The Foolishness of Book Jackets

Initially, I thought I could try make an argument for the value of book jackets as a language, as a shorthand that is as useful as it is consistent. As the most perfect visual representation of literature outside of typographical visuals.

And then I did some research and realised that that would be an outrageous lie.

Book jackets are occasionally useful, in the sense that car insurance is: you pay for it all the time, but it turns out to be handy once or twice in your lifetime. Most of the time, it’s money down the drain for a service that is more disappointing than useful. So, you may have heard some of these arguments before, and if you haven’t, then I am glad to be somewhat informative.

I’ve written before about the constant whitewashing of book jackets, with black characters suddenly paling and becoming acceptable to the consumer’s eye, and there is the endless use of sad, skinny girls on YA book covers. Book covers are a language, not just for the consumer but for the bookseller. And like any language, it is prone to miscommunication. It’s easy at first glance to be like “oh, that’s a serious, manly literary tome about life and death and cigarettes” or “that’s obviously chick-lit, it has a lady on the front with her back to us and soft fuzzy colours”. Book jackets are a shorthand and a guide, and are both reflective of their time and their publishers. As such, they can be immensely revealing or completely obtuse.

But how is a jacket made, you may ask? Book jackets fall into two categories: careful and careless. More often than not, the book jacket is designed based on the blurb and maybe an extract. Maybe. Most book jacket designers do not even get to read the book, and end up using stock images rather than crafting a jacket that is informed and enriched by the book’s contents. (You’d be amazed how much this applies even outside of traditional publishing.)

Occasionally, you get a book that has a lovingly-made jacket, and in South Africa, 99% of the time that jacket has been painstakingly crafted by the magnificent Joey Hi-Fi, a man of prodigious talent. If you’ve seen a local book jacket you’ve liked, it was probably done by Joey, whether it is Louis Greenberg, Lauren Beukes, or Imraan Coovadia.

In an interview about his book design process, Joey Hi-Fi said:

My conceptualisation process starts with me reading the novel. I always do this before starting work on a book cover. And in the rare cases that I cannot (for example: the book is still being written or is in a foreign language) I ask for a detailed synopsis and to chat to the author.

I’ve never felt comfortable just working off a brief from the editor or marketing.

Behold, a very small sampling of his artwork:

And glory be to Sir Hi-Fi, because most of the time, we just get this:

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Credit: Africa Is A Country

This is from the amazing site Africa Is A Country, about that goddamn acacia tree that is meant to represent all of African literature forever, regardless of the origin of the author or the plot of the novel. Quartz expanded on this, giving the awful truth as to why this happens:

Of course, there are the deeply ingrained problems of post-colonialist and Orientalist attitudes. We’re comfortable with this visual image of Africa because it’s safe. It presents ‘otherness’ in a way that’s easy to understand. That’s ironic, because what is fiction if not a way for you to stretch your empathetic muscles?”

This discussion caused something of a foofaraw in the book industry, just like the genderflip discussion that started earlier this year about how incredibly gendered and awful book jackets are for women’s books. In this long, brilliant and funny essay, YA author Maureen Johnson discusses why women’s books are deemed fluffy or light or breezy, and men’s books aren’t, and how that has something to do with obviously gendered book jackets.

You are informed about a book’s perceived quality through a number of ways. One of those ways is the cover. The cover may be the biggest message-bearer. Other messages include: blurbs (who they are from), comparisons, review coverage, store placement, and categorization.

And the simple fact of the matter is, if you are a female author, you are much more likely to get the package that suggests the book is of a lower perceived quality. Because it’s “girly,” which is somehow inherently different and easier on the palate. A man and a woman can write books about the same subject matter, at the same level of quality,and that woman is simple more likely to get the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it.

Johnson then put out a challenge on Twitter to get some genderflipped covers and the internet took up this cause with such gusto that it made me rather happy. Some of the genderflipped examples below: (images link to original source, please go support!)

From The Frisky

From The Frisky

From the Hawkeye Initiative on Tumblr

From the Hawkeye Initiative on Tumblr

On a similar note, The Oatmeal drew Spiderman the same way the new Spider Woman is drawn. It is glorious (and somewhat not safe for work).

Also by The Frisky

Also by The Frisky

We don’t have to have shitty covers that tell us nothing about the book. It shouldn’t be a case of only a bunch of privileged old white guys who get interesting jackets (Franzen, Eugenides, McEwan, Pynchon, etc), or a few very lucky debuts (Edan Lepucki, Erin Morgenstern), but it is. Inappropriate and inadequate book jacket design is the norm, not the exception. And if you think this isn’t important, remember that bad cover design belittles a book.

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If you take a look at the cover of Alice Munro’s latest Nobel Prize-winning short fiction collection, The View From Castle Rock, you probably wouldn’t guess it includes stories about cholera, the death of an infant, and domestic abuse. The cover, featuring pink lettering and a neck-down shot of a woman suntanning on a pink towel, suggests it’s a breezy summer read–and not one meant for men. – How Tarted-Up Book Covers Belittle Women’s Fiction

Bad cover design delegates books to the wrong sections, gives them the wrong or no readers and so often puts great books on sale tables, alone and unwanted and left to die next to untold numbers of Dan Brown books. We can’t help but judge books by their cover: we don’t have the opportunity and time to read every goddamn blurb or review. Customers and booksellers judge books by their cover, and we’re basing our purchasing decisions on the rushed work of an underpaid, uninformed and overworked designer. Sure, sometimes the shorthand is useful, but it is so often misleading. Books are an investment of our time, and that decision is so largely influenced by this one thing that it seems hideous to judge someone’s writing by another person’s graphic design.

So no, you don’t get to judge a book by its cover. Booksellers should read a bit more around the book, or at least give it the benefit of the doubt. Customers should flip it open to the first chapter and read the first page. Give the author a chance to convince you, especially when her publisher has failed her through thoughtless jacket design.

Review of Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Never mind the beer ad guy – Lauren Beukes may be the most interesting author alive right now.

Broken Monsters follows in the tradition of Moxyland, Zoo City and The Shining Girls in using cities as characters, backdrops and plot points. In Broken Monsters, Detroit is both ruined and beautiful, the corpse of a model to which artists and hipsters flock as others tut over her corpse and say its just such a shame, and for the grace of god etc. In this Detroit, bait of urban explorers and home of tough cops, a murderer is stitching corpses and art together, a man tormented and the bearer of something beyond his power to control. But this is no Red Dragon – this is something more sinister and beautiful than that.

UK jacket for Broken Monsters

UK jacket for Broken Monsters

Detective Versado, her daughter Layla, Jonno Haim, Clayton Broom and TK make up the constellation of characters that are all interlinked to the Detroit Monster. This story is further complicated by what it means to be living in this naked age of social media, of constantly shifting identities and the repercussions the online world has on day to day life. As we see the CSI Effect damaging the American justice system, the novel explores how the rapid nature of the internet might get in the way of careful, thoughtful justice. The references to websites that millennials live on are rapid-fire and likely to be missed by many readers, but that is of no harm: it is Beukes showing her love of the internet, an exploration of our love-hate relationship with the world’s repository of cat pictures and memes. I was filled with the fuzzies at seeing a mention of Nyancat, possibly the most joyous meme (other than Pope Happycat, maybe) to come out of the noughtteens. (Shut up, that’s a real word, I’m using it now.)

Beukes’ research is remarkable, and the ability to incorporate her bottomless research without bogging the plot down is a rare skill – it informs rather than lectures, and she fleshes out Detroit as she has Chicago, Johannesburg and Cape Town before. Her characters are each exquisitely well-formed, especially Layla and her mother Gabriella Versado. Detective Versado takes no prisoners and no shit, and unlike many other female detectives in crime novels, never needs to be saved from her womanly self. She swears, she drinks whiskey, she tries to give a dead child his dignity while raising a daughter post divorce with no time to do it in. While another character calls her broken, I don’t think people who are genuinely broken are so capable, strong and empathetic, and maybe the definition of broken depends on who’s using it.

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US Jacket for Broken Monsters

As always, Beukes covers a myriad of topics in each work; in Broken Monsters she covers bullying, the rapid dissemination of videos that ruin lives, urban exploration, grief, loss, divorce, police procedure, sex, the vastness of the internet’s invasive reach, hipsters, the art scene, homelessness, revenge, the proliferation of cyber-paedophilia, alcoholism, Detroit as the corpse of America’s hopes, clickbaiting, pottery, fucking Buzzfeed and Upworthy, and Santeria. While the novel does teeter near the line of claustrophobia with so many ideas battling for even a scrap of the spotlight, it contains and expresses its ideas in small details, settings and turns of phrase. Also: hooray for thorough editing. Not a single spelling or grammar mistake in the entire work, which is indeed a rare joy these days. One day when I am big, I hope to put my work before Helen Moffett, Beukes’ editor.

I hesitate to use the word paranormal because that word has been completely ruined by ridiculous ghost-hunting shows and drippy teen novels, but this story does push at the boundaries of what’s real, what lies on the other side of the dimensional fabric and what gives the monsters power. It manages to infuse the story with a sense of genuine horror without getting Lovecraftian (Lovecraft was a racist asshole, which is worth knowing)  and instead doing something more avant-garde with horror. (The birds! The glass! The flowers! The tattoos!) There is also a gorgeous reference to Our Patron Saint of the Internet Neil Gaiman‘s stupendous American Gods, another delicious treat for pretentious people like me who like to catch references like other people catch pokemon.

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The best jacket: the SA jacket by Joey Hi-Fi

Beukes is a novelist of unflinchingly keen eye and ambitious ideas, her body of work constantly building on some themes while incorporating others. Her love of the cityscape is palpable in her work, and her social commentary biting. Brett Easton Ellis should take notes. If she is capable of writing novels of this kind of depth once a year, I feel that we are in for a treat as readers.

 

Broken Monsters will be available in South Africa from July from Random House Struik

Watch the terrifying and eerily perfect trailer below:

Review of The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

It isn’t often that a book comes around and refuses to sit in one neat genre– it just

shining girls limited edisn’t polite. Usually a book can be allocated its genre within a moment of reading the blurb and glancing at the jacket. But then there’s The Shining Girls, which gleefully refuses to pick a genre box to sit in, and decides that it will timeshare in several. The Shining Girls is part crime thriller, part speculative fiction, part sci-fi. It also makes time to touch on a variety of subjects, including baseball, journalism, women’s resistance movements and the Depression, which is a delicious smorgasbord of ideas that also don’t overcrowd each other.

In brief, violent drifter Harper Curtis is a man in trouble, and stumbles into a house that offers the solution to all of his problems. But the house has a secret, and an exacting price. The house can open onto different times, but if Harper wants to stay in the house, then he must hunt down and cut the fire out of the shining girls, women who are special within their own times. And so begins Harper’s killing spree across decades, which comes to him with ease and terrifying glee. But when he fails to kill Kirby, she turns the hunt back on him with unrelenting determination.

the-shining-girls-book-cover-2This is not an easy book to read: it deals with suffering, with absolutely brutal violence and the worst that humans can do to each other. Each shining girl is profound in her potential, and each murder is highlighted for its horrific waste of a life. So often are the female victims in crime books delineated as props, just treated as a way to highlight the cleverness of the murderer. And Harper isn’t clever – he’s a disgusting lowlife who is willing to kill for a nice house to live in. Which is why Kirby is so much more interesting than most female leads in books these days. She’s smart but not savant-smart, she fights with her mom, makes mistakes and is truly brave. She could be any one of us, because those are the same markers of all the shining girls: they’re all women making the very best of what has been given to them regardless of their circumstances.

My only criticism of this book is that I wish it had been longer. When meeting shining girls SABeukes at the launch of The Shining Girls, I could tell that there were vast swathes of research that didn’t make it into the book. Granted, its current incarnation keeps it moving briskly and there isn’t a wasted word. It has been beautifully edited (which is becoming a rarity, sadly) and there’s nothing wrong with its current length. I love all the details – the underground abortion group, the Glow Girl, the McCarthy witch-hunts – I just wish there had been time to explore all of them more. Perhaps another hundred pages could have done the trick. I also loved that this was an unabashedly feminist book. I know feminism has become something of a dirty word in publishing, but it is about time that a book about crime actually dealt with the violence perpetuated against women rather than using it as a lazy plot-point. It is especially sad when female writers treat their female victims as disposable – seeing each victim realised in such heart-breaking detail is as important as it is unusual.

shining girls USOf course, the time travel element adds another delicious layer. Hardcore sci-fi fans will be disappointed that it isn’t more central to the novel, but the time travel allows for an exploration of different decades, in which we see how much (and how little) has changed. While researching the novel, Beukes travelled to Chicago and many of the photos she took while she was there appear on the South African jacket. In fact, the jacket only reveals its secrets as one progresses through the novel, which is a delight in and of itself. Produced by the amazing home-grown Joey Hi-Fi, the jacket’s many elements tie into the shining girls themselves, the time periods the novel crosses and moments that enrich the background of the story.

I say it again: this is sometimes an uncomfortable book to read, as well it should be. Violence should never be passively consumed, nor lightly discussed. The characters, good and evil, leap large from the pages. The settings are consuming, and it is easy to lose yourself in the detail. And if your nightmares reflect your bedtime reading, then keep this for daytime. But you will be hard-pressed to find a book this creative, this interesting and this powerful this year.

Review of Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human

apocalypse now now

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Review of Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human

Originally appeared in the Sunday Times. Reprinted with permission

This is not a book that you can take home to meet your parents.

Apocalypse Now Now is a book that makes neither friends nor excuses, ruthless in its satire and gleeful in its descriptions. It is the latest newcomer to the growing South African speculative fiction genre, hot on the heels of Sister-Sister by Rachel Zadok, The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, Space Race by Alex Latimer and Sunday Times Fiction Prize winner For the Mercy of Water by Karen Jayes. In brief: Apocalypse Now Now is set in contemporary Cape Town (thankfully sparing us any description of the mountain or the wine farms), an excellent setting for a supernatural chase. Baxter runs a pornography supply at his school, negotiating the gangs and politics with ruthless cunning and a complete disregard for social niceties. He is a misanthrope, and a somewhat charming reprobate who is mostly clever but is also as annoying as a teenage boy can be. His girlfriend Esmé is kidnapped, and he is thrown into Cape town’s exceptionally seedy supernatural underworld. We meet with Boer War-era psychics, half-springbok boys, inter-dimensional gatekeepers and a pirate queen armed with Uzis. There are fight scenes, wise and grizzled warriors and mecha, which made my inner twelve year old happy. Overall, it cannot be faulted on the variety of its cast and settings – the book melds local mythology with pop culture in a way that is almost self-consciously awesome.

Human-ApocalypseNowNow-UK_thumb[2]But this is where it is very clear that this book is heavily influenced by Lauren Beukes in a way that potentially overshadows Human’s own voice. The world-building, the wry observations, the inserts of alternative media, the cocky, irreverent narrator – it very much bears the shape of South Africa’s current rising star. It even has similar jacket treatment, courtesy of the fabulously-talented Joey Hi-Fi, that cover designer of lore. I thoroughly enjoy Beukes’ work – my reviews of Zoo City and The Shining Girls make that clear enough. But I didn’t pick up one of her books – I picked up Charlie Human’s work. And it is clearly a debut work – some of it could have used more polish, and perhaps more fleshing out. Esmé, for example, is nothing more than that tired trope of manic pixie dream girl. She’s sexy and petite and Goth and that’s about it. Oh, and she smokes, which I suppose is somewhat rebellious in 2013, given the laws against it. I know she’s not really the point, just the MacGuffin that drives the story, but I found her and Baxter’s great romance rather flimsy. They are, after all, just teens. That any teen relationship is given such importance is unfortunate – Baxter might have been more interesting if he wasn’t just a spotty teenage brat with a god complex and a chip on his shoulder.

That said, this is still a refreshing read with fantastically sharp humor that takes no prisoners. While his life flashes before his eyes, there is a flashback of a happy playground and children on swings. Baxter is dismayed to realise that it is also playing a jingle from a popular washing powder commercial. Ronin, the supernatural detective/martial artist he turns to for help is fantastically rounded, and the alternative history of the Boer war is a masterpiece. The book also spares no contempt for Cape Town’s obnoxious upper classes and airs while also taking potshots at the stark divide between the rich and poor of Cape Town. And, mostly importantly, it doesn’t have a neat and tidy ending, which suits the book perfectly.

Ultimately, Apocalypse Now Now is something delicious and different, and while it could have used more polish and a little more depth, it is still more interesting than many of the year’s offerings thus far. The ending has left a nifty little backdoor for a sequel, and knowing publishing trends these days, chances are that it will become a trilogy.

Read what other people thought:

Paranormal Hyperactivity – Gareth Langdon

SFX Magazine Reviews Apocalypse Now Now 

Popbucket: 9/10