07/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Chicks on the Beach, or Why Does the Cover Preoccupy You So?

The New York Times' Janet Maslin may well be taking some new novels on her beach vacation this summer. If she does her tan is going to be a little dull and uneven, however, because Maslin will be reading these books whilst hiding under the biggest beach towel she can find.

Why? She's embarrassed about their darned pretty covers.

In her article,"The Girls of Summer," Maslin reviews ten new novels by female authors. These "literary and lightweight books aimed at women" are "hard to tell apart," according to Maslin, because of their "prettily designed covers" which use standard imagery such as "sand, flowers, cake, feet, houses, pastel colors, the occasional Adirondack chair."

Maslin is fully aware of the politics and patriarchy that lead to the production and eventual demeaning of such covers. Indeed, she starts her piece reviewing J. Courtney Sullivan's Commencement (a book she describes as the most "inviting of this year's summer reads") whose characters are savvy about "feminism and publishing." Maslin even quotes the following passage from Commencement:

"When a woman writes a book that has anything to do with feelings or relationships, it's either called chick lit or women's fiction, right?...But look at Updike, or Irving. Imagine if they'd been women. Just imagine. Someone would have slapped a pink cover onto 'Rabbit at Rest,' and poof, there goes the ... Pulitzer."

Maslin acknowledges the truth of this. Nonetheless, in her review, it seems she still can't quite let go of the fact that the books she's been commissioned to read have been marked (stained?) by these "chick book" covers.

To her credit, Maslin takes all of these books seriously - and even enjoys a number of them, including ones that she may not consider "literary." Seeing any reviewer in The New York Times acknowledge and, at times, praise so many popular women authors in one short piece is refreshing.

And yet there is a mild air of disdain lurking in Maslin's review. Throughout she seems to be weighing up whether each book deserves their "blah, pretty packaging." And while she's at it she shores up stereotypes about popular women's writing (I've written here before about these tired old stereotypes before).

For example, she describes Lisa See's Shanghai Girls as "thoughtful and intricate" and thus hardly "the stuff of chick lit." Yet when See's characters ("two clotheshorse sisters who work as models") talk about "pink silk Italian high heels" they are, for Maslin, speaking the "universal language" of the chick lit genre.

Chick-books love shoes and if you're going to talk shoe-talk you kind of deserve your blah cover. If your book presents "cozy" female friends "weathering crises" together then you've also earned the sandals and Adirondack chair treatment. And if one of your characters dares to admit that she likes "a pink cover featuring a pair of glossy high-heeled shoes," you most definitely should have flowers and pastel shades on your dust jacket.

At least, that's the implicit message of Maslin's review.

But covers are covers, aren't they? And should we really be reviewing books by them? Sure, there are many books with these kind of covers hitting the shelves, especially during beach time. But as the romance world teaches us, generic covers sell books.* They sell books because they signal to their readers the kind of books they are. And, yes, there do happen to be many female readers out there who seek books about feelings and relationships, cozy friends and weathering crises. And sometimes even shoes too.

A Times review of ten contemporary female authors is great (as I write, the article is the second most popular piece on NYT online which is even more heartening). But the preoccupation with the supposedly schlocky covers and whether these covers signal a chick lit book or not is disappointing. Maslin clearly enjoyed some of the novels. But if she could be more at peace with the chick-ness of their covers, and the feminine concerns of the book themselves, she could get out from under her beach towel and get a better tan.

*Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan in Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches Guide to Romance Novels do a great and witty job of explaining the appeal of the clinch cover: "They sell like hotcakes and gangbusters because the clinch cover has become an iconic image that is short for romance."