Thursday, November 5, 2009

Why can't more books look like these?

I don't understand why we haven't yet seen an early-seventies mass-market retro paperback cover trend. To wit:



(Click for a larger image.)

I've written here before about my desire to be published in mass-market format--to be, once and for all, fully back-pocketable. But the other part of my love for this format is the work that went into the cover art, back in the MM heyday. In general, I dislike photographs on fiction book covers--indeed, my favorite two of my own book covers (Mailman and the US version of Pieces For The Left Hand) are the only ones with no photos on them, and the most retro in intent. A photograph implants itself in your head; it detracts from the invention your mind has to make when reading. The covers above are interpretive, not representational; they spark the imagination.

Occasionally a new book comes out that seems to follow this aesthetic, one that wears a beard proudly, a beard that is just now beginning to be flecked with gray. The new Lydia Davis collected stories is one--pictures don't do it justice, it's simply a beautiful, beautiful literary artifact.

And of course there is nothing worse than the movie tie-in cover, complete with photos of the actors in dramatic poses, or their photoshopped faces hovering in the air over a burning house, or some such horseshit. "You better check out the movie first," these covers seem to say.

So what do you think, people? Are you with me? As long as we've got the seventies economy, can't we have the book covers, too?

23 comments:

seanpbizner said...

The cover of Pieces is why I noticed & picked it up. I'm a proud owner of a 1st edition Slaughterhouse Five, that's a good one. And I think the only thing worse than the cover of a James Patterson book is what is printed inside.

Zachary Cole said...

Mailman's probably my favorite JRL cover, as well. In fact, if I'd encountered the UK edition (with a photograph on the cover) I may never have picked up the book.

I'm re-reading 1984, and picked the "Centennial Edition", with an introduction by Pynchon. The book itself as a gorgeous trade paper (deckled edges!)and the cover's pretty sparse. No portraits in sight.

I've noticed that Rodrigo Corral has done some great covers in this vein; for instance, his cover to Palahniuk's "Snuff".

Anonymous said...

Have you seen these?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mscorley/sets/72157613493686930/detail/

jrlennon said...

Oh my God! Are those for real, or just wishful thinking? They're spectacular.

seanpbizner said...

Personal favorite: The House With A Clock In Its Walls.

http://tinyurl.com/yc83yk7

LemmusLemmus said...

Your link for "movie tie-in covers" leads to a very benevolent example; in fact, it may be the most stylish movie tie-in cover that I've ever seen. In contrast, my paperback edition of The Bonfire of the Vanities looks just like this.

Burl Veneer said...

I think "re-imagining" book covers in retro styles (or other media as retro-styled books) is becoming a popular enough hobby among designers (e.g. the above-mentioned M.S. Corley, who just put out a new batch this week--horror titles!, "Spacesick", Olly Moss) that we may soon see such designs cross over into actual books. At least I hope so.

jrlennon said...

If it's viral now, it will be mainstream within 18 months. Great stuff, everyone!

And Sean, thank you for picking up "Pieces."

rmellis said...

The movie tie-in edition is a plague upon this earth. You know, Julia Child's memoir, My Life In France, now has ANOTHER WOMAN on the cover. It's one thing to put actors on the cover of a piece of fiction, but quite another on a memoir!

I want to have a talk with the person who allowed this.

I have more opinions about covers, if you're interested. I hereby demand an end to books with photographs of women, shot from behind, walking in fields, with dresses on, with or without child in oversized sweater. Also, no more partial faces, and no more empty shoes/boots to indicate family and loss. Thanks.

sjwoo said...

Check out these alternate Rev Road covers. The one on the bottom right is very much in the 70s-MM mold.

You know, I never even though about this until you pointed it out. I think MM of scifi and fantasy novels still have more artwork than photography, and horror, too, but for mainstream novels, we're definitely lacking.

I think hardcovers and TPs have also taken the photo route, probably because it's cheaper, I figure, than to have to hire an artist. Though from my own experience, you can get a pretty good artist for a pretty decent price.

jon said...

I love the cover for Mailman. Has anyone seen the original cover art for PK Dick's Ubik? Beautiful! a pop art aerosol can with the word UBIK written vertically down the side. My book scored a Robert Williams cover. I'm sure the only reason anyone who didn't know me read it was because of that cover. It's too bad it has to be 'retro'; good design is good design.

Patrick said...

I think mainstream publishers of lit fiction also prefer photos because photos don't quite close the door on non-reader-people in quite the same way--your browser at Target or WalMart who might not have come in thinking about buying a book. God forbid readers encounter some kind of fractured experience or something a photo couldn't capture! I think photos on book-covers carry with them a connotation of the "safer" narrative elements: i.e. realism, recognizable characters,and by proxy maybe recognizable themes and recognizable representations of reality. An abstract cover implies the book could contain an abstract world, too, and however interesting that might be aesthetically, I think it's probably terrifying in terms of marketing.

seanpbizner said...

JRL - Love Pieces. I’ve read it more than once, but I don’t know how many exactly, I read it straight through, then took to picking it up and flipping to a random piece. Great book. On covers, what do you think of King's "Under The Dome" cover?

jon said...

maybe a photograph has the virtue of being cheaper as well as unimaginative.

Burl Veneer said...

Shelved Books has a lot of interesting posts on the book cover design process, with many examples of proposed but unused covers (many of which I prefer to the final designs).

jrlennon said...

jon--I used to have an ex libris UBIK with that cover...I might still have it, in fact. It's killer!

Patrick, I agree with that analysis...abstraction is indeed a hard sell...

...and Sean, I think the new King cover is luridly awesome...it evokes exactly what I want out of a King novel. let's see if the contents deliver.

jrlennon said...

oh and Bill, that's a good blog, thanks for the link!

Joe said...

Love the plain Lydia Davis cover. James Wood's "Art of Fiction" and Updike's "My Father's Tears" are even better, in my opinion.

Zach Cole said...

As a Mainer, I have to chime in. "Under the Dome"'s cover feels like the state to me, more than any depiction on film and some paintings. That cover captures what it's like to drive down the Turnpike at 9 am...

...except for the giant bubble, of course.

once bitten, twice crushed said...

I miss literature in small, fits-in-my-coat-jacket size. And as a general rule and for aesthetic reasons, I cannot buy a book that has any scene, or allusions to a scene of its movie version on the cover; or any other cliché image of the moment - as mentionned in the comments - empty shoes (or any kind of shoes for that matter), women walking in fields, hockney-esque bodies diving in pools.

Joe said...

D'oh! I meant "How Fiction Works" by James Wood.

Zachary Cole said...

Checking out the bookstore yesterday, I did notice that many of the new releases (the latest by Chip Kidd, Chabon, etc.) are smaller than normal hardbacks. I've never understood by most new hardbacks are so large--I find them cumbersome.

Matt said...

This post is ancient by now, but I figured I'd leave this link here, in case someone were to come across it later.

The Second Pass has a link up this week to Flickr groups for book design, categorized by decade/genre/age/etc. There are some great-looking old pulp covers in there.