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April 08, 2006

Upscale Book Jackets

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Back when upscale fiction took the form of minimalist stories and novellas, the factor about a fiction-book that signaled "literary" most unmistakably was usually the title. It sometimes seemed as though the titles of all these books featured pleading variations on the word "I": "Why Do I Ever." "What Was Mine." "Where I'm Coming From." When you read titles like these, you felt pretty certain that you weren't looking at the Thriller shelf.

These days, it seems that the standard way for a book to announce its literary bona fides is with its jacket art. I'm overstating matters, of course. A lot of elements go into creating a book's aura: the typefaces, the paper quality, the blurbs, the jacket copy, the title, even the amount of white space on a typical page. Even so, a contempo literary book's aura often seems to be mostly created by its bookjacket. Makes sense: We live in a hyper-visual, make-an-instant-impact era.

Literary-book-jacketwise, something that has caught my attention -- as in "amused and annoyed me" -- is a tonal thing. An awful lot of literary book jackets seem to want to hit the same tone these days, don't they? Let me offer some examples of what I'm thinking about.

Whatever the differences between these jackets, they all hit the same emotional note -- an off-center, almost-discarded-snapshot tone. Looking at these designs, I'm reminded especially of today's girl folk-rock singers: all those tough-cute chix with girlish-gargling voices -- half-bawling, half-teasing, sorrowful-sexy descendents of Rickie Lee Jones and Liz Phair. These bookjackets radiate: I'm recessive yet exhibitionistic. I'm far too classy (not to mention too wrapped-up-in-myself) to extend myself for your sake, let alone belt out a melody or dance the boogaloo. I'm expressive, but reluctantly expressive. I'm expressive because ... well, being expressive is my sad-sexy fate.

Thinking of all these bookjackets as one great big group, I find myself noticing two main subgenres. The minor one shares a theme: "Horsing-around in someone's backyard, though I can't remember exactly when or where."

But the main subgenre -- by a huge, huge margin -- is "bits and pieces of girls." A few examples:

What do these bookjackets say to you? I mean, besides "I'm fashionable." My own take runs along these lines: "My fiction is a little piece of me, and I give it to you compulsively if reluctantly. I'm part Tori Amos, part Hemingway."

Thwarted-desire, falling-off-the-table-ness has become such a standard-issue motif (or visual strategy, or something) that even the brassier cover muchachas are often presented in lopped-off ways.

Book-jacket designers really don't know where to stop, do they? They've even taken to chopping up children.

Call the cops! Quark-violence is being inflicted on the underaged!

The question arises: Why stop with just one off-center image? Why indeed? Here's the book jacket that strikes me as the ne plus ultra of the moment.

You know how you can sometimes look at a provocative, s&m-themed fashion image and wonder, "What on earth do the partyline feminists make of this? After all, what's the difference between this sexy image and a porn image? What makes one OK while the other is repressive and exploitative?"

Well, some mischievous part of me looks at book jacket designs featuring bits and pieces of girls and marvels, "Sixteen years ago Brett Ellis was given a public whipping for writing a novel in which his protagonist chopped women up. These days, designers are chopping women up on book jackets and no one complains." I imagine that some people consider the general look to be hot, or otherwise desirable. I'd even bet that today's ambitious young literary woman dreams of seeing her words encased in a bookjacket featuring a girl-fragment. Picture me shaking my head in exaggerated incomprehension.

Even when the framing in one of these book jackets is traditional (or semi-traditional), the whole gestalt still reeks of ... What?

I'll venture "intense if vagued-out narcissism," but I'm certainly open to better ideas and impressions. Speaking of which, ain't it interesting how many of these books are by women? Arty chix, eh? "Me me me me ..."

Is what I'm taking note of a passing fashion? Or is it something that's installing itself for the longterm as a classic? Beats me, of course. But the indie-chick book jacket has already been with us for some time. I'm just guessing, but I have the impression that the mood has been around for more than a decade. When did it first surface? For some reason, I associate its early days with the fiction of Susan Minot. Here's a typical Susan Minot book jacket:

Although this jacket features an upper-class/WASPy house-detail, it still radiates the same vibe: spare yet imprecise, lonely-sexy yet also privileged-sexy. Pain will be put on display. Families will be shown to be dysfunctional. Children will be sensitive. Some of them are doomed. You will want me.

Hey, is today's lit-fict author always a child, forever wearing p.j.'s, and reeling from the discovery that she's expected to grow up? ... Oh, sorry: I was self-indulgently drifting off myself there for a moment.

Anyway: We're to be treated to the inner and ineffable tribulations of a stylish trust-fund beauty. Hearts will break, quietly. Lives will go awry. Literary prizes will be awarded.

Hey, I just remembered that Susan Minot co-scripted Bertolucci's inadvertently-campy "Stealing Beauty," an exercise in languorously boho self-indulgence that's arch and yawny, but also worth a few semi-sexy giggles. The film is essential viewing for Rachel Weisz and Liv Tyler fans, and is currently on sale at Amazon for $6.99.

Do any of these book jackets make you want to pick up the book they enclose and read it? Me, I can't imagine a book-packaging approach more likely to put me off reading entirely. I tend to like fiction with fire and fizz, as well as a lot of specificity; god knows that a halfway-decent story and some humorous touches seldom go unappreciated.

But what these jackets seem to be selling is an experience that's drifty, in-between, and neither-this-nor-that: far more self-absorbed than eager-to-entertain. Me, I look at these book jackets wondering, "Where's the entertainment value? Does someone get killed? Is a p.i. brought in to solve a crime? Can I look forward to some sexy hardboiled dames putting all the male characters on edge?" These are book jackets that turn their noses up at the kinds of questions I like asking of fiction.

Some more self-indulgent connection-making: I find myself remembering "Lost in Translation," or rather the exquisite 30 minutes of it that was all The Wife and I managed to sit through. I'm also remembering that the French use the whole "summer vacation" fiction-pretext differently than we do. For the French, "having a summer off as a young person" generally means sun, picnics, toplessness, and funky-chic sexual intrigue. Girls seduce their dads' best friends then cause hell in everyone's lives. Boys ride mopeds, glower ludicrously, wear too-tight pants, and are rejected by or deflower girls. Meanwhile, literary Americans seem to see "summer off" as an excuse for nostalgia. We dwell on the impossibility of growing up. We play with the hems of our pyjamas. We hum little fragments of childhood songs. We whine to ourselves about our upbringings.

A few questions? One: What does it mean about the status and nature of literary writing today -- and its place in the more general media universe -- that indie-chick book-jacket designs have become so prominent? (My hunch: the end of civilization.) Two: Who on earth would ever want to read these books? (My hunch: no one I'd ever want to hang out with.) And three: Are classes in "wispy bookjacket design" offered at art and design schools these days?



posted by Michael at April 8, 2006


First reaction: come on. Chick lit dominates the market. It's young women who read the most books. And you're right IMHO, they are narcissists. The bits you're seeing are their reflections in the mirror -- they don't get right down to it and check themselves out in a full-length mirror. Instead they catch themselves in bits: bathroom mirror, mirror by the door, car rearview, shop windows, cosmetic counter. Posing. Trying on roles.

Second reaction: it's the agents. Agents are pushed-out editors, mostly not-so-young women trying not to regret their past too much, though they took a lot of risks that didn't pay off. They can't figure out who they were or who they will be. And so those are the manuscripts they will push.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on April 8, 2006 03:39 PM

You know, Michael, I'll certainly trust you with all things publishing, but - where did you see all that? Could that be you're projecting something, something from the content of those books to their cover (but isn't it what's the purpose of book jacket is - to give the buyer some idea what's awaiting inside?)
I have no idea what those books are about or who are the writers (I still have gaps to fill in my reading with 1st-tier authors, to go for "indy-lit"; life is too short) - but they don't look narcissistic to me.

I like the fragmentation. It's how life is lived. There is no coherent story, with proper plots and subplots, moral lesson at the end and made-up, toes-to-hairdo picture in the mirror. The mosaic gives better idea of the person because it's dynamic.
Take yourself, for instance (if we'll agree the bloggers are sort of personages in the ongoing reality-show-book). It would be very boring and hardly-believable book if different planes of your personality were presented in a way to "make sense", because they are irreconcilable if presented in straight-line graph. Kid from middle class white Christian family in upstate NY - co-writer of semi-pornographic novel/ cancer survivor with self-described diminished energy level - person with extensive knowledge in miriad subjects/ fan of racy internet videos (let's leave it at that) and a conscious follower of yoga. Does it look logical to you?
If presented as book, what jacket do you envision to illustrate that story?

Posted by: Tatyana on April 8, 2006 04:51 PM

Oh, and another thing.
..."having a summer off as a young person" generally means sun, picnics, toplessness, and funky-chic sexual intrigue. Girls seduce their dads' best friends then cause hell in everyone's lives. Boys ride mopeds, glower ludicrously, wear too-tight pants, and are rejected by or deflower girls.
- but that's "Stealing Beauty" in a nutshell. Written by American writer.(BTW, what exactly you have against it? I love Liv Tyler; one of very few truly beautiful American actresses, among the cartoonish drek that passes for it...Angelina Jolie? Jennifer Aniston? And she can act.)

Posted by: Tatyana on April 8, 2006 05:09 PM

I ain't no chick-lit reader; ain't hardly no fiction-reader at all. So I'll pass on what the real relationships are between content and cover art/design.

That said, I find it interesting that the covers you showed us had all the punch of a ... well, powderpuff.

Almost zero impact. Almost zero focus -- unless the books' content is as vacuous as the covers and that's all the art director and designer could work with.

The practical side of me wonders how well those books are selling, both in absolute terms and compared to earlier books in the genre (controlling for secular trends in overall book sales, natch). If these books are barn-burners at the checkout stand, well that's the market. But if they're underperforming, maybe even indy, non-corporate publishers might clean house in the art direction department, firing that arty nephew with a Brown U. education.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 8, 2006 06:22 PM

How nice to see people taking the yakking-about-design bait!

P. Mary -- All very smart, tks. A couple of minor tweaks? The examples here in fact aren't (strictly speaking anyway) "chicklit." These are the upper-class cousins of chicklit -- writing school stuff, stuff that's good for you. The graphics on what's technically chicklit are much gaudier -- big flat drawing in girly pink an eyeshadow blue, lots of lips and high heels, etc. This is all so ... pallid, don't you find? I like your point about the way young girls perceive themselves. The bookjackets certainly do a good job of conveying narcissism and self-consciousness, don't they?

Tatyana -- I actually like some of these designs, if in an overrefined way. What strikes me is what a widespread trend it is -- and various other aspects of that. Is there a mood in the air? Why this, and why now? My own hunch is that lit-fict has moved beyond the memoir into total female self-enraptured self-absorption. It's now all about trying to make art out of looking in the mirror, while hoping someone's watching and feeling impressed and turned on. BTW, while you're right that "Stealing Beauty" was written by an American, the story and direction were by a Euro. I wonder if Susan Minot has transformed into a Euro ...

Donald -- I'd love to know how these books do saleswise too. Sales figures are very hard to pry out of publishers, darn it. Despite financial pressures, there's still a tendency on the part of publishers to make the occasional stab at prestige publishing. I don't know why (ego self-gratification?), but there it is. You're certainly right that the jackets have zero impact. I wonder if that's the point. They're too classy to do something so vulgar as make an impact? They're selling non-impact? With "impact" conceived of as something showbizzy, vulgar, non-literary? They're selling tasteful self-absorption? Makes sense to me ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 8, 2006 06:55 PM

Could Eric Rohmer be the architect of the modern age? Say it ain't so!

"These bookjackets radiate: I'm recessive yet exhibitionistic."

I recently revisited Katie Roiphe's fun book The Morning After: Sex Fear And Feminisim On Campus, which made a big splash when it came out. In a chapter on modern girls, she posits that this particular breed is after status and only status, and isn't in the mood to be hindered by such minutia as consistency or integrity or noncontradiction. In the current zeitgeist, being a sexually available can-do grrl-power showoff will get them status, so they do that. But at the same time, being a fractured, absent-minded, waify victim of the patriarchy will also get them status, so they do that too. From their point of view there's no contradiction between the two personae, because both are expressions of the same status seeking urge.

I love these covers though. So spaced out they can't even keep their eyes open or look at the camera, except for the occasional accusing glare.

I wonder if the readers are as young and waify and sleepy as the models? Probably not, since book covers present an ideal - think of the square-jawed cop on a detective novel, or the musclebound adventurer on a fantasy jacket. But what kind of ideal is this? And whose? And for gosh sakes why?

Posted by: Brian on April 8, 2006 06:57 PM

The more I look at the Sue Miller "Lost In The Forest" cover, the funnier it gets:

"I'm so overburdened by life, my only choice is to lie here in my whispy negligee, exposing my toned and nubile thighs. Don't you wish you had thighs like mine? Please don't address me directly. By the way, did you notice my sofa? It's Bruschwig! I'd drag my limp right arm back onto it, if I only had the strength. So tell me, am I cute? I am, right? Oh dear, I'm losing consciousness again."

Imagine getting lost in the forest dressed like that!

Posted by: Brian on April 8, 2006 07:50 PM

I note, too, that several of the covers have the book title in absurdly small type. I suspect the intent is to gain attention by the graphic equivalent of a whisper.

The technique reads more to me, however, as if the author and publisher are embarrassed at their choice of title.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on April 9, 2006 12:07 AM

Did you see the Chip Kidd book-jacket design show at Cooper Union? His partner edits the YALE REVIEW--quite a combination!

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 9, 2006 12:33 AM

And you're right IMHO, they are narcissists. The bits you're seeing are their reflections in the mirror

I think this is somewhat unfair. The vast majority of any set of readers want something that reflects themselves in some way. If young women are narcissistic in their reading tastes, so is (almost) every other reader group.

As far as the covers go, the general design of the cover is a code for the type of book. It's not so important that the cover fit the book as it is important that the cover contains design elements that signal so the reader knows what sort of book it is.

The dominant design type was probably reached some time ago (and probably more or less by accident). After that, everyone else realized they're in danger of being overlooked by their market if they don't conform. Sort of a "network effect". (Okay, that and a huge amount of superstition - "don't use green - green doesn't sell!" until a new designer doesn't know the rules, puts a green jacket on a book which happens to sell gazillions and then it's "use green - green sells!" :-) )

Posted by: Tom West on April 9, 2006 07:19 AM

In regards to the narcissim projected by these books...

From the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday, April 5, 2006:

Why should I have to wait years to get a book deal?" asked Robyn Schneider, a Barnard College student from Irvine [in the O.C.] and author of the novel "Better Than Yesterday," which will be published by Delacorte in 2007, and is aimed at both audiences [i.e., YA and adult readers]. She describes the book, written when she was 18, as the tale of "four top students at an elite East Coast boarding school [who] run away to Manhattan, fall in love, and learn to take the SATs less seriously.

One is tempted to retort to Ms. Schneider that she could usefully wait as many additional years to get her book deal as it takes to realize that her privileged youth is, perhaps, not the fulcrum and purpose of the universe. Although I suppose it would be useless to even point this out to a Barnard student with a book deal from Delacorte...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 9, 2006 10:32 PM

Blame Chip Kidd for this trend in book cover design, although as is always the case with the innovator of a trend, his stuff is very good.

Personally, I like the fragmented covers.

Posted by: the patriarchy on April 10, 2006 10:25 AM

Heh, just noticed someone else mentioned Kidd. I guess I should read ALL the comments before posting one myself.

Posted by: the patriarchy on April 10, 2006 10:26 AM

Brian -- A funny thing is that Sue Miller's books (OK, I've read only one, but why not generalize) aren't wispy/weary narcissistic things. They come out of a pre-chicklit era, and almost qualify as traditional fiction. Still: that whole arty-trust-fund affectedndess can be pretty hawt, don't you think?

Doug: "I suspect the intent is to gain attention by the graphic equivalent of a whisper." That's a great line! I wish the Times would hire you to do graphics criticism.

Winifer, Patriarchy -- The Chip Kidd influence isn't to be understated. It's an interesting question: Would this look have arisen and taken over to the degree it has without someone like Kidd first nailing it in place? I mean, is there something semi-inevitable about the time, the place, the mood, Larger Zeitgeistian developments that makes it unavoidable that this should have occurred? After all, Kidd was hardly the only person slicing and dicing photos and playing with strange kinds of off-center framing. I don't know myself. But he's certainly got a touch, hasn't he?

Tom -- I think the "network effect" idea is really smart, and is something more people who comment about culture ought to be taking into account. "Get on board with the current thang or suffer a professional death" certainly plays a big role in the lives of a lot of culture-pros, god knows. I'm with you 80% on the narcisissm thing. But I differ on one small point, which is the degree to which narcissism predominates and drives. One thing that's really remarkable about the emergence of chicklit (and upscale chicklit) is that it's flagrantly "about me." These books are like reading magazine articles about people like yourself. They're written, packaged, sold and consumed in that glossy-mirror, Self-magazine spirit. I'm not certain this has ever been the case in fiction before. When I read and loved "Charterhouse of Parma," for instance, I certainly saw something of myself in the book. But I wasn't really reading it to read about myself. The artists doing chicklit (and upscale chicklit) are looking in the mirror, and are writing for other girls who like looking in the mirror too. We've all been given such license to focus on ourselves that this is the kind of fiction (and the kind of packaging design) that results. Sofia Coppola's movies suggest something similar. They don't set out to entertain, they don't try to tell stories. They kind of drift around, moodily sharing bits and pieces of this and that, striking self-enraptured poses. Incidentally, so far as this kind of thing goes she seems to be pretty talented ...

FvB -- Entitlement, it's a beautiful thing!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 10, 2006 12:02 PM

I don't see much difference between chick-lit and authors like Chuck Palahniuk who write fiction (Fight Club, Choke, etc.) targeted very deliberately towards young males. Each genre pushes all the right buttons and plays upon young peoples' insecurities and fears about entering adulthood, which is the bread and butter of young people's fiction through the ages, or at least since the late 19th century.

Posted by: the patriarch on April 10, 2006 01:58 PM

Now I know why I've ceased reading current fiction. Thank you, Michael Blowhard.

And here I'd just thought I'd been sucked into 24 and American Idol.

Posted by: chelsea girl on April 12, 2006 12:38 AM

The authors seem to have as phony-pretentious names as the covers of their books. How many Ima's and Thiebe's can there really be in the world? I agree with Doug---I think they are somewhat embarassed by their titles, or else know that they really should be.

Posted by: annette on April 13, 2006 12:00 PM

Thanks for your analysis of upscale book jackets. I am grateful for those novels’ covers because they quickly convey the type of story they will tell and the kind of characters that will inhabit them, so I can pass them by.

The more I go to Barnes and Noble, the more I like the plain Jane covers of many French publishing houses' books, which all feature the same austere design and just give title, author and publisher information on the cover. It at least might compel the reader to pick up the book and see what it's about if the title and author do not turn him off.

Also, is it a coincidence that the edition of ANNA KARENINA chosen by the Oprah Book Club features a cover with a close up of a woman’s knees with a posy of violets between them? Maybe we should blame Tolstoy’s agent for that one, but it did sell a lot of copies.

Posted by: Cristina on April 13, 2006 05:42 PM

The trend of chopping women's bodies into pieces is an old one in the advertising world, and one that we feminists have lamented. It's sad that it's occurring in the book jacket world as well. Thanks for this observation, Michael.

Posted by: Zoe on April 19, 2006 08:06 AM

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