Zadie Smith. Elif Batuman. Joyce Carol Oates. Dionne Brand. Alice Munro. Patricia Lockwood. Olga Tokarczuk. Lydia Davis. Rachel Kushner. Deborah Levy. Rachel Cusk. Yoko Tawada. Chris Kraus. Mary Gaitskill. Sheila Heti. Fleur Jaeggy.
These are the women whose novels are spotlighted in personal collections and bookstores alike. They are a mainstay on best-seller lists, amassing accolades that include the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize. And you have most likely read them all — you may even have a favorite.
Recently, these writers inadvertently found their names, quite literally, at the center of the latest maelstrom brewing on X, formerly known as Twitter. The culprit? Hats.
On Sept. 22, Minor Canon — described as a “fan project, not a brand or an art project” on its website, where it sells book and art merchandise (not unlike a brand) — posted photos of its latest drop: solid-colored baseball caps, embroidered with the names of prominent female writers. “CONTEMPORARY WOMEN,” the post reads on the X platform, “Available Now.”
Criticism and mockery soon followed: The hats were confusing (at $27 apiece, which does not include tax or shipping); posturing (As one observer said: “Wow! You read! And you’ve read books by a woman! That’s so crazy!”); exploitative (Minor Canon did not initially ask the writers for permission to use their names or offer them a cut of its profits).
Within a day of the release, Minor Canon removed the hats from its website and paused all future orders. Saelan Twerdy, 41, Minor Canon’s founder, who works in publishing in Montreal, said in a statement that he had reached out to the authors after the controversy and had apologized for not seeking their consent in advance.
“I designed these products because I am a huge fan of the authors involved, and the last thing I would want is for them to feel exploited or disrespected,” Mr. Twerdy said over email, adding that he fully understood “if anyone would prefer not to be commodified in this way.” A number of authors have already responded to him, he said, and have been “generally positive.”
Ridicule aside, some readers not so secretly pined for the hats, while others readily admitted that they had bought the caps featuring their favorite literary darlings. The issue, it seems, is not so much an empty gesture toward feminism or a failure to seek the writers’ approval as it is with book swag itself.
It’s reading as a wink, a performance.
“Books, like the clothes you wear or the car you own, are symbols of a person’s tastes, of their aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities,” said Terry Nguyen, a contributing editor for Dirt, a daily newsletter about the internet and pop culture, who wrote an essay about the aesthetics of bookishness.
She continued: “In the digital age, there is more social value a person (or celebrity) can cultivate in appearing well-read or knowledgeable about best-selling titles or popular authors.”
For bibliophiles, Ms. Nguyen added, the discomfort may lie in how a book, like any other product, can become a commodity: Branded merchandise is just that anxiety reincarnate. “Rachel Cusk and Zadie Smith have become, in effect, literary brands — once their names are removed from the context of a book’s cover and placed on a hat or a tote bag,” she said.
Bookish aesthetics are not unique to Minor Canon. Dirt sells a hat emblazoned with “Girl Moss” (a play on the term “girl boss” and a nod to a viral tweet posted by one of the newsletter’s founders, Daisy Alioto). On Friday, the magazine n + 1 dropped a “Track Changes” hat (also $27), celebrating the release of an art-criticism handbook of the same name.
Previously, every few years, a book might become canon within a niche group of readers. In 2015, for instance, T-shirts printed with “Jude & JB & Willem & Malcolm” — the main characters of Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life” (Ms. Yanagihara is the editor in chief of T Magazine) — became something like a closet staple for some gay men.
Other books were accompanied by savvy marketing that turned merch into a red-velvet-roped area of Who’s Who. In 2021, Sally Rooney’s “Beautiful World, Where Are You?” dropped alongside a book-branded hat, tote bag and umbrella, flooding the social media accounts of so-called literary celebrities and influencers. But in 2023, lame is the tote bag branded with highly anticipated titles with bloated marketing budgets — and vogue is the literary hat.
So what is it, exactly, about the accessory?
Is it the ultimate pairing of the lowbrow (baseball cap) and the highbrow (literature)? Or is it wearing books as one might wear cult fashion labels — and the uncanny performance of it all? Does it matter?
Perhaps the better question is, Are the hats even cool? That, Ms. Nguyen said, depends on the wearer. “My general philosophy is that branded merch is fun and a good conversation starter,” she said.
Pat Montano, an artist in Brooklyn who uses they and them pronouns, said they had almost bought the Dionne Brand hat. It wasn’t the price tag or the minor controversy that had deterred their purchase. Rather, Mx. Montano said, they already owned an Annie Ernaux hat in a death-metal font.
We’re too online, they said, and no one needs to defend a $27 purchase to strangers. “Everybody just needs to log off,” Mx. Montano said, “pick up a book and lay on some grass — or some moss.”