Sunday, January 17, 2010

Good books, bad covers

Yesterday's post about J.F. Englert's A Dog at Sea mentioned in passing the book's cloying cover.

The covers to Englert's first two novels are borderline cutesy, I told a commenter, but the current cover goes over the top. More than that, it's misleading. Readers looking for a cute doggie book might be disappointed, and the cover might repel readers who would otherwise enjoy the intelligent story that lies within.

To ensure that you don't judge this book by its cover, here's an excerpt from A Dog at Sea. Here's a bit from Englert's A Dog About Town. Here's some graceful, amusing prose from A Dog Among Diplomats. Here's what I wrote about that last book.

And here's your question: What good books that you've read were ill-served by off-putting or misleading covers?

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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40 Comments:

Anonymous John H said...

Sorry this isn't on topic but my big complaint is when a cover changes with a new printing. I don't know how many times I've picked up a book by an author I like, read the synopsis and thought this sounds good only to read the first 20 pages and realize I bought it some years ago. I find that very irritating. Otherwise I don't pay much attention to the cover art.

January 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're more on topic than other posts that claim to be off topic. I may have done what you did a time or two -- buy an old book under a new cover. I don't know how to get around that, though. Fashions change in covers as in everything else.

I notice especially attractive cover art, as in the U.S. and U.K. editions of Andrea Camilleri's novels, but I rarely consider a cover in light of the book that it covers, the way I do here.

But I wrote yesterday that I had some sympathy for the publishers in this case. How does one design a cover for non-cutesy dog book? Perhaps the most suitable would be a cover in the old Penguin style -- a simple border surrounding a white background and black type. But that could never happen in today's market.

January 18, 2010  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

I truly enjoyed Lars Walker's Erling's Word, a Viking historical fantasy that won me over despite the fact that I hold no particular fondness for Vikings or historical fantasy. But the original cover is awful. It seems designed to turn readers away.

Regarding good covers, I think the University Of Chicago Press editions of the Parker novels are stupendous.

January 18, 2010  
Blogger Dana King said...

I rarely pay much attention to covers, but I would definitely skip buying A DOG AT SEA based on the cover. What were they thinkinG?

(Word verification = dentess, a female dentist.)

January 18, 2010  
Blogger R. T. said...

I agree with John H. I cannot count the times that I have been similarly seduced by a new cover but found old (previously read) content inside.

On a similar note, I am almost always put off by movie tie-in covers. My mind's eye prefers certain "casting" for characters, and--using THE ROAD as an example--the re-release of a book with an image from the movie pulls the rug out from under my own "casting." An older movie and book that comes in the same irksome category was A. S. Byatt's POSSESSION. Good book (with great cover art on the first printing) but bad cover art on the subsequent (movie tie-in) reprinting.

Perhaps you, Peter, and your readers can cite dozens of other examples of bad book covers based on movie releases.

January 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, that's a cheesy cover, all right ... almost looks like a cover for "Carry On, Vikings," but the woman is wearing a bit too much for that. The book appears to have been published in 1997, but the cover looks more bad 1950s. I think I'll stick with the real thing when it comes to Viking literature, though. If nothing else, the covers are better.

I'd call the new Parker covers handsome -- not at all cheesy. They're more restrained, as one might expect from an academic press. It's interesting that none shows Parker. Perhaps that's a way to preserve a bit of mystery for a character who, after all, has no first name.

January 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I can make two tentative guesses at what they were thinking. The dog's weight is an element in the plot, and J.F. Englert has said that this book lacks some of the melancholy undertone of its predecessors. So one can see where a fattish, smiling dog makes sense -- if one if going to go for the cute, humanish dog angle. The artist and publisher may have had in mind that painting of dogs playing cards, which reached the status of cliche some time ago, I think.

January 18, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., no examples come to mind, but I regard movie tie-in covers as both a letdown and a utililtarian marketing necessity. The sharp literalness of a photograph seems so cheesy as an illustration for so sprawling an exercise of the imagination as a novel.

January 18, 2010  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Peter,

Baen Books publishes SpecFic pulp, hence the old-school cover. It's a shame what they did to Erling, because Walker really did his research. There's a lot of good history in that book.

Regarding Parker, I just finished The Oufit. Closing in on The Score!

January 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm waiting for the Parker reissues to get to Butcher's Moon, which has for years been available only at astronomical prices. I have all the others, though I might buy a volume or two in the new editions if they have particularly good introductions.

January 19, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

R.T., It was that very cover of Edward Burne-Jones's "The Beguiling of Merlin" that made me pick up, open, and read A.S. Byatt's "Possession" -- a wonderful novel. And I agree, movie-tie in covers are loathsome and always date a book in a (usually) bad way. But having worked in an indie bookstore I do know that they can make people pick up and buy books (almost exclusively paperbacks) they might never have read at all.

January 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I should look for a reproduction of that painting. I have to say that Pre-Raphaelite paintings always leave me slighly queasy and that the women they depict (or rather that one woman, the one with the lush red hair) always looks like she has a stomach ache.

January 19, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, several lush redheads served as models for the PRB. I suspect you may be thinking of the "stunner" Fanny Cornforth, one of DG Rossetti's faves and borrowed more than once by Burne-Jones and others. Perhaps the sulky brunette Jane Morris is more your type...? I love the PRB. Did you know that a short drive from you is the largest collection of PRB paintings outside the UK? At the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington. Of course, if you don't like the PRB you probably don't give a hoot...

January 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fanny Cornforth was very much my type; I just wish she'd been depicted smiling more often. But then, that wasn't the Pre-Raphaelites' thing.

A former girlfriend of one of my colleagues, a cheerful and delightful woman, reminded me very much of Fanny Cornforth. The last time I saw her was by my dentist's chair, where she was training for a new career as a dental assistant. Alas, she had trimmed much of her sumptuous locks, probably because it wouldn't do to get them all tangled a dentist's drill or cascading into a patient's propped-open mouth.

Yes, I knew about the Pre-Raphaelite collection in Delaware. Maybe I ought to take a look one day.

In addition to the dyspeptic grimace of so many Pre-Raphaelite figures, the name "Pre-Raphaelite" infuriates me. I know Giotto. I know Piero della Francesca and Donatello. I don't need to be told that Rosetti's wincing beauties represent art before Raphael.

January 19, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

But they chose this name for themselves. It was meant as a battle cry in an age when the simpering Madonnas of Raphael were considered the zenith of artistic expression and the work of artists such as Giotto and Piero, along with their Flemish contemporaries, was called "primitive." Now _that_ term make me mad!

Have you ever seen Ken Russell's "Dante's Inferno" (1967)? Oliver Reed makes for a bulky, menacing DG Rossetti but the film captures the spirit of the PRB quite well. I have to say the PRB served as great inspiration for my crowd in the 1960s-1970s.

January 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I haven't see that movie. "Primitive" at least connotes a certain rough vigor. And the PreR's to my uneducated eye have so little to do with art before Raphael that there has to have been something to their thinking that I don't know about.

Raphael's early Madonna's did a bit of simpering, but they'd stopped by 1511.

January 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"But they chose this name for themselves. It was meant as a battle cry in an age when the simpering Madonnas of Raphael were considered the zenith of artistic expression ..."

It would interesting to see what weird quirk of perception could lead anyone to call the PreR's more vigorous than Raphael's early Madonnas, though.

January 19, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

The Alba Madonna is Raphael wishing he were Michelangelo...

Whoever wrote the entry for the PRB at Wikipedia nicely condensed the group's aims: "to return to the abundant detail, intense colors, and complex compositions of Quattrocento Italian and Flemish art." Not to imitate pre-Raphael artists per se.

I don't think "rough vigor" is what 19th c. critics had in mind when they called what we now think of as the Early Renaissance "primitive" but rather meant crude, unsophisticated, naive.

As for the PRB's women's "dyspeptic grimace," maybe it was all that laudanum.

Lush redheads and brunettes aside, the woman I most often think of when the PRB comes up is poor Lizzie Siddal, lying in that bathtub posing for John Everett Millais's "Ophelia" and later dying for her efforts. The thought of dying for one's art was an inspiring and seductive conceit for an impressionable teen.

January 19, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Under the influence of Michelangelo, sure. He'd just have seen Michelangelo working on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and been impressed. That's why his figures suddenly start to get bigger, more active and more muscular in the frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura, too.

I suppose the Pre-Raphaelites' rich colors are vaguely reminiscent of fifteenth-century Flemish painting, but nothing else about their work has reminded me of anything but itself, and certainly not of early Renaissance or late medieval art. That's why I thought it might be interesting to read a theoretical study of the Pre-Raphaelites: to answer the question "What were they thinking?"

January 19, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

The PRB loved talking about themselves and their goals. I think it could be argued they talked more about what they wanted to achieve than actually set about trying to achieve those goals. You could flip through "An Anthology of Pre-Raphaelite Writings," Carolyn Hares-Stryker, ed., Sheffield Academic Press, 1997, to see what they had to say about themselves.

For a general intro to the PRB, I'd recommend Tim Barringer's "Reading the Pre-Raphaelites," Yale Univ Press, 1999.

The art critic John Ruskin was a great supporter of the PRB and his 1851 "Pre-Raphaelitism" discusses the group's aims.

Boy, talk about sex scandals! With the PRB there was John Ruskin's disastrous marriage to Effie Gray, which was later annulled after a sordid court case, and she subsequently married the PRB painter John Everett Millais. Then there was Rossetti seducing William Morris's wife Jane Burden from under Morris's nose, prostitutes like Fanny Cornforth for models, etc. etc.

January 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ruskin had some pretty odd ideas about sex, from what I recall.

I have a lingering suspicions of artists who devote more energy to talking about their art than to creating it and who fritter away their time in scandals.

It will be interesting to see if they can convince me, against the evidence offered by my own eyes and brain, that their art has anything to do with art before Raphael.

January 20, 2010  
Anonymous John H said...

I generally won't pick up a book with a movie cover. However I just recently got a book written by Walter Mosley that had a movie cover of sorts. It was a second printing of "Devil in a Blue Dress" and the cover was a photo of Denzel Washington that had been reworked. At first glance it appeared to be simply cover art in sepia tone with a small background. One of the black guys there noticed it and started to kid me about reading a book by an actor. He caught the face at a glance but I had no idea it was a movie cover. Turns out it was a movie poster. Here's the picture http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Devil_in_a_blue_dress2.jpg if you are interested. I thought it worked really well for the book.

January 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, that may be the edition that I have lying around the house. That's not a bad cover, and it avoids the problem I mentioned above, that of illustrating a novel with a prosaic movie still. Of course, since the book is set in the 1940s, the sepia tone fits.

January 20, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I feel I'm on the defensive for the PRB. Have a peek at www.preraph.org/ to see what's just down the road in Wilmington. Some very beautiful paintings. Will you be reminded of Giotto and forget all about Piero? No, but some of these works are really quite extraordinary. And even more so when you consider that Sir Edwin Landseer was perhaps the most popular painter of the time. Sheesh!

When I first saw Millais's "The Blind Girl," (1856) I said, That's impossible, there is no such light at that. Then I saw a clearing sky in Norfolk and immediately thought of this painting and realized Millais had captured it perfectly.

January 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Heh! I called up that site, and the first thing I saw was a red-haired woman who looked as if she'd been awakened far earlier than she wanted to be -- "Mary Magdalene," c. 1858-60, by Frederick Sandys. But Wilmington is just an hour away, so I could easily pop down for a look. Thanks.

January 20, 2010  
Anonymous John H said...

Yeah Peter, artists that spend their time talking are a waste of time. I've known too many of them. They talk about their vision and denigrate others but somehow never produce anything worthwhile. When I was in the arts we used to call them the art police.

v word=glogerr

spect it has to do with blogging

January 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I spend a fair amount of time in cafes, which are popular places for artists to show their work, often accompanied by a brief statement. These statements are often abominably written, meaningless bits of theoretical jargon. They suggest that verbal and artistic abilities are governed by different parts of the brain. Different, and very far apart.

I thought of this recently when I was surprised by a statement that was brief, straightforward, literate and humorous -- a rare treat.

Glogging is what happens when one prepares hot wine punch while making a post.

January 20, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

My saying the PRB enjoyed talking about their goals as much if not more than making them happen was not meant to take anything away from their many fine achievements. They set out to be anti-establishment (remember that term?) and tried to articulate this in their writings. But like any hip, cutting-edge art movement they also tended to attract some hangers-on who added little besides gab to the group’s output. Aside from the physical beauty of many of their paintings, the PRB were among the few Victorian painters to address in their work such mid-19th c. problems as degradation of the countryside and problems associated with increasing urbanization such as poverty, hunger, and prostitution. It’s just those gorgeous women that come to mind when we first think about the PRB.

Peter, I think if you visit some of these paintings up close at the DAM you will find examples of painting technique that demonstrate the PRB's sincere attempts to emulate the exactitude of paint application that they revered in the Early Renaissance artists.

And you pegged Mary Magdalen perfectly. Did you know that "Waking Dreams" was the title of the DAM's recent PRB traveling exhibit? While the DAM was renovating/expanding the museum's space dedicated to the PRB, they sent many of the works to various museums in the US. So before I ever saw them in Wilmington I saw many of them in Portland, OR, and later in San Diego.

And, yes, aren't many contemporary artists annoying in their discussions of their work? The pretentiousness is sometimes hilarious.

January 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Are the PRB widely recognized as having taken up urbanization as a subject? Some of the Impressionists were so noted as well, especially, perhaps, Pissaro. That's something I would not have known to look for in the PRB, so thanks.

Spaced-out women are not foreign to Early Renaissance art, of course. Here's Piero's Mary Magdalen: http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/p/piero/francesc/magdalen.html

January 20, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"Are the PRB widely recognized as having taken up urbanization as a subject?" Yes. While Biblical subjects, Shakespearean plays, and Medieval legends were probably the most frequently-used sources for the group, "the Brotherhood members were very concerned with the world in which they lived and the social problems brought about by the Industrial Revolution, and accompanying rapid growth of cities. In some cases, they painted scenes of modern life with a moral message, as in Rossetti's 'Found'. This painting shows a young country woman turning in desperation to a life of prostitution, being unable to find suitable work in the burgeoning London metropolis." (I swiped this from the DAM's PRB site, "History" page.)

January 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. That sort of explicit moralizing sets them apart from the Impressionists, for whom a smokestack deep in the background of a rural landscape, or an afternoon's recreation in suburbs overlooking Paris were fascinating social facts. I don't know what the painters thought of the Paris that expanded around them. They would retrat to the countyside, but always with a fascinated eye for the city and its suburbs.

January 20, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"Explicit moralizing" -- yep, the PRB were rebels in some ways and in others they were just like any other Victorian. I suspect most of them would have loathed the Impressionists.

Re Piero's spaced-out Mary Magdalen... The poor girl had been through a lot, you know, and I guess she was entitled to look a bit dazed.

Here's one of my favorite Magdalens, and she lives just down the road at the LA Cty Museum of Art.

http://collectionsonline.lacma.org/mwebcgi/mweb.exe?request=record;id=33156;type=101

Or, closer to you, here is one of my favorite paintings on the subject of "women reading."

http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/rogier-van-der-weyden-the-magdalen-reading

January 20, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, that painting by Rogier van der Weyden is gorgeous. One of the Philadelphia Museum of Art's treasures is by Rogier: http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/102845.html?mulR=3953

January 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I quoted the relevant Camilleri passage, with high approval, here: http://detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/2009/02/now-thats-delicious.html

January 21, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, Rogier's Deposition in the PMA is incredible. I've seen it; it is beautifully presented in the gallery. Although enormous, it has all the quiet emotional impact of a devotional image in a book of hours. (I also spent a long time before Jan van Eyck's St Francis Receiving the Stigmata.)

I'm afraid we have little to match either painting here. (Well, I won't mention the Pontormo portrait because I recall you don't much care for the Manenrists.) The second-most asked question where I work is "Where can I find http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irises_%28painting%29" (Most asked? Where are the restrooms?)

I see PMA has a Renoir exhibit coming up; so does LACMA. Ah, when in need of a jolt to the museum revenue stream just bring in ancient Egypt and/or the Impressionists. Does it every time. And preceding Renoir at PMA is Picasso, another reliable stand-by.

Sorry about duplicating the Camilleri quote; I keep forgetting to check to see if these topics/entries have come up before.

January 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Don't ever apologize for letting me show off this blog's erudition. And good gravy, I have long wanted to visit the Getty.

I learned to appreciate Van Gogh more once I saw some of his lesser-known pictures, including a version of "The Potato Eaters" in Oterloo in the Netherlands and this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Church_at_Auvers

That's a nice assessment of Netherlandish paintings. For Netherlandish painters, the only difference between miniatures and altarpieces was size.

On the subject of miniatures, drop in to see the Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry should you pass through Chantilly.

January 21, 2010  
Anonymous John H said...

Speaking of museums it turns out that here in Minneapolis is the largest collection of Sherlock Holmes memorabilia in the world. A friend from the Black Forest Inn "book club" heard about it on a sports talk show on his way to work one morning. It is at the U of Minn. library and was started by the Norwegian Explorers club back in the 40s or so. It's a massive collection and not on public display but the curator, Tim Johnson, is happy to open it up when asked. He said usually within a day or two of a phone call. Every thing from original books to promotional napkins to a copy of the study. The interview may still be available on the station's website. The only connection to sports is that one of the contributors Phil Hensch won a Nobel prize for his work on cortisone. Patrick Reusse on K1500.

January 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I'll look Tim Johnson up should I ever find myself in Minnesota.

Museums turn up in odd places. Indianapolis has a big musuem of Western art. Because Indiana was a gateway to the West? No, because a lover and collector of Western art who had some money happened to be from there.

January 21, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

When this topic came up I did not recall some publishers’ irritating practice of plastering other authors’ gushing raves in text across a book’s front cover (across the back cover is bad enough). Forgot about it until today when I went shopping online for a copy of a library book I had just read and enjoyed so much I wanted to own a hardback-with-dust jacket copy.

BTW, I think you might enjoy this book, Peter. I came to it via an online interview with Ian Rankin who, when asked about his influences, mentioned the 1977 crime fiction novel, “Laidlaw,” by Glasgow writer William McIlvanney. Rankin was intrigued by McIlvanney’s exploration of how the investigation of crime has an impact on the investigator (certainly something Rankin himself has explored in his Rebus novels). There are quotable lines on nearly every page and WM’s high style never becomes mannered or overly self-conscious. In its 1983 sequel, “The Papers of Tony Veitch,” which I’ve just begun, Laidlaw begins the investigation of the death of a transient. And 4 years before Michael Connelly made Harry Bosch’s mantra: Everybody counts or nobody counts, McIlvanney has Jack Laidlaw saying: Everybody mattered or nobody did.

Below is a link to the “Laidlaw” dust jacket (where one of the gushing authors is DBB current topic Maj Sjöwall):

http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/FrameBase?content=%2Fservlet%2FListingDetails%3Fshowpic=1%26%26showpicurl=http://pictures.abebooks.com/EASYCHAIRBOOKS/662294089.jpg

January 21, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I had not heard of McIlvanney. If another author's blurb is going to be splashed across a front cover, it had better be from William Shakespeare or someone of that level. But really, I don't pay that much attention to covers.

January 21, 2010  

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