With their sandy beaches and windswept women, the U.S. editions of Elena Ferrante’s novels look familiar even if you’ve never seen them. That’s because they look like virtually every other book authored by a woman these days—not to mention like bridal magazines, beach-resort brochures, and even “Viagra ads.” On Twitter and beyond, readers have described Ferrante’s covers as “horrible,” “atrocious,” “utterly hideous,” and as a “disservice” to her novels. At Slate, one commenter approvingly mentions a local bookstore’s decision to display one of Ferrante’s books in plain brown paper, reviving a practice used for Playboy and the infamous issue of Vanity Fair with a pregnant Demi Moore on the cover. The implication, of course, isn’t that Ferrante’s covers are obscene in the traditional sense—just obscenely bad.
The Neapolitan novels, as the Italian author’s beloved tetralogy is called, chronicle the friendship between two ambitious young women over the course of 50 years and some 1500 pages. Since the publisher Europa released the first book, My Brilliant Friend, in 2012, the series has sold over a million copies in the U.S. and garnered glowing critical praise. Her covers, by contrast, have earned comparisons to “$4 romance book[s] found in an American gas station. ” The complaints are so numerous that Ferrante’s publisher even expressed concern to Slate that “many people didn’t understand the game we we’re playing, that of, let’s say, dressing an extremely refined story with a touch of vulgarity.” Certainly, readers aren’t required to enjoy the cloying sensibility of the images just because they’re intentionally bad, and because Ferrante herself chose them. But to despise the covers—and, by extension, the kind of novel they evoke—in the name of good literature is to buy into the destructive stigma that has long been attached to “women’s fiction” as a genre.
It’s true that Ferrante’s U.S. paperbacks look a lot like “chick-lit,” the favored slight for disparaging commercial, female-authored fiction. It’s also true that “chick-lit” that has cast a long, pastel shadow over Ferrante and her readers. Her covers are reminiscent of books by Jennifer Weiner, the reigning queen of pop romance who last year clashed with Jonathan Franzen over the fact that genre fiction by men has long been deemed more worthy critical attention than genre fiction by women. Weiner’s covers, like Ferrante’s, have a high frequency of ocean horizons and women with their backs turned. Their visual formula isn’t exactly “hideous,” as some readers claim, but it’s certainly tired, and not a little silly: Looking at a Ferrante or Weiner cover, it’s easy to conclude that no woman in their fiction has ever lived inland, or so much as looked directly at a camera.
Weiner has more in common with Ferrante than covers alone, and there’s a whiff of hypochondria to the reader backlash—a fear that Ferrante’s high-minded fiction might be contaminated by mere resemblance to more commercial fare. That anxiety forgets just how commercial Ferrante really is, right down to her soapy, page-turning plots and seven-figure book sales. But if there’s a prim contempt in a lot of Ferrante cover-bashing, there’s also justified suspicion of the long history of sexist publishing practice, in which any book by a woman is automatically marketed as “women’s fiction.”