Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Book Cover Pet Peeve--Accuracy and Historical Fiction

So, we should probably just confirm, for the record and for the purposes of this post, that I am a giant nerd. Also I'm a touch anal. And again, huge nerd.

But I have a slightly embarassing but very real pet peeve about book covers. In particular, historical fiction. To be specific, the horrifically inaccurate cover art depictions of ladies' clothing and general appearance.

Anal? Yes. Stupid? Yes. Better things to do with my time? Definitely, wholeheartedly, yes. Am I going to share anyway? Yeah, I think I need to.

So here's the thing. I know, rationally, that a writer has little to no control over the cover that his or her book receives when a publisher releases it. He or she may or may not even be able to give feedback, which may or may not be taken under advisement. So I know that, when I pick up a book with a cringeworthy outfit on the cover, it's not the author's fault. Rationally, I know this. But I still have a hard time divorcing my immediate perception of "Wildly innacurate" from the potential that this could be a prisinely researched book.

What I think that publishers don't quite get is that their editorial choices add up to one single perception for the buyer. And for a buyer of historical fiction, accuracy is often very important. So when you take a well-researched novel and smack a poorly researched bit of cover art on, it's doing your author a great disservice, because I'm already having to try to avoid the assumption that, if you don't care about your art department's accuracy, that you don't care about your writer's accuracy, either. It's not fair. But it's how the consumer thinks--even a consumer who's moderately educated in how publishing works. For someone who doesn't know that a writer has no control over the cover? Even more understandable that he or she might put the book back on the shelf.

Some examples that make my eyes hurt. Please note--this is NOT meant to bash the writers! However, it is meant to highlight that yes, some readers do notice this stuff. (It may also be meant as a slight cattiness outlet on a rough day.)

Wildeacre by Philippa Gregory

This cover makes my eyes hurt for one main reason: Hair. No one, save no one, had Herbal Essences hair in the eighteenth century. Either put it up, put a cap on it, or dress it properly to be worn down. Don't want to paint a lady with Hedgehog Hair? Don't do eighteenth-century book covers.

The Midwife of the Blue Ridge by Christine Blevins

Now, I imagine that the argument might be that this woman is on the frontier, so of course she's not wearing a fancy gown (I could totally go off on a tangent here, by the way, and I think I will in a future post). But I still don't know exactly what the bodice-y thing she's wearing is quite supposed to be. Is it a corset? Part of the Saint Pauli girl ensemble? Ye Olde Barmaid Supplies Unlimited sale item? Don't make your reader guess. Use clothes that actually existed. Like a sturdy pair of jumps.

The Queen's Dollmaker by Christine Trent

Just a complete lack of understanding of eighteenth century undergarments and gown construction. A lady wearing stays would never look that rumpledy. Let me get graphic--her breasts should not be poking out into the torso of the gown. She's not wearing a bra, people--she's wearing stays. The girls are going to be high and the torso, flattened. The gown is constructed in some fashion that I can only imagine was inspired by a 1980s McCall's Halloween costume pattern, because it it no way resembles proper eighteenth century draping--especially with the skirts, which should not be attached all the way across the front in the way they are, and are in desperate need of a pair of pocket hoops or a false rump or something. The neckline fits poorly--if this was meant to be seductive, it just made me want to stuff a kercheif down her front. And yes, bows were used in the eighteenth century. But why oh WHY must they ALWAYS appear on cover art?

The Frontiersman's Daughter by Laura Franz

I understand that this is a Christian fiction book. Therefore, I imagine they didn't intend to put a lady in her underclothes on the cover. Darn it all if they did anyway, likely trying to avoid the low-necked titilation of so many other cover choices. Here's the thing: Your leading lady is appearing in just her shift--her underwear. Plus she's doing that thing where it's hiked up to her neck--what I always consider the Urkel move of eighteenth-century fashion. And again with the shampoo ad hairstyle. Layers did not exist. At least, they didn't exist in an attractive way.

I hope this didn't come across as mean-spirited--I actually quite wish that publishers would have their art departments consult with costume historians (and other scholars) to produce the best possible product.

Of course, then...what would I have to be catty about?


Caroline Starr Rose said...

Enjoyed this!

MrsC said...

They really ARE bad aren't they! I have some Gerogetter Heyer editions from the 1960's and the aesthete is decidedly fashion forward there too. At least the hair fashion of the time was inspired by the 18th C! Although I am quite sure that false eyelashes and black eyeliner flicked out at the end are not. Unless it's 18th C Baghdad...

Audra said...

I just loved this -- esp since I consider the cover when doing my own reviews. While I sort of like the trend of historical novels featuring art (usually portraits) on the cover, I'm esp annoyed if it's of the wrong era. Just check the date!

anachronist said...

I agree with your approach and I approve. Yes, I am also a nerd and I am slightly anal and I enjoyed this post immensely. Unfortunately you never know what a publisher might consider an 'appealing' cover, treating their readers like a herd of uneducated sheep. I even posted a Georgette Heyer novel's cover on my blog (some time ago) as the dress presented on the lady was from a different era than it should be.

Rowenna said...


MrsC--definitely, it's so funny to look at the historical aesthetic at any given epoch's historical fiction! I love 60s beehive hair and bedroom eyes on historical fiction!

Audra--Yes! I found a couple of those while selecting covers for this post--I might do a "cover anachronism" post sometime in the future!

Anachronist--so true, publishers should have a higher opinion of their customers!

Abby said...

Ah! Love this! I totally agree (Gawd that "The Queen's Dollmaker" is AWFUL) on everything, except one thing.

Phillipa Gregory and Historical Accuracy should only exist if the words "is not" are between to two phrases.

I've never read her Wideacre series, but all of her Tudor stuff makes my skin crawl. Now there's a million+ people walking around thinking that Anne Boleyn was an incestuous monster. (Not to mention the "pull your bodice down to show your cleavage" lines that are littered through her books...ugh!)

K, I'm going to stop now, before my rant gets out of hand....


Jill said...

Add to that new editions of old books. For example, I have a Broadview edition of Emma (Broadview being scholarly, right? Right?), with a cover photograph of a late Victorian woman wearing the high collar and ruffled things up to her neck. Look, if the scholars can't get it right, you can't expect much from the publishers of popular fiction. Looks like you could be a consultant, create a new job description!

Isis said...

I couldn't agree more! A cover can really make me decide not to read a book! Even if I know that the authour may have nothing to say about it.

My favourite hate is for the covers of Bujold's S.F books. I'm not that keen on that genre but I love, love, lover her books (her fantasy too). She has the knack for making every single character interesting and the books tange from space opera to crime novel to romance. I could gush on them for ages. But the covers... Look at this one:

It's for a books called A Civil Campaign which is an incredible funny and charming book. Would you think that if you looked at the cover? The worst thing is that the cover is sort of right. The man's uniform has the right colours, only I would say that he is about the fourth most important male character in the book. And he is in love with a cute blonde, only she is also describes as short, plump and well-endowed. And though the book is set in the future, the setting is on a planet that has a rather archaic arctecture- no way the glass bauble towers in the background would be around. Gah! Still, this is one of the better covers... I was lucky to be given those books by a friend who told me to ignore the covers otherwise I would NEVER have read them.

And now I have hijacked your post again. Sorry. :)

Mark Williams said...

Being male and no expert on female attire, historical or otherwise, this was a fascinating post (found via your comment at mesmered).

It is rather sad that professional writers who have taken the trouble to research their chosen period so well, can sit back and let covers go out that are as inaccurate as you suggest.

For us as writers the cover is an integral part of our work, whatever the genre.

I accept the editorial needs of the publishers to attract buyers, but if it's a simple matter of the right period clothes and the right hair then I'm sure any competent artist just needs the right information, which the author is best-placed to provide.

Yet another argument in favour of "indie" publishing over the inflexibility of the traditional publishers.

Jillian said...

This was fascinating to read. I don't know anything about how dresses were made, as much as I'm fascinated with the past...

Though, those feathered do's and made-up faces on colonial era novels, always make me chuckle. :-)

Rowenna said...

Abby--you say "incestuous monster" like it's a bad thing :P

Jill--I know! And some of those new editions are just lovely but...I trip over the poor artwork choices!

Jillian--It's so funny to see how one era's aesthetic informs how they portray the past! Beehives in the 60s, mondo-perm-hair in the 80s, long flowing layered tresses today. :)

Caroline said...

OMG, I'm so glad I am not the only to be annoyed (and sometimes appalled) by historical fiction cover art. I don't look as thoroughly as you do, but things like say, 1840s gowned heroine on the cover of a Jane Austen novel. FOR REAL? It drives me up the wall every time. I think you are completely correct in that it gives the author a bad reputation because before I started writing, I thought the author was responsible for choosing the cover. Thus, I thought the author was stupid. So yeah, the publishing world should think twice about slapping poorly researched cover art on novels.

The Dreamstress said...

I simply won't read them. And won't buy the classics with bad, wrong-era paintings on them. And I can't be the only one!

And Abby, I love you for what you said about Phillipa Gregory!

NyNy said...

The last one doesn't even give me an impression of a Christian fiction book though! I wrote a post about my own fiction pet peeves! Anyone got any Fanfiction Pet Peeves to share? Hope you will read and comment with your own!