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Alissa Nutting, controversy, and what you would or wouldn’t do to sell your book

August 1, 2013

My interest was piqued when local radio host Corey Dylan posted on Facebook that cover of a new book called Tampa made her blush. Of course, having seen that–and currently living in Tampa, I had to take a look. The cover, on its own, is nothing substantial.

Big deal, right? It’s a shirt missing a button. Except that the story is essentially a fictionalized account of the Debra Lafave story. Lafave is the pretty blonde former school teacher who was charged with deflowering a fourteen-year-old boy in 2004. During her trial, her lawyer infamously declared that she was too pretty for prison, and she was spared prison.

According to the book’s author, Alissa Nutting, the story turns the older Lolita story on its head, pairing an older woman (26) with a 14-year-old boy. According to Nutting, the point of the book is to draw a comparison between the way older men (monsters, sexual predators) are generally perceived when they bed minor girls (victims) and the way older women (goddesses dispensing the gift of bliss) are generally perceived when they bed minor boys (lottery winners).

Reaction is mixed. The Washington Post and Tampa Bay Times aren’t impressed. On the other hand, The New York TImes was far kinder in its assessment.  Although the content is, on its face, potentially offensive (a lot of people view older women and boys as a gift not a crime), the difference between how men and women are perceived in this circumstance is worthy of exploration. And the content is likely to be attention-grabbing, especially considering how Nutting went to school with Lafave.

The domestic book cover is black with chalk letters. However, the other cover–featured above–is the first one I saw.

The author and her US cover

The other cover, according to Nutting’s Facebook page is the UK version. It’s far more suggestive when you know the story about the book. All of which raises a number of questions:

  • Let’s assume for a second that the Times article is correct and the book is more than just a gratuitous, disgusting tale of an older woman seducing a boy–and that it really does hold up the double standard between sexes. Is the book cover inappropriate, or is it clever and–at least on its, uhhh, cover, non-offensive?
  • If the book cover is non-offensive, is it effective? (It’s literally what put the book in front of me.) And is the strategy of having a plain book cover in the US, but a more provocative one overseas, similarly effective?
  • Assuming again that Ms. Nutting’s work is quality, and not gratuitous, does the book cover and the salacious content–not to mention her backstory–take away from the point she’s trying to make or add to it?

And perhaps most important, what would you do–and what would you not do–to sell a book?

  1. August 1, 2013 10:34 am

    The cover with the buttonhole is obviously meant to suggest female anatomy.

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