I had the pleasant experience this week of seeing some first-draft mockups of the cover of my forthcoming novel (this isn't a promotional blog, but I doubt I'll be able to resist an announcement when it comes out next year...you've been warned). They looked good--my editor and I made a few suggestions and sent them back for another round.
But aside from being pleased that the whole publication process was underway, I felt kind of odd. I've felt this oddness before, with my other book covers, and I feel it whenever a favorite book of mine is reissued, with a new cover.
We're often told not to judge a book by its cover--the old cliche, of course, means that we shouldn't judge things by their surface. But the fact is, we DO judge books by their covers. Walking into a bookstore is deeply meta for me--having been through the publishing wringer half a dozen times, I'm hyper-aware of the ways in which publishers are attempting to entice me to pick up their books. But this doesn't immunize me from those enticements. I absolutely pick up books with interesting covers, and should I go on to read those books, the images on the covers will color, however subtly, the way I read them.
So the oddness I refer to is the oddness of seeing a cover after I already know the book--and feeling as though it doesn't quite fit. In the case of my forthcoming book, I've had a cover in mind for about a year, and although my publisher asked what kind of cover I wanted (a rare privilege, I can tell you), and more or less listened to what I said, the cover the book will eventually have will not be quite right. It can't be. Even if I designed it myself, it wouldn't be right--because the cover I have in mind has hidden depths. It's layered, magically, almost. It can't exist.
Occasionally a book I've read will come out as a reprint, and I won't like the new cover at all. What I generally feel at this point is betrayal. A novel is different from, say, a movie, in at least one important way: because it's nothing but text--that is, a series of symbols with no inherent meaning--it depends upon its reader to create the story it tells entirely in her head. I think this is one of the reasons people have such deep, abiding, sentimental attachments to books--because they feel a book is their book. And it is, because they made it themselves.
And so, any kind of visual representation of a book--a cover image, say--feels like some kind of an insult. No, no, you want to say--it's not that way, it's this way. This is even more true when you wrote the damned thing. Have you ever heard a writer say, of his or her book, "Don't you love the cover? I think it's awesome." This is a rare occurrence, to be sure. No matter how good the cover is, it's wrong somehow--too dark, too cute, too busy, too spare, to bland, too designed.
The converse, as I mentioned, is when you see the cover first, and then come to associate the book with it. Infinite Jest, that's one, for me. All of Salinger's books, with their little stripes and distinctive typeface. The blocky, kind of awful illustrations on the covers of Rick DeMarinis's novels and story collections. Lorrie Moore's Birds of America. The Norton critical editions of classic literature, with those old-school one-color illustrations. Penguin Classics. The New Yorker. All the Audubon Society Field Guides. It is the habit, these days, of commercial publishers to have one cover for the hardcover edition, and another for the paperback, presumably to win a different audience the second time around. But do they ever wonder how the first audience feels? The one who already read the book, and now are being told that everything they believed in was just a lie?!?
In a perfect world, every book would have the same blank cover, with the title and author printed on it in the same typeface; and we would all make our judgements by reading the first couple of pages. Then again, maybe that's not a perfect world. Maybe that's a boring-as-shit world--a world in which everybody would beeline right out of the bookstore and go feast their eyes on some flowers, or video games, or other people.
Other people: that's the right metaphor. A book cover is like a pretty dress (or whatever garment floats your boat) that you can't wait to get underneath. And then, when your lover leaves you, and you see her wearing something new, ah!, the pain! Those reprints aren't for you--they're for someone else. Damn those covers! Jezebels! Judases! That's my story you're tarting up!