Besides, beautiful, artsy covers simply drawn more readers, and I don’t think they’ll mislead readers as to the subject of the books. Readers are smarter than that.
Simply put, neither a woman’s back on the cover nor a missing (guillotined?) head is necessary to convey that a book is historical fiction, especially considering the subliminal message these covers send.
I confess I learned something crucial during our moderating, and that is that authors may be afraid they need to follow the status quo in order to sell the book. I hope I’ve convinced you that this isn’t true.
Unless it actually serves the purpose, such as for THE LAST CHECKMATE, which shows the all important chess game. (There had to be a “but,” didn’t there?) Also consider Kate Quinn covers, which I love, one and all.
The “back” feature is a Kate Quinn modern HistFic signature—and the flip side is, they totally work. Is it simply because she’s a fantastic HF thriller writer and I’m a huge fan? Well—she is, and I am, but no. It’s because they serve the purpose, they tell the story, they show the agency.
Why? Consider (without spoilers), what are her female protagonists doing?
THE ALICE NETWORK broke into New York Times Best Seller mode with its cover. What a splendid book and look!
I won’t spoil it for those few of you who haven’t yet read (don’t wait any longer!), but this book is a dual timeline, dual POV, centered on a woman who offers much in the war effort and—well I can’t tell you. Rest assured, though, there are many twists in that well plotted thriller. And given those details, my heavens, the cover is brilliant. We can’t see her face too early. Guessing who is part of the fun of Quinn’s books.
THE DIAMOND EYE—you get exactly what you see, a Soviet thriller, and it is fantastic.
As is THE ROSE CODE, a multi-voiced and timed WWII-and-beyond mystery, set in Bletchley Park. Knowing that, can you guess why this cover serves the story so well? It’s perfect because it hides the secret of the main POV character, while it shows her worrying over a wall-sized decoding machine. Perfect for the book. Not perfect for every book.
Now, some say women’s backs on covers help a reader imagine herself as the heroine. But, if the woman on the cover is clearly a white woman, then the cover is not inclusive of all women, or of all readers. And I’m quite confident that readers (who have great imaginations) can fantasize themselves as the heroine whether there’s a back, a body, an elephant, or—gasp—even a symbol.
Symbols are for Fantasy, though, right? Well, sure, but not exclusively so.
And it’s quite symbolic that many unsung heroines are finally having their day. So there’s more than enough room for covers with symbols and original artwork in historical fiction.
Rethinking featuring women’s backs and headless torsos on covers serves a great purpose and helps avoid merely following the bandwagon. We are in a glorious new time of women’s hidden or forgotten stories being told, sold, and read. This must continue.
These trailblazers had something to say.
They have something to teach.
They did things, though history ignored them.
We need their collective wisdom.
So, if showing them in action with their backs to us makes sense within their story, then by all means, go for it. But if not, consider other ways of doing it.
Don’t let’s glamorize hiding women’s faces.
Do let’s push for seeing faces, even if done in a way that leaves room for the imagination.
Don’t let’s silence women further by cutting their entire heads off.
Do let’s at least give them lips if we are showing only part of a head.
Do let’s represent that women have something to say, and will, by God, say it.
So I leave you with this challenge. Consider the covers of books you’ve read recently and whether the cover works. Most of all, if you are an author or have a say, consider what cover really works for the story being told and don’t reach for the status quo out of fear or herd mentality. Do fight the good fight, and tell our stories with all your sweat, blood, tears, and fully representative cover art.