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Don’t judge a genre by its covers

Or should we?

Over a week ago (was it really that long?) I has a Twitter exchange with author Sam Sykes. (Longish rant after the cut)

There were more responses than this, which you can read if you click the timestamp on that first tweet.

Anyway, seeing that exchange, you might forgive me for thinking this blog post somehow relates to that exchange. Please do give that a read.

First thing: there’s a lot to be said about Drizzt D’Urden and little of it is good. He’s the only good guy from a race of evil elves… who all have dark skin. That’s all been hashed over by people who know more about the subject than I do. Yeah, I read a Drizzt trilogy once, but that’s a story for another post. The character is peripheral to the topic I want to discuss.

Second thing: I don’t know Sam Sykes except via Twitter. He seems like a nice guy and he must be a talented writer to sell a novel at 25. When I was 25 I was so fucked up that I was pretty much trying to destroy myself in the most lonely, tedious ways I could imagine. There isn’t even a good memoir in it. At the same age, he’s a pro. So kudos for him.

Third thing, let’s try to address some of what’s in that post. Basically, Sam is saying that Drizzt and the goofy tropes of fantasy–three-headed liches, panther animal companions, glowing weapons–are totes fun and nothing to be ashamed of.

Unfortunately, he’s mixing up a lot of things he shouldn’t be. Look at this:

And if you pay at all attention, it almost always links back to the desperation to be accepted by that successful and respected older sibling: mainstream literature.

A conclusion that comes out of where, exactly? Why even bring up “desperation to be accepted by… mainstream literature” except as a reflexive defense? I mean, we’re well out of high school now, so are mainstream literary types supposed to be our jocks now?

Me, I’m a year and a half from 50, and I have no one in my life mocking me for my tastes in reading. Not the bookstore owners, not my friends, not their friends, not librarians. No one. Plenty of people express their disinterest, but never in terms that they think I should seek their approval and I have no idea why I would want to anyway. What do they have to do with my life?

After that he moves on to talking about unashamed fans at conventions, being treated as though a love for fantasy was a marker for immaturity, and speaking up in praise of fun. How dare anyone suggest that fun things are only fun! How dare anyone suggest there’s nothing else to be gotten from it!

In other words, the usual geek pride spiel. I’m not as hard on the whole geek pride thing as Nick Mamatas is, but I can’t say I’m moved to hear that fans find it “squee-worthy” that people share similar tastes in art, whether it’s high art, pop art, corporate art, whatever. To me, there’s nothing particularly special about it.

There’s an important disconnect in the argument he makes: My problem isn’t with the character or the book. Whatever’s in the book, good or bad (I haven’t read it) is beside the point.

We aren’t talking about the book itself. We’re talking about the advertisement for the book.

Let me share two little somethings:

trashy pulp!

and

less trashy pulp!

All three of those books feature crime and sex, but how are they advertized? The first two (part of a double, as it says on the cover) show helpless/terrified women with lots of skin showing, and men pursuing/in charge. Bonus sneering older woman with a whip.

Whatever you think of the cover of THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, the one thing it isn’t is lurid. It’s not about power fantasy, which the other two are.

Look, most fiction is one kind of wish fulfillment or another. Power fantasies are everywhere, including the bookshelf beside me. I still read Batman comics sometimes. My original Twitter bio was “I write books about monsters and face-punching.” Wish-fulfillment is at the center of most kinds of fiction. So is fun of one kind or another.

But the advertising matters too, because it’s the cover that promises lurid, uncritical wish fulfillment or something more.

Let’s talk briefly about the difference between the text and the image on the front. Want to read about a sword fight with a three-headed lich? Great! Sounds awesome. In a fantasy novel you might have 80K – 250K words to set that up, and you can describe it how you like. (Christ, I just realized that cover has a Roman numeral 4 on it.) You can have names for each of those three faces, maybe. Histories, personalities, etc. You can make them characters. Maybe they’re funny or tragic. Maybe they had agency once, or struggle to regain it. In other words, maybe there’s a human context here.

But when you turn a character like that into a cover image, you run into the problems that visual representations give, especially cover art. What context does that lich have except the image itself, the author’s name, the title of the book, and maybe the section of the bookstore where you found it?

What we’re left with is the lurid appeal of a thing without a human context we can relate to. Take those cheap pulp covers: Maybe I, The Executioner has an appeal beyond the promise of the fleeing, underdressed woman with fear in her eyes, maybe not. All the cover promises is the gut-level thrill without anything more.

Covers are advertising (Interesting discussion on the subject, with an eye to picking one style over another) and what you highlight in the cover (and what you elide) provides clues to the focus and meaning of the story. It’s like a movie trailer: if your trailer only shows fight scenes or action sequences, audiences will quite reasonably expect that’s all there will be. That’s why they include the context: a love story, big stakes, people the hero cares about in danger.

Obviously, you can’t necessarily put as much information in a movie trailer into a single cover image–even a movie one sheet has more space for additional elements. But there are ways to place an emphasis that doesn’t highlight the lurid.

For example (direct links added for people who can’t see the covers):

(direct link)

(direct link)

I post these because I haven’t read the books so I don’t know anything about them except for what’s on the cover, but they feature fighting characters without showing who or what they’re fighting. The focus here is on the protagonists and their willingness to do battle in the face of danger. That’s the red meat of fantasy.

Also, those covers are a bit like a sentence constructed in the passive voice: “The victim was murdered in the park.” Writing it that way moves the focus away from the killer. It puts the victim at the forefront, which is sometimes the best choice. With a cover, a warrior without an opponent puts the focus on the hero’s qualities.

Obviously, there’s more to cover choices than this and there’s a lot I don’t know. Tastes change, subgenres have a certain styles designed to catch the attention of casual browsers, and sometimes there’s just no budget for a better cover. The “covers are advertising” link above talks about it in more detail.

Still, I talked about frozen pizza in my tweet exchange above and I think that analogy holds pretty well. A lurid cover promises cheap entertainment that is quickly consumed and is best if it’s forgotten just as quickly. It may also be so tasty it’s hard to resist; that’s the point of a lurid cover, right? To target a narrow demographic by promising a lowest common denominator thrill, without anything like deeper meaning?

Hey, maybe there’s deeper meaning there anyway. Maybe it’s shallow entertainment that readers can spackle over with meaning they find themselves. But the ad doesn’t promise that, which is why I am embarrassed by the appeal it has for me.

Mirrored from Twenty Palaces. You can comment here but not there.

Comments

( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
sartorias
Oct. 24th, 2013 07:46 pm (UTC)
Thanks--interesting stuff!
burger_eater
Oct. 24th, 2013 09:59 pm (UTC)
Thank you!

Although... hmf. I don't see Syke's or Bernobich's covers showing up in my LJ post. Stupid iframe.
mrissa
Oct. 24th, 2013 08:07 pm (UTC)
I feel like the nerd pride argument really is a red herring. Because look at Julie Dillon. I have been privileged to have her illustrate two of my stories in the last few years, and no one would mistake those illos for mainstream lit. You can look at those, or the covers for Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky books, or the covers for Marie Brennan's Natural History of Dragons and its sequel, and you would not mistake any of that for not-fantasy. But they are also not of the same quality as the Salvatore cover above, and they're not saying the same things about fantasy.

So I think that any time you object to a cover like the Drizz't one and somebody tries to fly the nerd pride flag, they're being at least a little bit disingenuous, because there is a difference, and you're not just saying, "Fantasy, oh God how I wish I didn't like it."
mrissa
Oct. 24th, 2013 08:07 pm (UTC)
(Here from sartorias. Sorry, should have said.)
burger_eater
Oct. 24th, 2013 10:04 pm (UTC)
Agreed. The difficult thing for me is to articulate why exactly those covers both intrigue and disappoint me. It's certainly not because they embarrass me, but it does seem to be signalling "Low Grade Comfort Experience".

And, you know, that might be totally wrong. The book might be full of deep insight into... elves who stab things, but the cover doesn't suggest that.
lenora_rose
Oct. 25th, 2013 04:15 pm (UTC)
This. Very this. I was trying to figure out what it was about the nerd pride "But we can love it shamelessly" argument that twitched me (Not just now but previously), and couldn't articulate it. But you nailed it.
rj_anderson
Oct. 24th, 2013 08:57 pm (UTC)
I think maybe you had some images that came after the "For example" that didn't show up for some reason? Otherwise I'm not clear on what you're referring to in the paragraph that follows, where you seem to be discussing some fantasy covers that you think are done well...

But yes, it's awful what a misleading, poorly focused or just plain hideous cover can do to readers' perceptions of the book. It took me ages to read Lois McMaster Bujold's books because the covers were so dreadful that I kept picking them up, staring at them and putting them down again with a shudder. (In the end I only succumbed because a friend bought me the entire set and shipped them to me in a shoebox - and I'm glad I did, but angry that anyone would inflict such terrible covers on such wonderful books.)

Back in May, Maureen Johnson's #coverflip also did a good job of showing how gendered many book cover designs are, and how much this contributes to whether the book is taken seriously or not.
sartorias
Oct. 24th, 2013 10:06 pm (UTC)
Me, too, re Bujold--but then that meant I had a whole slew of them to discover, instead of dribbling them out one every year or two! But her covers were uniformly horrible.
burger_eater
Oct. 24th, 2013 10:07 pm (UTC)
Yeah, there are two cover images with links to Amazon.com to see a larger version.

First one: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00C4B2KM4/ref=as_li_ss_il?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B00C4B2KM4&linkCode=as2&tag=twenpala-20

Second one: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00CQY7R5E/ref=as_li_ss_il?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=B00CQY7R5E&linkCode=as2&tag=twenpala-20

They show up in Chrome but not in my Firefox.

Baen's covers are a unique thing. I've never heard from anyone who likes them, but they sell Baen's books. It's sorta weird.

Thanks for linking to Coverflip. I followed that on Twitter and thought it was amazing.
ursulav
Oct. 24th, 2013 10:35 pm (UTC)
I think the thing is that they proclaim it's a Baen book. It really does work as advertising--if you KNOW you like Baen's stuff, then it sort of doesn't matter if it's a crayon drawing on the front, as long as it's consistently a crayon drawing.
burger_eater
Oct. 24th, 2013 11:19 pm (UTC)
Yes, I think you're right.

I don't know many publishers who can manage that. Black Lizard Vintage Crime, maybe.
nihilistic_kid
Oct. 25th, 2013 12:14 am (UTC)
The joke is "Baen will do anything to sell a book—sometimes they might even purposefully make a cover look good!"
nancylebov
Oct. 24th, 2013 11:09 pm (UTC)
I've noticed that as a book becomes more respectable, its cover gets more abstract. A conventional oil painting is also respectable.

burger_eater
Oct. 24th, 2013 11:18 pm (UTC)
I'm going to write a really respectable book, and the cover art for it will be an image of another book with no cover art.
marycatelli
Oct. 24th, 2013 11:38 pm (UTC)
Sounds like fun.
asakiyume
Oct. 25th, 2013 12:20 pm (UTC)
--Or even if not abstract--even if it's representational in some way--the images don't necessarily have to do directly with the *plot* of the book. For example, this cover for Marilyn Robinson's Housekeeping.

It's representational, but I don't know much about the story from it.

(also here via Sartorias)
anna_wing
Oct. 25th, 2013 03:54 am (UTC)
Good points, thank you for the very clear analysis.

I hadn't thought about it in those terms, because I mostly ignore cover art for fantasy and science fiction, at least when making buying decisions (appreciating, or not appreciating, it aesthetically is a different thing). If it's an author I already like or dislike I will totally ignore the cover. For unfamiliar authors I'll read a page at random. If the prose style is acceptable, I'll consider buying it regardless of either the cover or the plot summary.

burger_eater
Oct. 25th, 2013 02:33 pm (UTC)
I'll admit to being turned off by cover art, mainly because something that standard genre art that makes me believe it's a standard genre novel. It's been a long time since I snapped up a book because of the art, though.
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )