Don’t judge books by their cover – especially Arab works in translation
Wainaina suggests publishers should instead use a mix of naked flesh and guns, but unfortunately, these tropes don't decorate only the sorts of books he so deftly excoriates. They're also used to promote great African and Middle Eastern literature, including much of Arabic literature in translation. More importantly, these covers aren't just an annoyance: they shift the way we read books.
It's easy to understand why an anglophone publisher would use flashy, formulaic cover art. Around half a million new books are published in English each year, with the vast majority – nearly 300,000 – originating in the US. As more and more titles become available online, national boundaries blur. Many of these half a million titles are available to any English-language reader with an internet connection.
Very few titles receive mass-media attention, and most readers hear only about the biggest bestsellers. The chance that any lay reader might happen across a great new work of Zimbabwean poetry, or of Arabic literature in translation, is roughly equal to the likelihood of accidentally sitting on a needle in a very large haystack.
Publishers, translators and authors do try to draw readers' attention to these wee needles. Nearly all books have at least one sort of advertisement: the cover art. This image functions both as an attention-grabbing billboard and lays the groundwork for how a reader should understand the text: Is it chick-lit? Is it serious literature? Should I laugh, cry, identify with the protagonist?
Thousands of books address life in Arab-majority countries. In the past decade, a growing number of these books explain or explore Iraq. The books' content varies from poetry to polemics, but they nonetheless use a strikingly similar set of cover images: a dry landscape, an overwhelming sun, and the silhouette of one or more US soldiers.
Before we even open these books, the visual cues tell us a great deal: First, we know we'll be reading about a forbidding landscape. Second, we are led to identify primarily with the US soldier who inhabits it.
It's not just the covers of Middle Eastern- and African-focused books that are formulaic.
Last year, Chloe Schama, writing in The New York Times, decried the number of new books that showed women's backs. The year before that, David Horspool remarked on three popular book-cover trends in the TLS: “Legs, Backs of Women Looking Over Water, and Tiny Men Walking Into The Distance.”
Book covers often echo one another, copying what seems to have sold well. As John Dugdale noted in The Guardian, copycat covers don't necessarily indicate a lazy designer. Instead, publishers are intentionally imitating successful books. Many thriller jackets mimic Robert Ludlum's successful “Bourne” novels or Stieg Larsson's popular works. Gold and pink have become signatures of chick-lit, Dugdale says, in part because they worked so well for Jackie Collins.
When publishers bring in “new” writing, such as Arabic literature in translation, they often rely on well-worn marketing techniques. The re-translation of Ahlam Mostaghanemi's Memory in the Flesh, now The Bridges of Constantine, used a cover flecked with gold. Thus, chick-lit readers are signalled that Mostaghanemi is one of their own.
And yet she's not. Cover-art wisdom advises against showing a particular woman's face, which might prevent the reader from seeing herself in the main character. The Bridges of Constantine thus marks itself as not-quite-chick-lit. The sparkly gold calls out to the genre's readers, but the close-up of a veiled woman, invisible but for her seductive kohl-rimmed eyes, changes the message.
With this second visual cue, readers of Bridges are discouraged from identifying with the woman in the novel. Instead, the cover promises the story of the “Other,” an oppressed (yet sexy) Arab woman. Never mind that Mostaghanemi's book is narrated by a middle-aged Algerian man in love with an Algerian university student in Paris.
The veiled woman with kohl-rimmed eyes is almost certainly the most popular dust-jacket image for Arab and Arabic literature. Arguably, just as the pink-and-gold is meant to signal fans of chick-lit, and “tiny men” are meant for thriller buffs, the veiled-women covers call out to fans of the “liberating Muslim women” genre.
Before “I was in Iraq” books flooded on to the scene, “liberating Muslim women” novels and memoirs were the biggest best-sellers. They featured titles like Betty Mahmoody's Not Without My Daughter and Jean Sasson's Princess.
Lila Abu-Lughod writes in Do Muslim Women Need Saving? that these books were “published by trade presses, reviewed widely, and adopted by book clubs and women's reading groups, a lurid genre of writing on abused women – mostly Muslim [which] exploded onto the scene in the 1990s and took off after September 11”.
Meanwhile, serious Arabic literature was all but invisible in English translation for most of the 20th century. When a few titles did appear in the 1980s, they were often slapped down by unreceptive critics. Nonetheless, Arabic literature in translation did grow slowly in the 1990s and, like the novels Abu-Lughod discusses, grew even more after September 2001.
In what looks like an attempt to piggyback on success, publishers of serious translations have recycled the tropes from the “saving Muslim women” covers. For instance, Khaled Khalifa's dense generational novel In Praise of Hatred was published in the UK in 2012 and in the US in 2014. The Syrian writer's acclaimed novel has been compared to work by William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the UK cover features a suitably generic Arabesque doorway and gives an approving quote from The New York Times.
The US edition, which followed three years later, looks very different. While it uses the Times quote that promises “a Balzacian tale full of romance and murder”, the quote rests atop a giant photo of a woman's face, swathed in black but for her beautiful, made-up eyes. The bottom half of the book is a second photo of a tiny black-clad woman walking alongside a turbulent sea. The accompanying promotional material promises a story about “a young Muslim girl” who lives a “secluded life behind the veil”.
It's possible that the jacket and promotional blurbs didn't influence critics. Yet the UK edition was read as serious literature, applauded and longlisted for the country's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The US edition has mostly been neglected or poorly reviewed. A baffling NPR review suggests that the book is “mysterious”.
Anglophones are raised on the notion that “you can't judge a book by its cover”. And yet, much as food packaging influences the taste of a meal, the packaging of a book changes how we taste literature. We owe Arabic literature in translation a better package.
M Lynx Qualey is a freelance writer based in Cairo who blogs at arablit.wordpress.com
Updated: June 28, 2014 04:00 AM