A look at the horrible anonymity of the modern book cover.
Sometimes, it takes a comment from someone else to trigger the thing that for years has been quietly annoying you into the forefront of your consciousness and makes you feel the need to rant about it. So it was with a Twitter post by Wake Island a few days ago that immediately caused me to think “yeah, that’s so true – why have we not written about that yet?”:
People have often talked about how film posters have deteriorated in recent years, from stylishly illustrated and dramatic portrayals of what the film is about (or at least what the distributors wanted you to think it was about) to identikit portraits of the main stars that told you nothing beyond who was in the film – which apparently is all audiences need these days. Nothing screams this more than Bond film posters, which have gone from explosive sex, shooting and spectacle-filled images to shots of Daniel Craig lying down – But film posters remain examples of creative genius compared to mainstream book covers.
Take a look in the window of Waterstones or any other big book retailer now and you are confronted with a collection of books where any form of illustration is the rare exception in a sea of identikit covers that seem to consist entirely of the book title in big letters. Maybe, if the author is famous enough, there will be a photo of them behind the lettering, but the lettering is everything. It’s as if there has been a collective decision amongst big publishers that readers are generally stupid and so need to have the book title emblazoned in giant, easy-reading lettering that ensures that they don’t pick up the wrong book by mistake. Or perhaps it is a demand from middle-class readers keen to let fellow public transport travellers know that they are reading the right sort of book – you know the type, the ones who pick up every critically praised novel or socially conscious polemic from No Logo to White Fragility, ever ready to debate it at dinner parties and prominently display it on coffee tables without ever adjusting any aspect of their daily lives that would cause them any level of inconvenience… or perhaps without even reading the damn things. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the most egregious examples of this sort of cover art are the self-help books aimed at telling clueless people how to live their lives in more emptily productive ways.
And then there is the predominance of primary, almost dayglo colours, again as if every book needs to leap out and scream its presence – which might work if every other book wasn’t doing the same thing, making them all hilariously anonymous in their attention-seeking. As it is, book displays now look like a collection of identical books, all screaming their social and creative importance with a design aesthetic that not so long ago would have been restricted to children’s books.
Of course, the juvenilisation of adult books fits in well with a readership that has been encouraged not to grow up – the rise of Young Adult fiction and its own obsessive need to both preach and enforce an intersectional hierarchy with a ferocity that would be seen as tribal bullying if the people doing it weren’t so determinedly and vocally victims. We live in a world where people well into their twenties seem unable of reading actual adult fiction but instead need the occupy that intermediate stage of development, something odd to those of us who simply moved from kid’s fiction to adult fiction during their teens. Is it any wonder, then, that serious books dealing with complex adult themes have to not only dumb down their content but also have covers that appeal to children? And that more serious, more worthy books follow suit?
Obviously, I’m not judging the content of individual books here, most of which I haven’t read. I doubt that many authors have much control over how publishers and their marketing departments choose to package their writing. But looking at displays of modern books from big publishers now does feel like gazing into an interchangeable collection of juvenilia pitched at the lowest common denominator and it’s very depressing.
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