Friday Book Design Blog: Sex is Forbidden by Tim Parks
I did a small double-take when this paperback came in the post yesterday. Firstly for the blatantly sexy image, and secondly for the title: I wasn’t aware of a book of that name by Tim Parks, the British novelist, long resident in Italy, who some people will also know for Teach Us To Sit Still – perhaps the closest thing to a self-help book yet written by a Booker-shortlisted novelist – and for his blogs on reading, writing and publishing for The New York Review of Books.
A quick glance at the copyright page told me that this was not a new book, but had in fact been previously published in 2012 by Harvill Secker as The Server. So, this wasn’t just a new jacket for a paperback release, but a whole new title. And what a title.
I had been thinking about the purposes of paperback releases for a while, and more recently on reading this piece on The Millions, which talks about how publishers can use a paperback release to get a book out to a whole new audience from the hardback – bluntly, a wider, more general, less highbrow audience than those that might stump up the cash for the hardback.
Surely, then, this was the case with Sex is Forbidden? I tweeted the cover, with something like a raised eyebrow, only to learn that in fact this had been the original proposed title of the book, and was the title still in its German and Italian versions. (It’s also the first line of the book.)
Before talking about this book, he offered up an anecdote about his approach to titles:
Years ago I contributed a piece for a book, Men on Divorce, which the New Yorker picked up and wanted to title Adultery. It was basically the story behind Europa [Parks’ 1997, Booker-shortlisted novel]. I objected. It seemed a cheap sell. They insisted. The piece was a big success. And I realized I was being too squeamish, I was ashamed to sell. In the end the piece was about adultery. So then I decided to call a collection of similar pieces, Adultery and Other Diversions…
Parks then went on to say that he came up with about a dozen working titles for this new novel (the one we’re talking about) – “I’m useless at titles” he confesses – including Sex is Forbidden, In the Dhamma Kitchen, Beth’s Kitchen and Beth Between.
It was in fact someone at the publishers who suggested The Server – the novel is about a woman working as a volunteer server/helper-outer at a zen retreat, making it, according to Parks’ own website, a companion novel to Teach Us To Sit Still, his non-fiction book about pain, the body and his discovery of meditation.
But Parks’ German and Italian publishers were having none of it, and wanted Sex is Forbidden as their title. And they got them: Sex Ist Verboten and Il Sesso È Vietato (check out that great Italian cover, with its part italicized author name and its crossed through title – though I’m not quite sure about the woman’s gesture – has anyone ever done that thing with their fingers quite like that?). Says Parks:
Again I realized I’d been too squeamish and this was the obvious title, since the book is about the tension between everything implied by sex and everything implied by renouncing it.
It was his agent, David Miller, who suggested changing the title for the UK paperback. Park says he was anxious that someone might end up buying the same book twice (hardly justified I’d say: anyone that much of a fan of a particular writer will want to know what they’re getting before clicking ‘Buy’ on their online bookstore, and if they’re buying it in the flesh is equally unlikely to make the mistake) but that the publishers were happy to do so.
Obviously they think it’s a good idea having sex up there on the cover. But Sex is Forbidden is a curious way of putting it there and immediately taking it away. As for the image, when I saw it without the graphics I thought it maybe too strongly sexy. The anxiety is always that you sell the book to the wrong person and they’ll put it down, thinking, this isn’t what I thought I was buying. But with the graphics, and the black and white geometric feel to it all, the image made a lot more sense. That said, I’ve reached the point where I just don’t know what to say about covers.
One thing I love about ebooks is that they don’t have covers, you just get straight into the text. [and click here for Parks’ much-discussed blog on the ebook vs paperbook debate - I have to say, I don't fully agree with it, and have written on the topic here and here] Comes a point, anyway, where you have to let the publishers figure out what’s the right thing. I find it easy to criticize almost any cover I see, but very difficult to propose anything.
I like this cover rather more than the hardback cover for all kinds of reasons. Perhaps it’s part of being in Italy so long, but I feel there is some difficulty packaging the feel of the books in England. In any event, regards the title, it just began to feel that Sex is Forbidden, with its contrasting energies, was closer to the grain of the book than The Server…
That’s what it comes down to, I think. Writers – good writers – are expert at one thing: the putting of the right words in the right order. If they’re not good at covers, why shouldn’t they delegate them to publishers? They’ve just got to trust the publishers to understand the words inside the covers.
But what do you think about this paperback cover? I’d be interested to read any comments. Myself, I’m not sure. But as you’re reading this – assuming you’re reading it sometime during the day on Friday – I’m reading the book, sitting still on a blissful six-hour train journey. If I get any double takes from fellow passengers, I’ll let you know.
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