Fudging Books by their Covers

When they were released back in 1994, the Tim Robbins prison saga The Shawshank Redemption and the Robert Redford-directed morality drama Quiz Show were the object of much speculation by Hollywood pundits, who expressed puzzlement over the fact that two such universally well-regarded films (both were nominated for Best Picture Oscars) could have performed so poorly at the box office.

Most people blamed the films' misguided marketing campaigns -- and coming in for particular ridicule were the two films' posters, which depicted their main characters from the back, hiding their identity from potential moviegoers. (The Shawshank poster, you will recall, showed a rear view of star Tim Robbins, his arms outstretched in the rain; Quiz Show went with an imposing image of the back of Ralph Fiennes's head, headphones over his ears as he stood in a game show isolation booth.) To this day, Shawshank and Quiz Show are regarded as two of the most ineptly marketed films in Hollywood history. How are you supposed to engage people in a story, the conventional wisdom went, if you don't show them a human face?

That wisdom still hasn't spread to the publishing industry. You literally almost never see a human face on the cover of a literary novel -- and if casual readers feel a little alienated from buying literary fiction, well, given the way these novels are packaged, I can't say I blame them. I spent a recent afternoon browsing the fiction section at the local independent bookstore, and was stunned to observe how deeply ingrained the notion that faces must be avoided at all costs has become among publishers and graphic designers.

Sometimes, publishers will simply use a blurred photo that renders their subjects' appearance either subtly indistinct (as with Michael Ondaatje's Anil's Ghost), intriguingly murky (Anne-Marie MacDonald's Fall on Your Knees) or completely unrecognizable (Kazuo Ishiguro's When We Were Orphans). A much more common tactic, however, is to use a photograph or a drawing in which the person's back is to the camera, Shawshank-style, viz. Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing, Doris Betts's Heading West, Anne Michaels's Fugitive Pieces, Anne Tyler's Back When We Were Grownups, Kelli Deeth's The Girl Without Anyone, Alice Mattison's The Book Borrower, Gwyn Hyman Rubio's Icy Sparks, Emma Richler's Sister Crazy and Paul Theroux's Hotel Honolulu. Rachel Seiffert's The Dark Room features 15 people with their back to the camera! (The most absurd example of this trend is the cover of Joyce Carol Oates's book Blonde, which features a photo of a woman posed mysteriously and anonymously with her back to the camera, even though everybody knows the book is about Marilyn Monroe!)

Then there's a whole host of books that combine those two techniques and use blurry photos of people with their backs to the camera: Caleb Carr's The Alienist, Paulo Coehlo's Veronika Decides to Die, Alice Elliott Dark's In the Gloaming, Margaret Drabble's The Peppered Moth, Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn, Helen Dunmore's The Siege, Sebastian Faulks's On Green Dolphin Street, Wayne Johnston's The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Regina McBride's The Nature of Water and Air, Jon Redfern's The Boy Must Die, Gayla Reid's All the Seas of the World, Julian Rios's Monstruary and John Wray's The Right Hand of Sleep.

Even if designers do take the bold step of putting a classic painting or a photographic portrait of a person on the cover, much more often than not, that image is severely cropped or chopped in half -- in effect, disguising their appearance as much as a blurred snapshot would. I'm thinking of books like Giles Blunt's Forty Words for Sorrow, Anne Carson's The Beauty of the Husband, Susan Cokal's Mirabilis, Nick Hornby's About a Boy, Helen Dunmore's Ice Cream, Justin Hill's The Dream and Drink Teahouse, Brad Leithauser's A Few Corrections, Heather McGowan's Schooling, Kenneth Radu's Flesh and Blood, William Safire's Scandalmonger, Greg Hollingshead's The Roaring Girl, Katharine Weber's The Music Lesson, Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, Todd Babiak's Choke Hold and Thomas Wharton's Salamander.

And there are other tricks, too: on the cover of Tim Pears's In a Land of Plenty, there's a picture of a young kid holding a camera over his face; Dave Margoshes's I'm Frankie Sterne uses a photo (blurred, naturally) of a guy tipping his hat over his face; the guy on the cover of Michael Dibdin's Thanksgiving has his hand over his face; the guy on David Czuchlewski's The Muse Asylum has his back to the reader and a giant book covering his head and the features of the handsome guy on Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho can't quite be made out from behind the giant lettering spelling out the book's title and the name of the author.

That's a long and tedious list of titles, but I wanted to emphasize just how widespread this trend has become -- the "no-face" dustjacket are as predictable and boring as the fake-looking double-portraits of smiling co-stars that decorate so many unimaginative video boxes. During my admittedly quick safari through the Greenwood's shelves, I was only able to locate four significant examples of literary novels that actually used unaltered, uncropped photos of recognizable human faces on their covers that weren't simply portraits of the author: Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry, Guy Vanderhaeghe's The Englishman's Boy, David Ebershoff's The Danish Girl and, most memorably, Bruce Robinson's The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penham.

I've heard it argued that publishers use these anonymous kinds of covers because they don't want to impose a specific image of what the characters look like upon the reader's imagination (in much the same way that it's hard to read a book after watching a movie adaptation of it without thinking of those actors saying all the lines). I don't buy it. I think it's a copout. First of all, I don't think that's how people read books -- I think people's visual impressions of characters tend to be a lot foggier than that. And hell, I know I had no trouble at all getting through, say, my old paperback copy of A Confederacy of Dunces without having my own mental image of Ignatius Reilly colonized by the cartoonish drawing on the cover.

More importantly, I think these book covers betray a very dangerous and even snobbish attitude on the part of publishers (and readers) -- an attitude that views reticence and anonymity and abstraction and emotional evasiveness as being inherently more "literary" than shock, force, impact, punch, vividness and emotional directness. A lot of these covers I've been complaining about are quite beautifully designed in and of themselves, but taken as a whole, they embody a kind of kneejerk, genteel middle-class tastefulness I find suffocating. All those heads turned away from me, all those blurred backsides seem symptomatic of a literary world whose unreasoning fear of The Image has inspired it to turn its back and retreat farther and farther from its former place at the center of North American cultural life -- a world, moreover, that seems perfectly content to go on playing the wallflower. Many of these book covers seem to shrink away from you even as you look at them, as if the idea of making someone actually want to buy them had been rejected by publishers as being so outmoded as to be positively gauche.

If literature is the art of translating abstract ideas into vivid characters, clear stories and concrete language, surely publishers are exhibiting a failure of imagination and nerve on the part of their authors by refusing to put a human face on their creations.

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