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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: March 8, 2011 @ 1:43 pm

    It’s a bit embarrassing when the bus thinks you are a man reading the latest breathless wonder for young women

    Laurence Mackin

    There seems to be something of a trend among book-cover designers in recent years towards glittery little packages that make everything seem like chick lit, and could, if the sun was strong, as on today’s glorious spring day, blind your fellow passengers on the bus with a little accidental angling.

    The most recent example I’ve seen is Sarah Winman’s debut book When God Was a Rabbit. Two things about this book bothered me: the title (yes it’s about childhood and innocence and there is a certain deity-like leporidae in there); the other is the cover design. Shiny, metallic turquoise on brown and black paper with little twinkly stars. Now this might seem attractive in concept, but between the two it does make the whole package appear to come from some horrific genre I’ve yet to wander into – chick lit for teens, maybe.

    Despite these two warning signs, I read the book – and it’s terrific. Winman (an actor that you may have seen on television) has written a brother and sister story that shifts from childhood to adulthood, and has deftly captured the innocence and humour of the former, with the unreliability of the latter. The characters are drawn with vigour, and the story veers between the minor and major chords of family life. It’s all handled smartly, sensitively and succinctly (without any ham-fisted alliteration). Winman has already been compared to the likes of John Irving and Mark Haddon, so expect this one to sell by the bookshelf load, which it fully deserves to – saccharine cover or not.

    My eyes, my eyes!

    The fact that a book as smart and sharp as this has been put in the little empress’s clothes seems a mistake. Now, the design is pleasant enough, but it seems inappropriate. No doubt there are book marketeers who will happily point out that this form of design will definitely help Winman ship units – but it feels like the publisher is trying to glibly wrap a package that is charming on its own merits.

    There are hundreds of examples of this sort of thing – and plenty of authors have gone on the record as being unhappy with how their books are being marketed and packaged, especially when it comes to re-issues. For example, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights recently got a Twilight-style makeover to fool teenagers into thinking that the house of Heathcliff was stuffed with the undead. On the one hand, you can’t really blame publishers for trying to get younger readers chewing through a few classics. But on the other hand, it’s a bit embarrassing when you blind a fellow bus passenger and they think you are a 30-something man reading the latest breathless wonder for young women.

    Next time I’m wrapping the Economist around it. Or maybe I’ll set up a business selling slip covers in a variety of sizes for embarrassing books – Dostoyevsky for Dan Brown, and that sort of thing. Sometimes I amaze myself. Venture capitalists – you know where to find me.

    • Grainne says:

      There are so many irritating things about this article. Let’s start with the title “It’s a bit embarrassing when the bus thinks you are a man reading the latest breathless wonder for young women”. Why should a man be embarrassed reading a book written by or for women? A woman wouldn’t feel that way about treading something by Nick Hornby, Tony Parsons or some equally “male” writer.

      Then there’s the problems that he has with the cover – “The fact that a book as smart and sharp as this has been put in the little empress’s clothes seems a mistake.” He has casually dismissed the idea that chick-lit (a very general term which seems to refer to any popular fiction written by a woman) can be smart or sharp. Or indeed, worth reading at all. The whole tone of the article seems to be incredulous surprise – “it may look like fluffy brain candy written by some bird off the telly, but it’s actually really good!”

    • a.commenter says:

      Hmm the subtext is a little sexist on IWD…ironically…!

    • Laurence Mackin says:

      Grainne: Please quote the title accurately – “a man reading the latest breathless wonder for young women”.
      I’ll read almost anything, but I’m not mad into the idea of sitting on a bus reading a book targeted at teenage girls. I don’t think that’s sexist – by the same token I wouldn’t sit there reading Justin Bieber’s biography.

      You write: “chick-lit (a very general term which seems to refer to any popular fiction written by a woman)” – that’s your generalisation, not mine.

      My argument is against the design that often goes with books written by female authors. Often these books are daubed in pink and glitter so that they do indeed look like “fluffy brain candy written by some bird off the telly” – much to the authors’ chagrin. The “tone” is irritation that designers and publishers are not doing the book’s content or the author’s work justice.

      A.commenter – I reckon I’ve answered your subtext point, but if you want to elaborate feel free. There is no sexist subtext as far as I’m concerned. It’s a fantastic book, as I have pointed out several times.

    • Ah now, I love chick lit and I’d still rather be seen reading Tony Parsons than Louise Bagshawe (google her, she’s amazing, everyone gets what they want in her books). Not because I’m sexist but because I’m a pretend snob. That said, I’d totally read the Bieb’s autobiography.

      My main issue with this whole piece is: why not just take off the dust jacket?!

    • Laurence Mackin says:

      Rosemary – Then how would I protect it from dust? Buses are full of the stuff. Don’t listen to her venture capitalists – we can make a fortune from this.

    • a.commenter says:

      I ‘Never argue with a man they’re always wrong…’ Look again at your title…!

    • Nam Citsale says:

      I’m prepared to invest a few shillings in your replacement slip-cover idea for embarrassing books but only if you reverse the concept.

    • Laurence Mackin says:

      Correction on my part Grainne – you did indeed have the quote of the title right, but the inference in the next line was what I disagree with.

    • Laurence, you are right about sparkly bookvcovers. I have noticed this especially on books written by women. I think it is easy to dismiss books as “chick lit’ if the cover is sparkly or in certain color patterns. It is especially attrocious if the content does not meet the package (for example if the story is serious in nature). It may be a miscalculation by the publisher or maybe the authors personal preference. Some writers, such as Charlaine Harris, have a niche audience their books appeal to. With her Sookie Stackhouse serious you always know which vampire is featured by the color of his hair on the cover. Sometimes though shiny can be done right, Steig Larson’s “Girl who kicked a hornet’s nest. Here in the States. the book has a silver metallic cover with hornets on it, the silver is attention getting without being too much and appeals to a broader audience. Authors should take into consideration what they would like their book covers to convey, because it is the 1st thing a person sees. How can you go about attracting the reader without overwhelming or turning them off.

      Author Shel Silverstein was so protective of his work he made sure he controlled every aspect of the publication from the cover art to the paper it was printed on. His books have very simple covers. someimes the art is just simply black and white , the content inside is anything but.

    • Laurence Mackin says:

      Nam – well obviously they are reversible covers *furiously amends application to patent office*

      Jennifer – Big fan of metallic colours when used appropriately. The paperback of Caribou Island by David Vann is really slick.

    • Kynos says:

      Why not just take off the dust jacket, and here’s the clever bit: turn it inside out? Even scrawl your own title on it with a marker. Nobody’ll think it’s anything but some latest avant-garde attempt at minimalism by the publisher. You could even trace thru’ the paper words from the original cover you’d like to embellish with other words of yer own. ”When God was a Rabbit – an examination into the Aztec Eschatology”. “When Rabbit was God – Updike’s dominance of the American Novel”. ”When Rabbit THOUGHT he was God – The Irish Labour Party 2002-2007”…that sort of thing. Or you could try the old tried and trusted hiding it behind a magazine, something like ”Soldier of Fortune”, ”Guns n Ammo” ”MaxxPower” if you really feel testeronally challenged from reading something looks like it was written by a Celtic Tigress former IFSC stokebroker now become a Chardonnay Queen and writing lists of designer names and celebs loosely assembled round an off-the-shelf plot to assuage her boredom in the long long D4 mornings between the daily bathroom floor moment and opening time at the Four Seasons bar? Alternatively maybe we could revive Flann O’Brien’s BuchHandLung service. Whereby for a small stipend a team of professional bookhandlers will maul your pristine copies of chick-lit lookalikes until they’re unrecognisable (and look like you’ve been living with them morning noon and night and are therefore An Extremely Clever Chap). Or just take a motorbike chain to it as soon as you leave Eason’s cashdesk and save the handling fee?

    • Collette says:

      Grainne – Good on ya girl! You got right up ol’ Laurence’s nose! Serves him right for thinking anyone cares what he reads on the bus ………………….

    • Trish says:

      Wow, what a lot of high-horseman. I hate the cover and would never have even picked it up in a bookshop as a result. I guess that makes me really shallow….judging a book by its cover ‘n’ all. Will now read the book by the way given the recommendation.

    • a.commenter says:

      Here come the Grrrrlzzzz…!

    • I reread the article. Laurence your comment about hiding the book inside a copy of the Economist reminds me hiding a comic book inside the bible in church. Yes I know I may possibly be eternally damned over that, and the fact I broke lent by eating those damned cadbury eggs after I had given up sweets.

      For me the most important part of a book’s cover is the blurb on the inside label. I think that is determining factor as is the first page, mainly the 1st couple sentences. After being forced to read a lot really boring books for various classes when I was in school anything I read on my own time for leissure has to interesting. I like Stephan Kiing and Dean Koontz, the simplistic cover art does not mask the terror within.

    • a.commenter says:

      Re the aforementioned title…can a bus ‘think’… d’ya think…?

    • David McG says:

      I also share your gripe of book covers that suggest the sparkling covers are a suggestion of the sparkling text therein!
      I like reading, and a cover isn’t going to put me off- but it does look slightly/ immensely ridiculous…

      All of David Mitchell’s books right now are featured in the same way- Cloud Atlas in particular featuring a pink, glittery cover…

      The website ‘Cracked’ had a great feature when a new Harry Potter book came out- i can’t get access to it at the moment, but Google ‘Cracked Harry Potter Book Disguises’ and you’ll get a flavour of what i use to cover books with less than appealing covers!
      ‘Cloud Atlas’ now has “Murder At Zero Feet” on printed in colour and taped to the front of it!

    • David McG says:

      Important: following the link i suggested that you put into Google is NOT SAFE FOR WORK!

    • sonyKopines says:

      a.commenter, check out the meaning of synechdoche. Inter alia by way of reference to a container we may refer to its contents.

    • The publishers wrap books up in these covers for the very simple reason of them increasing sales, Laurence. We can debate the moral and aesthetic considerations till we are carrot orange in the face, but book selling being a business, it makes eminent sense to package and deliver ‘em in a way we, the great book-buying public, have proven ourselves to want.

      I agree with the earlier posters who point out the obvious, shallow premise on which this squib is founded. If you feel yourself socially embaressed, on a bus, in the company of strangers, because you feel the cover of a book you’re reading doesn’t reflect your own tatse in dust-jackets; perhaps this reflects more on you, as a person concerned with the trite and meaningless aspects of being a contemporary reader, rather than comminicating to us anything of real significance about the art of Letters?

    • a.commenter says:

      @19 As I said can (sometimes they just write themselves) a bus/container think…?

    • sonykopines says:

      @21, given the growing abundance of embedded computing tech in our vehciles, I might suggest that our Courts (buildings with powers of judgement and discernment traditionally ascribed to humans) might shortly dispense with the celebrated ”Man ” and directly ask the ‘Clapham Omnibus” he is allegedly on board for its own opinion on any number of hard cases. Doubtless yer own included.

    • Kevin O'M says:

      Who cares if this is a !shallow premise”? It’s still a ‘premise’, isn’t it? Just because it doesn’t match up to your own lofty considerations about books doesn’t mean that it’s something we should feel inferior about.
      I’m very concerned about book covers/ jackets- very.
      Not ‘a little’, not ‘some’, ‘very’ in ‘a lot’.

      “We can debate the moral and aesthetic considerations till we are carrot orange in the face”
      Why don’t we?
      I believe that that’s what this post was originally about!
      It wasn’t about forcing the belief that someone who considers these things shouldn’t be allowed to read.
      It was about covers on a book; it wasn’t about grandstanding that the true meaning of a book transcends the cover.
      If you want to talk down to people i’m very sure you’re not a stranger to finding a better place to do that…

    • dame edna says:

      It’s worse on the dart………

    • Ali says:

      Why should we care what anyone thinks of what we’re reading? Is that what reading is for? To be seen to be reading the right thing? For God’ sake.

    • Laurence Mackin says:

      Desmond – “The publishers wrap books up in these covers for the very simple reason of them increasing sales, Laurence”. I’m well aware of that, and stated it from the outset.

      “I agree with the earlier posters who point out the obvious, shallow premise on which this squib is founded . . . perhaps this reflects more on you, as a person concerned with the trite and meaningless aspects of being a contemporary reader, rather than comminicating to us anything of real significance about the art of Letters?”

      - Perhaps it does, but I don’t think I’m alone in being uncomfortable reading in public something that looks like it was targetted at young teenage girls. Also, this is a blog with a variety of readers and posts – some are whimsical and a bit of fun (as I would categorise this one); some are more soberly aimed at “communicating [something] of real significance”. We’re still waiting on the Pulitzer, mind.

    • Laurence Mackin says:

      Ali – It’s not so much about to be seen to be reading the right thing. It has more to do with the question of how many readers move pass brilliant books in bookshops because they are done up like beauty pageant entrants. Trish@13 being a case in point

    • a.commenter says:

      What type of man do you want ‘the bus’ to think you are…?
      When I was a teenager I was reading Dostoevsky Becket Tressell Huxley Orwell Joyce Forster Hardy Salinger amongst others…in fact for my 16th birthday my very earnest b/f gave me a copy of Beckets trilogy…I worked in a bookshop to feed my habit…books are still my greatest pleasure…almost…so please don’t make sexist assumptions about the reading habits of ‘young women’…

    • Ali says:

      But the name of your post is: “It’s a bit embarrassing when the bus thinks you are a man reading the latest breathless wonder for young women.” That suggests you care about what people see you reading.

      Look, in general, I hate the way that fluffy covers for women writers seems to be the default publishing approach. (Lionel Shriver wrote an excellent piece on this in the Guardian.) And I know what you’re saying, about ‘lite’ covers doing a disservice to the excellent writing within, but it also works the other way. Maybe people who are not ‘serious’ readers will pick this book up because they are attracted to the cover, and will then find themselves reading and enjoying something they wouldn’t normally have.

    • Orla says:

      There’s nothing sexist about this article, the fact is that there is a massive chick-lit industry, it’s an extremely popular and distinct genre that is far from prestigious and not particularly literary, and most books in this genre certainly do have a similar covers. What’s wrong with being honest and admitting that you wouldn’t want everyone around you to think you were reading such a book? The article is mainly drawing attention to the misrepresentation of works in the cover-art, which is actually a very pertinent issue today. I was recently at a talk by Terry Pratchett who deplored the cover-art of his books when they were being released in America, and said it had a seriously detrimental effect on sales.

      Also, “young women” was a reference to the demographic chick-lit is aimed at, not a generalisation about the reading habits of young women in general. “A commenter”, as somebody so well-read it’s a pity you still spelt Beckett’s name wrong.

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