Friday Book Design Blog: Man Booker Shortlist 2013
A thought experiment. You’re the kind of person who nips into a bookshop every now and then, likes to read the odd bit of ‘literary fiction’ between the Scandi-crime and biographies – not celebrity ones, proper ones, you know. You pop into your local store this weekend (hey! Wasn’t there a promotion going on at the moment about supporting your local bookshop? Yes, there was, and you might even come out with a lovely ‘Books are my bag’ bag) and there, laid on the table by the front door, covers up, are six books with the handwritten sign above it: ‘Booker Prize Shortlist’. That’s good, you think. You’ll get one of those.
But which? You can’t really recall reading reviews of any of them. It’s quite possible that the only name you actually recognise is that of Colm Tóibín. Certainly there’s no household name there this year, no Hilary Mantel or Ian McEwan. So you might pick them up, read the back, skim the first page (you might even ask the bookshop owner for advice… they’ve been known to be very helpful), but you might, whether consciously or not, be swayed by the book design. After all, a lot of work has gone into making these books appeal to you, depending who you are.
Some things are beyond even the control of book designers, though. The sheer bulk of Eleanor Catton’s 800-plus-page The Luminaries will put some people off, while it will make others reach instinctively for it. At the other end of the scale, Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary is a slim 112 pages, with the four others all coming in between 300 and 400 pages. Tóibín’s book is one of two on the shortlist already in paperback, which will help its sales in the five weeks until the prizegiving, though obviously it won’t help it win. The other is Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which (as covered previously on this blog) Canongate released simultaneously as paperback and quite beautiful hardback.
Ozeki’s cover is certainly appealing – the girl Nao peering out from her circle, as the trompe l’oeil red label peels back (which doubles up as the rising sun of the Japanese flag), does a great job of drawing you into the book. It’s a fresh look for a cover, and neatly sidesteps the usual clichés that leap out at you from bookshop tables.
By contrast, the Tóibín (from Penguin) looks like a million other book covers before it – the font, the colour, the reference to classical paintings, the use of the human body without the face being visible. In fact, looking closer, you might wonder why you can’t see her face, or even the beginning of her neck – either this Mary is incredibly tall, or her face is very deeply in shadow. It looks rather as if the designer has gone to work on the original image, darkening the face until it is lost. This might be the point of the book – the unknowability of any person – but it does relegate the cover rather to the realm of that most persistent of design cliches, the ‘headless woman’. (I’m not being quite fair here – this is the paperback after all. The Viking hardback was a much more serious proposition, paying due homage to the scriptural roots of the story.)
Harvest, by Jim Crace (Picador), also has a certain identikit feel about it. You can imagine a marketing meeting with six possible designs laid out and this one ending up getting picked as a compromise choice. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s nice to look at, with its contrasting fonts, its distressed look evoking the vaguely defined past of the novel’s setting, and its contrasting images too – the setting sun overlaid with the full heads of corn – but it’s not going to make someone walk across a bookshop floor to pick it up.
Which is definitely something you could say about NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names (Chatto & Windus). This eye-catching cover, with its painting-on-tin by Georgina Potier, has something of the patchwork quilt about it, and something of the school art project, but it most definitely wants to be picked up.
The other thing working in its favour in terms of the subliminal manipulation of lit-fic bookbuyers is the title – that echo of Lionel Shriver’s Orange Prize-winning We Need to Talk about Kevin is not going to do the book any harm at all. There’s something in the syntax of book titles like this that can work a small, strange magic on the reader’s mind, that a title like Harvest is never going to manage.
The worst cover on the shortlist, to my mind, is The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (Bloomsbury). The iconography does a clear enough job of laying out the themes of the novel – birds and guns, grasses and barbed wire standing for ideas of the Indian homeland and the political violence that might be invoked to protect it – but I find the way they are laid against each other to form a stark series of symmetries rather uninspiring, not to say off-putting.
And the best cover? Well that would have to be Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, published by Granta. It is elegant, it is simple, it balances the antique and the modern exquisitely through the portrait of a woman visible only through slices of the moon in its phases – which is a lovely piece of design, irrespective of how it suits the structure of the novel inside the jacket. Strangely, the US edition (from Little, Brown) uses a similar image, but one that opens a dozen moon-shaped windows onto the woman’s portrait, thus exposing her far more, but to rather less effect.
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