Monday, 31 May 2010

CoverStory - the decline in aesthetics

The art of the paperback novel is fundamental to how one approaches a book and whether the look and set-up appeals to ones own sense of interest. The history of the novel cover is as complex as the actual history of the printing and publication of any novel. Post-war readership increased the demand for a greater yield in "pulp" fiction and so the cover art suffered from an
awful deterioration in the form. Out of this however there emerged in the late 1960's to the mid 1970's a series of covers that became so commonplace to be seen in certain bookshops that the cover actually became synonymous with the text of the book. A prime example is Joseph Heller's "Catch 22" - published 1961 - which with the Corgi edition attracts the contact of the eyes with the mind and the term catch 22. This book always used to assault one upon entry to any bookshop. The combination of gold and red background with black bordering controls the visual senses to focus on the "22" - the book is sold not with an image but with the number. The "catch" is in that and the presentation. It is truly one of the best marketing ploys ever in the history of book selling. Since then (and I am talking about UK editions here) there have been a number of books that have acquired such an iconic status.

Another notable example is David Pelham's exceptional design for Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange" - published 1962 - from the 1972 Penguin edition. This bold and imaginative abstraction on the droog Alex conjures up the Kubrick film and the imagery is definitely from there, but Pelham has full command of his art. The green shirt banded by the light blue braces is settled by a mid-3rd yellow backdrop, which itself is exemplified by the block orange. The humanoid face is intensified by the cog-toothed wheel eye motif which does not dehumanise the
character but actually strengthens the depth of its appeal. This is all completed and both deepened and projected by the jet black bowler. Recent Penguin covers (2000/2008) by Véronique Rolland of photographed glasses of the spiked milk have their own appeal, but for personal reasons I find them rather shallow and rather derivative of the plot, for it seems to imply something about the behaviour of the droogs by linking their anarchy with the drugged drink with "knives in it". The Pelham typically stands the test of time because the Kubrick film nails the visual sensation of the book and those who know of both are forced to adapt to this projection of the cover.

"One flew over the cuckoo's nest" - published 1962 - by Ken Kesey is a good example of a book that has become associated to the extent of being homogeneous with the film adaption. The simplicity of the Picador format from the 1970's is in its deliberate selling of Jack Nicholson as the central character McMurphy. Nicholson's Oscar winning performance is next to impossible to remove from the imagination if you read the book after viewing the movie. I fortunately read the book first but the wry-tired-cheeky visage of Nicholson creeps into the cortex so as to become McMurphy in the mental reading of the text. This process is helped by the orange backing. On a side note the Picador edition is not the usual paperback size. Editions of the present are bland and uninspiring, and still they use Nicholson's depiction to help sell the copy. It is really a clever cover because it tricks you by guile into believing you are being allowed in on McMurphy's private war against the system - and he knows you know.

Since the mid 1980's there has been a sharp decline in the cover art as a means to enjoy the book in itself. This is a result of market forces but also a risible attitude on behalf of critics and those who claim to speak for the masses. The common retort is that the cover is not that important but what is between the pages. This is true but it does seem a shame that culture has suffered because of a rather old and jaded view about art. There are fewer noticeable iconic covers these days. If the books sells, the cover becomes familiar to most book readers but that is because of over proliferation and not the art depicted on the surface. The examples beneath are prime examples of this and I am not suggesting they are awful in themselves but that they are deliberately constructed to a market that is vacant of originality.

Stephanie Meyer's "Twilight" is indeed a brilliant marketing strategy. The hands holding the 'forbidden' fruit are evocative and set against the black background a genuine eye-catcher, and I admit that the market is about produce and the making of money, but this is not art even if it is iconic. The tease is directed to the audience - a teenage angst ridden depressed one - and the redness of the apple is a psychological ploy on the undeveloped subconscious and it works but this only helps to demonstrate the downturn in the market. If the cover is just to sell and it is about the text why is "Twilight" so often condemned by critics and readers alike. It has its value as a piece of entertainment - but it is no "Dracula".

"The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown is another popular book one will find on book Internet sites. The image is familiar because it is borrowed from the Mona Lisa but there is great tactlessness in the overall structure. It is a potboiler and though it still sells the image is not stationary and quickly removes itself from the memory as the content, not the text mind you, of Brown's book becomes more important than the enjoyment. It is in a similar place as Erich von Däniken's "Chariots of the gods". A flash in the pan that is remembered for the flash - but the pan remains.

The third inclusion is Chucjk Palahniuk's "Haunted". This is how a lot of trendy post-modern books are being detailed. There is a contrived feel to the whole process, and though the Palahniuk may have value as a read, the art is no longer unintentional but enforced. It is as if you are expected to like the volatile approach of this new line. The decline in the love of beautiful things started a while back and death and decay begin to reign supreme. Many will question "so what if the covers are rubbish?" but you see, if the covers have not and do not acquire that cultural significance then we will find that we are expected to enjoy the lesser worth because of it's marketability and not because of its meaning.

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