Don’t judge this book by its cover

Half of the Human Race by Anthony Quinn

“They melted away from one another into the khaki crush of men waiting by ladders. Back among his company, with all eyes fixed on him, Will felt his limbs move with the slowed, dislocated sensation of a dream: his actions no longer seemed his own. Some stranger was inhabiting his body, directing him onwards. The men had fixed their bayonets, therefore he must have given the order. The minute hand on his wristwatch was about to touch six. The barrage had lifted for a moment, and all was silent. His lips tasted metal, and he found the whistle was in his mouth. Then the men were scrambling up the ladders, so they must have heard its shrill.”

Anthony Quinn, Half of the Human Race

Men, would you consider reading a novel that included trench warfare, emergency surgery, people risking imprisonment to fight for their civil rights, plus sportsmen playing cricket? Would you mind if one of the bravest and most independent main characters also happened to be a woman?

I think many men would keep an open mind about such a book, but it seems the publisher disagrees. It appears that the publisher believes Anthony Quinn’s book is not for men, who should stick to those that come in ‘manly’ packaging, the kind of book promoted for Father’s Day: spy thrillers and fat biographies of Churchill, Hitler and Stalin.

It irks me as a reader and a writer that publishers limit a book’s potential audience when they choose clichéd cover artwork and quotations. I suspect many men would be completely put off by a soft-focus photo of lovers kissing by a sunset sea, with a Sunday Telegraph quotation labelling the book “An exhilarating love story”. The cover of the trade paperback version of Half the Human Race featured an illustration of a suffragette; the latest paperback version sports a photo worthy of a weepy, mid-afternoon telemovie romance. I wish publishers would stop creating book covers that reinforce a sort of reading apartheid based on gender. Does finding an audience really have to mean alienating a huge number of readers?

I think the publisher’s lazy choice of stock photography in this case is a mistake on two levels: it has limited the novel’s audience to half of the human race and any women expecting a swooning, glamorous romance from Half of the Human Race will be disappointed.

Half of the Human Race by Anthony Quinn

Don’t judge Half of the Human Race by its sappy soft-focus cover

I was able to look past the cover of Half of the Human Race because I’d already read Anthony Quinn’s The Streets. I usually avoid books with covers like Half of the Human Race’s, because it means the writing and story will be banal and lazy. I worked in publishing long enough and have read enough books to recognise the warnings encoded in book covers. If there’s a stock photo of a pretty and vacant-eyed model’s face in close-up with a few objects Photoshopped into the hazy halo surrounding her head, I’m forewarned: beware the mindless, aspirational novel with clunky prose. Sunsets and flowers signify the same. Illustrations or photos emphasising a woman’s shoes, lipstick and handbag signify a rom-com full of product placements and shopping. If the cover is dominated by an isolated stiletto shoe or a scarlet mouth, we’re in fetish and soft-porn territory. A sticker saying “Recommended by the Women’s Weekly” is actually a medical label, meaning “take two pages in the evening to ensure a good night’s sleep”.

Half of the Human Race focuses on two characters, Connie and Will. Connie Callaway is an independent, capable person who is prepared to be alone if she can’t be an equal in a relationship. Relationships, however, are not her main focus. Connie is a suffragette with ambitions to be a surgeon. The First World War will challenge her but also give her a chance to prove her mettle. Will Maitland is a cricket player emerging from the shadow cast by his older friend, cricketing legend Andrew ‘the Great Tam’ Tamburlain. Will’s privileged and easy life and traditional views will be shaken by war, bereavement and the challenge that Connie throws down. (For a longer review, see Peter Stanford’s article in The Independent.)

Connie’s a fantastic character, the kind you’d like to spend more time with. Will and Andrew grow in complexity as the story progresses, although they fail to match Connie, and unfortunately Will remains fairly blinkered.

Quinn does an excellent job of showing the suffragette struggle, what women were up against and how a normally peaceful woman might plausibly progress to violent crime.

“She had first heard the distant collection of footsteps and muffled voices descending from the gallery above, and now, like a shambling beast, it was stopping at each door of her own ward; the metal shiver of keys on a chain, the clank of the lock, a brief scuffle; shouts. Then the slam of the door followed by a long silence, which was the most unnerving sound of all. She checked the makeshift blockade of table and chair and bed she had raised against the door. How long would it hold? Her heart was beating hard, and a plume of nausea writhed in her stomach. She had not eaten for four days.”

Anthony Quinn, Half of the Human Race

I enjoyed Half of the Human Race immensely and found the structure and characterisation stronger than The Streets. I only hope its audience has been bigger and broader than the publisher’s ambitions. If Anthony Quinn can use empathy and imagination to realistically portray a woman and her innermost thoughts, why can’t publishers employ some imagination when briefing book designers?

© JD Ellevsen

3 comments

  • I have to admit, the cover portrayed would put me off, and I like to think of myself as an open-minded, non-gender-based reader. A writing group I am in recently played a game, asking members to identify from the cover art alone if the book were written by a man or a woman, and if the book cover was aimed at men or women. Invariably, the artwork lived up to expectations, and the group was more or less right each time regarding the gender of the author. But what was interesting is that random samples of writing by men and women were not so easily identified.

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    • Interesting, isn’t? We’re all trained to identify the author’s gender and the book’s audience based on artwork, but it doesn’t necessarily correlate with the subject matter or content. If I were Anthony Quinn, I’d feel let down by the publisher.

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