publishing trends

Why do so many books by South Asian women writers have the same kind of covers?

The covers mostly seem to feature saris and fair women – fair in both senses of the word.

Most readers automatically assume that book covers represent the content of books. That the covers will give us a clue to what lies within. However, investigating the covers of books by South Asian women, it was clear from the outset that this commonplace and commonsense assumption simply does not hold true.

As any casual browser would have noticed, South Asian women’s book covers typically and generically depict saris, pan-Indian women’s faces, jewelry, henna-ed hands and feet, bodies and segments of bodies. This kind of representation – so noticeably oft-recurring that it almost becomes a bad joke – really brought to our attention how pervasive it is, practically throughout the publishing industry, particularly the Western publishing industry.

Moreover, apparently it is not just South Asian writing in English that is prey to this kind of visual mis-representation, but works in other genres too; Middle Eastern literature, for example, typically depicting veils and hijabs and women’s eyes peering out behind coverings. And this is sometimes regardless of whether the book’s emphasis is even on women.

So our question was, what do these book covers represent? What images are they meant to convey? What messages do they carry?

The discoveries

We began with a study of the role of book covers through the ages, which has changed drastically. In the process, we uncovered fascinating aspects of book publishing and book promotion practices within the industry.

We found out how authors become the brands for their books, and how these brands are manipulated and managed. We also learnt the decreasing role of the artist/designer, and the increasing role of marketing teams of publishing conglomerates. It may surprise readers to find out just how little – if any – input authors typically have, on their covers. Then again, avid and informed readers do not necessarily pay a lot of attention to the covers – such devices as book covers tend to be more uncritically consumed by the less initiated.

We compiled a database of over 400 contemporary book covers of our chosen genre for closer analysis and detailed study. We found that there were a few typical “themes” which kept recurring on those covers. For example, not just women’s sari-wrapt bodies, but often, truncated bodies, segments of bodies, eroticised and even sexualised bodies; and equally, not just women’s faces, but truncated faces, lowered eyes, women not only represented ‘in part’, literally, but also very often, alone.

In our analysis, we extrapolated from the implications and symbolisms of these insistently recurrent themes, and the power differentials underlying these. To our surprise, we often noticed book covers being “recycled” – sometimes identical covers, or segments of one cover, would be used on another book altogether. Almost as if to suggest these very books are interchangeable. Or of a series/type. (Which they usually are not.)

We also compared those covers published for a Western marketplace and for an Indian marketplace, and flagged up the differences. The divergences are considerable, as one might expect. (Those for the Indian market were far less traditional, conservative, and exoticised; they tended to be more contemporary, playful, modernised.) We surmised target audiences, and social messages being conveyed by covering books with such images, and discussed what identity constructions were being offered and encouraged, and where.

In the course of our close, detailed study, we took on broad concepts of the Gaze, the Male Gaze, the Voyeuristic Gaze, and the power of the Gaze. We incorporated the notion of the “world-as-exhibit’. We discussed the role of photography, used for imperialistic purposes in the time of the British Raj, and continuing to enable the impositions of groups in power on the less powerful. We broadened our discussion to issues of visual representation, and joined in the fascinating debate around how representation could actually create the very realities they are supposedly depicting.

Our conclusions?

Well, we had many, but here are a few: we concluded that that in our case study of South Asian women’s writing, book covers were intended to represent a genre in such a manner that it makes for quick and easy visual consumption. These covers clearly signal particular types of books, or genres, rather than reflecting the content of each individual book. The covers also play to the gallery and tap into stereotypes of Indians and Indian cultures. They present a flattened, generic, pan-Indian womanhood, which supposedly stands for Indianness. This kind of representation can be insidious and undermining.

These covers brand cultures, countries and regions simplistically, homogenising rather than recognising geographical, cultural, and historical diversities. They offer an exoticised but “safe” set of cultural differences for cultural consumption. The occasional erotic covers could be for titillation purposes, as well as a referral to the time-immemorial, feminised East. In summary, we found that the type of consumption encouraged is fairly consistently masculine, patriarchal, capitalistic, and recalcitrantly Orientalist.

It would seem however, these covers do their job in branding and selling books effectively, even if it means categorising them unfairly, labelling them inaccurately. They have created a recognisable public identity or face for this genre, whether or not that face really fits the books they front. They certainly make us rethink the purposes and uses of visual representation.

Lisa Lau is a lecturer at Keele University, specialising in postcolonial theory and literature, South Asian writing in English, and gender studies. She has co-authored Re-Orientalism and Indian Writing in English (Palgrave, 2014) and Indian Writing in English and Issues of Visual Representation: Judging More Than a Book By its Cover (Palgrave 2015).

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Virat Kohli and Ola come together to improve Delhi's air quality

The onus of curbing air-pollution is on citizens as well

A recent study by The Lancet Journal revealed that outdoor pollution was responsible for 6% of the total disease burden in India in 2016. As a thick smog hangs low over Delhi, leaving its residents gasping for air, the pressure is on the government to implement SOS measures to curb the issue as well as introduce long-term measures to improve the air quality of the state. Other major cities like Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata should also acknowledge the gravitas of the situation.

The urgency of the air-pollution crisis in the country’s capital is being reflected on social media as well. A recent tweet by Virat Kohli, Captain of the Indian Cricket Team, urged his fans to do their bit in helping the city fight pollution. Along with the tweet, Kohli shared a video in which he emphasized that curbing pollution is everyone’s responsibility. Apart from advocating collective effort, Virat Kohli’s tweet also urged people to use buses, metros and Ola share to help reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

In the spirit of sharing the responsibility, ride sharing app Ola responded with the following tweet.

To demonstrate its commitment to fight the problem of vehicular pollution and congestion, Ola is launching #ShareWednesdays : For every ​new user who switches to #OlaShare in Delhi, their ride will be free. The offer by Ola that encourages people to share resources serves as an example of mobility solutions that can reduce the damage done by vehicular pollution. This is the fourth leg of Ola’s year-long campaign, #FarakPadtaHai, to raise awareness for congestion and pollution issues and encourage the uptake of shared mobility.

In 2016, WHO disclosed 10 Indian cities that made it on the list of worlds’ most polluted. The situation necessitates us to draw from experiences and best practices around the world to keep a check on air-pollution. For instance, a system of congestion fees which drivers have to pay when entering central urban areas was introduced in Singapore, Oslo and London and has been effective in reducing vehicular-pollution. The concept of “high occupancy vehicle” or car-pool lane, implemented extensively across the US, functions on the principle of moving more people in fewer cars, thereby reducing congestion. The use of public transport to reduce air-pollution is another widely accepted solution resulting in fewer vehicles on the road. Many communities across the world are embracing a culture of sustainable transportation by investing in bike lanes and maintenance of public transport. Even large corporations are doing their bit to reduce vehicular pollution. For instance, as a participant of the Voluntary Traffic Demand Management project in Beijing, Lenovo encourages its employees to adopt green commuting like biking, carpooling or even working from home. 18 companies in Sao Paulo executed a pilot program aimed at reducing congestion by helping people explore options such as staggering their hours, telecommuting or carpooling. After the pilot, drive-alone rates dropped from 45-51% to 27-35%.

It’s the government’s responsibility to ensure that the growth of a country doesn’t compromise the natural environment that sustains it, however, a substantial amount of responsibility also lies on each citizen to lead an environment-friendly lifestyle. Simple lifestyle changes such as being cautious about usage of electricity, using public transport, or choosing locally sourced food can help reduce your carbon footprint, the collective impact of which is great for the environment.

Ola is committed to reducing the impact of vehicular pollution on the environment by enabling and encouraging shared rides and greener mobility. They have also created flat fare zones across Delhi-NCR on Ola Share to make more environment friendly shared rides also more pocket-friendly. To ensure a larger impact, the company also took up initiatives with City Traffic Police departments, colleges, corporate parks and metro rail stations.

Join the fight against air-pollution by using the hashtag #FarakPadtaHai and download Ola to share your next ride.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Ola and not by the Scroll editorial team.