Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Little About Covers

I love good humour writing, but I wonder why it's so difficult for publishers to come up with decent design. Specifically, cover design.

This is the copy of P J O'Rourke's book 'Modern Manners: Etiquette for Very Rude People' that Borders are selling at the moment. The title font is annoying, the colours are self-consciously whacky, and it has an intentionally ugly photo of the author on the front.

The book itself is wonderful, both a homage to the etiquette writers of the early 20th century and a send up of the idiocy of the modern day. It has over twenty chapter-long essays on etiquette, all set out in neat columnar style. There are tables, and illustrations with 'keys'; the structure of the book is intentionally neat and formal. This cover is ridiculously out of tone with the rest of the book.

The cover illustrations for some authors are better than others. Here's a book by S J Perelman:

This honour seems to be only accorded to dead or retired humourists, who have been elevated to 'genius' status. (I couldn't find the original cover-art for Perelman's 'The Ill-Tempered Clavier', which would serve as a pretty effective counter-example.)

If this cover had been designed when Lennie Lower was alive, it might unintentionally have caused his death:

Here, the whacky font meets with epilepsy-inducing cartoons. You'd be able to date humour publications to within a year by the style of the cartoons.

Sometimes, the best thing to do is to leave the author in charge of the art:

This is a great little pisstake of Freudian psychoanalyst by New Yorker writers E B White and James Thurber. (When I bought my copy at a Balmain bookstore, by the time I'd got home to Annandale - walking - I'd read about one third: it was that funny.) The cartoons are by Thurber; it was partly on the strength of these that he later became a regularly published artist in the New Yorker.

Of course, it's possible to completely underdesign a book, too.

Lysistrata, by Aristophanes, is one of the funniest plays ever written, though you wouldn't guess that from the cover. I've got a collection of Aristophanes' plays, published by Penguin, with similar designs. Penguin just don't seem to know what to do with some books; their standard approach is to take an inoffensive artwork from the period the author was writing in, and whack it on the cover. (Sometimes they might flash a bit of tit to get the reader in, but that's it).
How on earth could this match up to the opening scene in, say, Aristophanes' 'Peace', which has two slaves shovelling bucketloads of crap to feed a gigantic dung-beetle?
The lazy bastards just aren't trying!


Anonymous said...

About this E. B. White character, co-author of Is Sex Necessary? (of which my parents own no fewer than four (4) copies, one for each sprog, I suspect), also author of Charlotte's Web: his name, in full, is Elwyn Brooks White. Which sounds kinda like Melvin Brooks (without the White), also a New York comedian type. Coincidence? Surely not.

TimT said...

Mel Brooks was a stage name; his original name was Mel Kamynsky. He did grow up in the Bronx, though. E B White moved to New York, I'm not sure from where, though with a name like Elwyn, one suspects he came from out of deepest Oregon or similar. (I think James Thurber was from Ohio.)
We used to have both Charlotte's Web and the second Stuart Little book at our house, but it vanished (along with my father's huge collection of 'Astounding Science Fiction' books, surely a historical tragedy right up there with the fall of Carthage)

I have in my possession probably four copies of P J O'Rourke's 'The CEO of the Sofa', in my opinion his best work: no real political rants, just gentle satire written in the months preceding S.11 2001. I saw several in a bargain bin at a Newcastle book store, and in return for 20 dollars got six of them; I have since distributed several to friends and family. (My own personal copy I bought separately).

Anonymous said...

Right. So I'm suggesting that Melvin Kamynsky adopted "Melvin Brooks" in tribute to Elwyn Brooks White (who was born in Mount Vernon, NY, according to my sources). What my theory lacks is a motive - and anything at all by way of supporting evidence - but I thought perhaps your Mel Brooks expertese might be able to supply the deficiencies in my theory ("why yes, alexis, as a matter of fact, E. B. White saved Mel's life back in '44", or something). This, of course, all part of my masterplan to direct you away from your career as an oil baron and into the burgeoning field of melbrooksology.

TimT said...

Thank you for supporting me in my fanaticism for Mel Brooks; with gentle encouragement, it will surely develop into a single-minded, all-consuming, monomaniacal obsession! Maybe I should stalk Mel Brooks while I'm over in America in February. (The movie of my life will be titled Look Who's Stalking Three!)

Anonymous said...

On the stalking: you go for it, Mr Timnus. In fact, if you're off to the US, I suggest a scavenger hunt:
5 points: "The Governator" t-shirt with picture of Arnie from a Californian airport of your choice
5 points: squirrel droppings
50 points: orange Guantanamo Bay pyjamas
20 points: roadsign from Noo Joisey turnpike
10 points: photos of at least 20 Dunkin' Donuts outlets
30 points: genetic material from Mel Brooks
5 points: Confederate flag themed undergarments

TimT said...

Confederate flag underwear? No sirree! I'll confine myself to daks that contain the Gettysburg address, or my name ain't Septimus Q. Arbwater (and it ain't.)

Anonymous said...

Confederate flag knickers, strictly for the ceremonial burning thereof, I meant to say. Speaking of confederate flags, while I was working on my accent in North Carolina earlier this year, I encountered a whole dang faction of genuINE secessionists (running in the judicial elections, no less). That there civil war ain't over yet, pardner.

TimT said...

Fascinating! A country has got to have a few secessionists, after all. I wonder if there are still any royalist secessionists around? Apparently* they were one of the causes of the civil war; definitely my favourites. I guess they've all emigrated to Canada, though.

*For the purposes of this blog comment.

Anonymous said...

Now that *is* interesting. Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in the 1830s, so Confederate states wanting to sign up again under Queen Vic in the 1860s would've been legally obliged to emancipate their slaves. Although perhaps they planned to wrangle some sort of special concession.

Brownie said...

thank you Alexis - this ignoramus had been giving Abraham Lincoln all the credit for the emancifuckingpation of the slaves, and now I find out he was no better than out little johnny (who will probably claim credit for the rain when our drought breaks).

and TimT darling: "was a stage name; his original name was" - Mr Kamynsky aka Brooks (I love him too) is still with us? although Anne Bancroft his wife is not.
Are they the parents of Albert Brooks?
Are his brothers in the shirt trade?

Email: timhtrain - at -

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