Friday Book Design Blog: I Put a Spell on You, by John Burnside

Jonathan Gibbs

friday burnside i put a spell on you Friday Book Design Blog: I Put a Spell on You, by John Burnside
The cover of John Burnside’s latest memoir is attractively put together, with neat upper and lower panes against a wide white frame; non-symmetrical; sepia above, and grey below; with the author name and title in a lovely Garamond (I think) font. There’s something about the grey that makes the sepia really stand out, making it cloudy, like a vision underwater, or a specimen jar in a laboratory, and… oh yes, there’s a topless woman in the top half.

Does this matter? I mean, obviously, we’re all grown-ups here, and shouldn’t be scared by an unclothed torso, any more than Apple should have been, when they censored a book cover featuring a topless woman on the iTunes store, only to restore it when people complained. On the other hand, there’s nothing like the #everydaysexism hashtag to point out that politics is not a question of black and white (of sepia, perhaps?), and that John Burnside’s cover exists on a continuum with, say, Page 3.

What Burnside’s cover reminds me most of is the cover of the Pixies’ 1988 album Surfer Rosa, with its topless flamenco dancer – of which singer Black Francis said he “just [hoped] people find it tasteful”. I certainly found it ‘tasteful’, as a student, just as I find the Burnside cover ‘tasteful’ – though is that in part down to my sense of my own sophistication in calling it so? Maybe tasteful isn’t enough. Certainly it is a darn sight less offensive than the beknickered babes on the front of your average Michel Houellebecq book (in the UK at least; there’s no topless totty on his French covers). The sci-fi and fantasy communitys have long carried on a dialogue with themselves about the representation of women on their book covers.

Look, don’t be an idiot, you might say. There’s nothing to complain about. It’s not Nuts, it’s a sophisticated, challenging image. The photo, from 1912, and entitled Dance Study, is by Adolf de Meyer, and is currently held in the Alfred Stieglitz Collection at the New York Met.

Also, and more importantly, the photo itself is referenced in the text of Burnside’s memoir – which partly structures itself around pop and rock songs that have been important to the writer over the years, and is concerned with the dark side of sexuality, and the push and pull of conformism and danger in his various relationships.

In it Burnside discusses his dissatisfaction, as a teenager, with the “(mostly) normal, more or less pretty girlfriends” that he had. “What I really wanted was a romance that, at that time, I couldn’t have put into words, but could picture in my mind’s eye from a photograph I had once seen, an early sepiatone portrait of a naked dancer in what looked like a rough hessian mask, a mask that she was obliged to wear to cover a beauty, or a disfigurement, so intense that it could only be guessed at, never shown.”

It’s an interesting paragraph, not least because the photograph is not identified in the text. (You might almost wonder if the passage was put in in response to the choice of the photograph for the cover…)

There is something pleasingly destabilising about the image. The mask – which looks more like a prop from a 2012 horror film than a photoshoot a century earlier – aggravates and problematises the sensuousness of the nudity, but does it also defuse and excuse it? Take off the mask, and would the breasts be less permissible? What, in the end, is the difference between this cover, and a Page 3 girl? That one has a mask, and the other a compliant smile? That one is high art, the other low journalism? One read by, most likely, a few hundred literati, the other by the masses?

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