Hoo-has and passing frenzies

Why do books about female sexuality always end up with such terrifying covers?

So, here's the thing. Naomi Wolf has written a book about vaginas (or should that be vaginae, Latin nerds?) which comes out this autumn. It's sure to be much talked about, particularly as it promises to "radically reframe how we understand the vagina".

There's only one problem, and if your eye has already started to stray down this page, you'll know what it is. Books about female sexuality obviously can't put a picture of what they're about on the cover; there would be carnage at WH Smith's. So instead they rely on pictures of buds, flowers or figs, or suggestive ovals filled with stuff.

And oh look, here's the provisional Wolf cover on Amazon UK. Look, it's a lovely flower, unfurling:

But if you think that's twee, how about this? Erica Jong's book about sex, Sugar In My Bowl, is illustrated with a picture that makes me think of a poor woman going to the bathroom and three packets of Skittles falling out of her pants.

OK, so you want to avoid twee . . . Why not go for shudder-inducing instead? These ladies want you to read their lips. Their green, fuzzy, dew-dappled lips.

Now, this one might be my favourite. Who knew a pair of purses could make a person feel profoundly uncomfortable?

Then there's the frankly baffling. I don't think this a symbol of female genitalia, but by this point I'm just not sure.

If all this flower-and-fruit fiesta leaves you cold, why not go minimalist? Here's Vaginas: An Owner's Manual.

(Quick digression: why does Candice "Carrie Bradshaw" Bushnell think every woman needs an "owner's manual" for their vagina? Do they break down often? do the AA not cover them?)

Mm, appreciate the purity of the pink slit.

Then think to yourself: this looks like a paper cut. Ouch.

Even the French love a fig-based metaphor. This is global:

The long and short of it is that there is, apparently, no way to illustrate a book about hoo-has without coming across as either a tittering idiot, a speculum-wielding literalist or a wafty hippyish obfuscator.

And so on to my absolute favourite, which hits all the boxes: terrible punning title, big juicy fig (update: papaya?), and then adds in a little something magic.

A vague looming banana. Brilliant.

 

UPDATE

Here are a few submissions from readers. First, behold a new metaphorical fruit, the avocado:

More unfurling buds, via @SamCarelse

And to prove even album covers aren't immune, this from @questingvole

And to show that things are just as bad for boys when it comes to BAD FRUIT METAPHORS:

Do you think that's how Sadie's friends introduce her to strangers? "Have you met Sadie - she's a Penis Genius, you know!"

Finally, a suggestive book cover that is actually rather thoughtful and clever (Shock! Horror!), via @lcdabdoujaparov

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred