01 July 2009

Under the covers

41qnpS01NwL._SS500_ When it comes to reading fiction, I tend to align my own experience with that of comedian Eddie Izzard, who once said, ‘some people are widely read. I'm thinly read’.  Much of what’s produced in modern fiction seems to me to lean towards pseudish over-writing, and while I’m not the sort who will go so far in search of a good story that I’ll resort to mass produced airport page-turner novels, it does seem strange that the most highly regarded writers in the world are often so very different in style and output from the renowned writers of previous decades.  I’m not well-read enough to establish whether or not the art of story-telling has ebbed out of modern literary fiction, but at times it certainly seems that way.  Nevertheless, now and then I pick up a tome of modern fiction that I think I’ll be able to remain interested in. 

It came as quite a relief when I took out a modern reissue of a volume of short stories by the American author Richard Yates (1926-92), who is these days best known as the author of Revolutionary Road, which became a successful film last year.  The short stories, collected under the title Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, were originally published in 1962, the year in which Yates was nominated for the National Book Award for Revolutionary Road.  Yes, there are eleven stories in the collection, and yes, in a way each of them deals with society’s outsiders.  But this is not a volume of tortured souls beset by loneliness and engaged in a never-ending cycle of piteous complaints.  Rather, it shows Yates’ skills as an expert chronicler of contemporary urban lifestyles. 

The subject matter of the eleven stories illustrates Yates’ background and interests.  ‘Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern’ and ‘Fun with a Stranger’ are schoolroom tales, ‘Jody Rolled the Bones’ and ‘The B.A.R. Man’ allow Yates to explore his time in the Army in Europe after the Second World War, and ‘A Wrestler with Sharks’ and ‘Builders’ evoke the world of struggling young writers in New York.  Tuberculosis wards provide the scene for two of the stories, indicating that Yates was familiar with the debilitation and soul-sapping power of TB.  And in several stories the protagonist has a young family and must struggle with reconciling the responsibilities of a provider with his ambitions as a writer.  The stories are all good examples of the ability of a deft writer to work the random nuances of everyday life into what would otherwise be mundane tales.  Having read these examples, I’d certainly track down more of Yates’ funny and unsentimental writing. 


The act of picking up this collection of stories in the library got me thinking about the difficult art of book cover design, and how it influences our reading choices.  Sure, in an ideal world we’d not ‘judge a book by its cover’, but realistically speaking, I can’t pretend to be sufficiently knowledgeable to merely spy an author’s name on a bare spine and know instantly if it would interest me.  (I’ve leafed through the TLS and the NYRB, but in general their dense intellectualism defeats me). 

A book’s cover is a vital part of its saleability.  When I worked in a Whitcoulls bookshop as a student, I heard that an edition of Jostein Gaarder’s then-voguish Sophie’s World was being published with a pink dustjacket, to appeal to younger female readers.  (I think it may have been this one).  I could see the business sense of that – I mean, teenage boys are hardly devotees of philosophical novels these days.  But as a male reader, my main reaction was that the publishers were discounting the possibility that virtually any male readers would pick up this novel with its garish pink cover.

There are important stylistic differences in book cover design between British and Commonwealth publishers and those in America.  The graceful understatement of the Vintage Yates edition published in Britain, above, can’t be compared with its American equivalent, because it appears that the collection hasn’t been in print in America since 1989.  But look at the cover of the three-in-one 2009 American hardback in the Everyman’s Library series, containing Revolutionary Road, The Easter Parade and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.  ‘This is a very serious book for serious people,’ this cover says.  Gloomy colours and functional text offers the requisite information, but fail to entice all but the most persistent reader to leaf through the book.

Another example of this different approach to salesmanship can be seen in a non-fiction book I read a year or two ago: Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive.  On first impressions this might sound dry, but Diamond manages to be a scientist and a storyteller as he dissects failed societies throughout history and tries to establish what brought about their end.  The British paperback, which I read, has a smart, clear and punchy cover, while an American hardback edition of the same book is all dreary grey (pics from Amazon.co.uk):

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So I guess the question remains – why so serious, America?  Surely you’re not afraid that someone might have fun reading one of your books? 

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