Erotica Cover Watch: Venus in Furs, Harper Perennial
Venus in Furs, pub Harper Collins Perennial
Watched by Kristina Lloyd
It took me days to work out what this image was. Days! It reminded me of a chicken wing – but I knew Venus in Furs wasn’t chicken porn. I asked a bunch of friends and they were equally stumped so I wrote to Harper Collins, asking if they could help me out. While I awaited their reply, I kept returning to stare at the book cover.
You know those defamiliarised images where you think you’re looking at, say, a moon orbiting a planet then the camera pans back and you realise it’s actually a shot of a dippy egg? I thought maybe it was a similar piece of visual trickery. Or maybe it was comparable to one of those optical illusions which are two things at once, old woman /young woman, rabbit/duck etc. Or was it like those sodding 3D dinosaurs that everyone – everyone! – except me could see in the early 90s? If so, then I just needed to keep looking at the picture for long enough and everything would click into place.
But no. Nothing clicked.
And Harper Collins didn’t reply.
This edition of Venus in Furs is part of a new line of ten Forbidden Classics from Harper Collins’ Perennial imprint, released in time for Valentine’s day, says the publicity. All the covers feature bits of a body, some images more abstract and puzzling than others; and the colours are drawn from a rich, warm palette of Belgian chocolates and truffles melting by the fireside. In short, sumptuous, subtle and sexy. And from what I could tell, the range depicted nine women and a chicken wing.
My guess was it was actually an image of man – there was something muscular and less than silk-smooth-skin going on – and my friends agreed. But which bit of him? Was that a shaved armpit? Is that an elbow at a funny angle? Did it even matter? Because, I fumed, if that’s a pic of a guy, then what’s the effing point if we can’t actually tell it’s a guy? We’ve seen (or rather, not) invisible men on Cover Watch before and we’ve scoffed at claims a women in her skimpies could feasibly be a cross-dressing bloke (therefore rendering the man, if indeed he was one, invisible once again).
Then I asked another friend who said, ‘Um, but it’s so obvious’ and proceeded to explain the image in precisely three words. Doh! I slapped my forehead. Of course, of course! What a glorious pic. No wonder Harper Collins hadn’t got back to me. They thought I was an idiot!
And so happily, my suspicions were confirmed: this was an image of a guy. One in ten isn’t a great ratio of men to women but hey, it’s a helluva lot better than what we’re used to seeing in erotica publishing. So I took my hat off to Harper and took my hat off again when I checked out other editions of Venus in Furs.
It seems male masochistic, submissive desire is generally depicted as tits, boots and corsets. In a fair world, my own female masochistic, submissive desire might be depicted as muscle, army boots and a sneer. But the world is not fair and I usually get women’s arses. Oh, and corsets. Everyone gets corsets.
So hurrah to Harper Perennial for using an image of a guy on Venus in Furs. Being able to understand the image made me look more closely at the other covers. And OMG, what’s going on in The Way of a Man with a Maid? That’s surely a pic of a bloke. Can you see stubble on the chin? Are those fingers too broad to be female? (Click on the title to see a bigger, clearer picture.)
I could be churlish and say ‘This is not enough’. Two ambiguous images of men don’t have much impact, especially when people may not actually realise these are guys. And it’s interesting to note that the two books featuring men on the cover are those with narratives on male submission. In particular, the image on The Way of a Man with a Maid suggests uncertainty and coquettishness, a flirty sort of submission more traditionally associated with women. A man less maid-like wouldn’t have gone amiss. And I’d have been thrilled to see a hint of muscle and swagger on Walter’s My Secret Life, one of my favourite erotic books. But perhaps overt masculinity was deemed too much. And while none of the ten images are explicit, those depicting women are clearly of women. So perhaps what we’re seeing is man candy by stealth.
And I’m not going to complain too much because the point is: this is how change often starts. Softly, softly, catchee monkey. Sure, we want sexy guys on erotica covers to counterbalance the prevalence of sexy women but we know this won’t happen overnight. Part of the publishers’ problem is trying to appeal to readers who’ve been socially conditioned to think semi-nekkid babe = hetsexy and semi-nekkid guy = gay or romance. Another problem, so we’re told, is convincing booksellers to stock books whose covers stray from the sexist norm.
But look, Perennial seem to have done it effortlessly. And remember, this is an imprint of Harper Collins. They are major players. I doubt they were motivated solely by an impulse to challenge the usual gender bias. They’ve revived these classics by doing something different within their new line. My guess is they’re aiming the books at straight men, women and couples. The feel is romantic and sensual; the books were released pre-Valentine’s day; and men are included on the covers meaning women are included as viewers. And why go to all this trouble to broaden smut’s usual audience? Because Harper Perennial think there’s money in it, why else?
And so the world didn’t end, the horses weren’t frightened and nobody got confused over where to shelve the books. After all, only a fool would pick up Perennial’s edition of Venus in Furs and think they were holding gay porn. Or, um, that its cover featured a chicken wing.
So what do you think? Could you tell what the image was immediately? And do you agree that it is a pic of a guy on The Way of a Man with a Maid? Or am I seeing things once again?
Let me know. And I’ll let you know if Harper Collins ever get back to me.