1. Fictions

Hello blog readers!

Below: the first in some promised posts about the process of jacketing works of fiction.

Some caveats: I've cut this piece down quite a bit (almost in half)— though it will still range over five or more installments (if I decide to post that much of it...) If you feel I've left a particular question I've raised in this section unanswered, well, that's because there is more writing coming down the pike—so please be patient.

This essay is heavily footnoted. I found that footnotes didn't work so well in this Blogger format—so I made the decision to place the notes at the conclusion of each section as end-notes. The end-notes are in red. Hopefully they contain interesting info so don't skip em! You can jump back and forth if you want to, or read them at the end. Suit yourself.

In any case, thanks for reading,




"Lolita discussed by the papers from every possible point of view
except one: that of its beauty and pathos."—Vera Nabokov


I was recently asked to judge a book cover competition. I’ve judged several of these things over the years but this contest was rather unique; it was comprised of unpublished covers commissioned expressly for the jury to ponder, rather than being made up of titles already commercially sold. More unusually, the style of the covers was set in advance. If you’re interested in the complete brief, here it is.
I began here with the intention of discussing how the parameters of this contest and several other factors over-determined the high quality of the final results- but I found myself repeatedly coming back to one particular contestant’s book cover, dwelling obsessively on it, and my mind, as is it’s want, spiraled off into territory that seemed more fertile and compelling than my original topic might have been.
The cover in question was submitted by Emmanuel Polanco, and it’s a proposed jacket for Nabokov’s Lolita.1

(Here’s another version)

Is it the crude handwriting that makes it so effective? Doesn’t the entire composition, in its offhandedness, carry the faintest suggestion of the childish about it? It is neither lusting nor leering, nor overly proud of its own wit.2
It seems to eschew the urbane gaze of Nabokov’s old-world narrator in favor of a naive and guileless one. The painted lips hint at an underdeveloped and mythologized understanding of romance; it is the cover, I could imagine, that a young Dolores Haze might have drawn.3
I’m sure the effect is unintentional.
And yet, the naiveté suggested by this cover reminds me that the unequal object of Humbert Humbert’s attentions is a child. And this line of thinking, in turn, reminds me that Lolita is, and should continue to be treated as (despite its verbal gymnastics, lasciviousness, and intermittent humor) a shocking and sad book (Dolores, or sorrows). It is not a sexy book- not an erotic book.

It is easy to forget, especially easy given the soft-core Lolita renderings (book jackets, film adaptations…) one sees down the years. Nabokov’s is a tale of perversion—unequal partnership, corrupted youth, and non-consensuality. Lolita is, for sure, a tragicomedy, and there are elements of the glib, the sensual, and the pure slapstick in it—but these days we tend to overemphasize these easy aspects of the tale and its telling. Furthermore, we think on the various rejections, bans, and the generally shocked reception the book was given upon publication, and we mentally admonish our predecessors for their prudishness. We then make book jackets and other portrayals that are self-congratulatory in their sensuality and/or lack of gravitas. But are these representations of Lolita truly speaking on behalf of the book, or rather, some modern attitude towards mid-century mores? The more I think on it, the more I feel like this kind of jacketing solution, for Lolita, is false, and pernicious in its own way.  It is at best, a misrepresentation, at worst a kind of whitewashing, and it does no justice to the text it putatively represents.4

“Here seemed to be nothing to prevent my muscular thumb from reaching the hot hollow of her groin-just as you might tickle and caress a giggling child”
It’s repulsive.
But it is wonderfully alliterative.
But still: ick. This is a child we are talking about here. Explicitly.
This dialectic is partly the point. If one examines the one sex scene we are privy to in full, this infamous lap scene, what is salient is that only one member of the couple is fully aware that a sexual act is transpiring. Lolita wiggles, squirms on her stepfather’s lap, her stepfather achieves “the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.”
Double ick.
It is the discordant lop-sidedness of the encounter, in age as in awareness, (coupled with the dual resonance of the lap as both the safe seat of childhood- the place where trust is implicit-as well as the intersection of sexual congress), which makes the scene rich, if still repugnant. This friction incriminates the reader, who is also, for reading the passage, in collusion, and now, like H.H. a “monster”. This incrimination, I would posit, is partly the point. We are complicit- we readers of Nabokov’s Lolita. We are witnesses to a crime, moreover witnesses who are seduced by the crime, by its trappings, by the cadence of its sentences, by Nabokov’s genius, and we just can’t turn away.
Pretty depictions of softly lit Lolitas (anatomized or whole) on book covers seem to perform the opposite function: they downgrade our outrage and our complicity (and in so doing they also lessen the effect of the book’s central metaphor—but I’ll get to that anon.) They are the cover design analogue of porn stars in schoolgirl uniforms-there is no longer anything obviously discordant about them as they are the fantasy-fulfillment of a culture that has long since sexualized its young. We don’t see those plaid skirts and feel the frisson of an unusual juxtaposition. We see merely the vague promise of sex, if even that. The uniform in this case is just another symbol that has lost its original immediacy. And through repeated use it has become meaningless. It no longer represents innocence, thus cannot represent fallen innocence either.5

So what’s a designer to do?6 Does a designer attempt a (truly) shocking cover, in order to properly represent the ethical disquiet that Nabokov’s narrative provokes?
“She was shaking from head to toe (from fever) She complained of a painful stiffness…and I thought of poliomyelitis as any American parent would. Giving up all hope of intercourse…”

In surveying the extant editions I don't see many that rise to the challenge.
Perhaps the first edition had it right: the so-straight-it-must-contain-something-dangerous approach, otherwise known as the “brown paper wrapper gambit,” (which in this case is green.)

Megan Wilson's Lolita cover for the Vintage edition is an interesting case—and stands as one of my all-time favorites. (Though—let's ignore the Vanity Fair quote shall we? What could "The only convincing love story of our century" possibly mean?) When I first encountered this edition I assumed our supposed Lolita's pose was flirtatious. One knee bends in front of the other—in almost a curtsy. She seems locked in some sort of stylized sexual demurral. However as time passes (and my reading of the text evolves) I begin to factor in the stark, ominous lighting, and the gaze of the photographer becomes threatening; the pose of the subject one of real discomfiture. The knee crosses protectively. What seemed to me at first as "come hither" has evolved into "please don't."

This cover (below) is satisfying (in it's imagery at least- the typography is another matter entirely…), and comes pretty damn close to achieving the requisite unease I’ve been discussing thanks to a stark visual double entendre. And yet, though clever, the jacket somehow feels too narrow in focus to be a proxy for Nabokov’s striking array of ideas. It performs its circumscribed task well, but it doesn’t capture the book’s gestalt.

Which leads me to my next point: maybe it’s simply impossible to give this book the jacket it deserves if one believes it deserves a representation of the central sexual relationship between a young girl and an older man.

But as it turns out, this book, Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, is not, actually, about a deranged pervert lusting after a nymphet.
I mean, it is, but it is clearly much more than merely this. Lolita’s central argument concerns the young and the old, but the old world and the new world- As most of you know- Lolita is a book about America: A young, robust, bobby-socked, dewy-eyed and apple-cheeked America- an America of
“Sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth . . .”
This is an America of license plates, motel room keys, coke bottles, chewing gum . . . a young, fresh, insolent, unaware America.

"We had breakfast in the township of Soda, pop. 1001" 

Lolita is the tale of a gentleman caller, hailing from an exhausted continent, (exhausted in its linguistics as it is in its literature) to adopt, as HH adopts his ward, a new language—to inhabit it, fetishize it, tyrannize it. 8
Nabokov’s is a book about America and its language.
Isn’t it?

Every book, or (or rather: every good book) contends with a calculus greater than the mere facts of its narrative. If books were only drama delivery-systems, than we’d have nothing to talk about in literature classes, and Stephen King 9 would be a Nobel Laureate. The facts of the narrative may keep us turning the pages, but it’s a book’s greater purpose, as it were, that makes it truly worthy of our attentions. We come for the liter-al, but we stay for the liter-ary.
This much is obvious- but it begs an important question for designers of book jackets.
(We) book jacket designers are delegated the responsibility of representing a text- That is unless we see ourselves as meager decorators of it. 10
But assuming for the moment that we’ve taken on the task of representing the text, rather than just adorning it, we designers must determine, must we not, what a book is about before we design a jacket for it? I find, when I’m reading a manuscript, I’m constantly on the lookout for images, characters, ideas that can serve, metaphorically, as proxies for the whole. But the question is constantly emerging in my mind: is this “whole” the narrative itself, in its literal details, or the thing(s) the narrative is driving towards- its greater underlying significance? 11 Which is to say: is it our job, in the case of Lolita, to represent "the central sexual relationship between a young girl and an older man;" or are we being asked to delve deeper?

The answer to this question turns out to be more complex than one would imagine.


1 Directly after I judged this Polish Book Cover competition, I was asked by to participate in John Bertram’s excellent Lolita project (wherein he asked a slew of book jacket designers to make their own Lolita jackets). I’m not sure if this particular Lolita cover above would have resonated with me quite as much if this second assignment hadn’t come along. In any case, because of these two factors Lolita was on my mind...

2. Book jackets these days, for reasons I won’t unpack, seem to revel, overtly, in wit, conceptual deviousness, unusual clever or droll juxtapositions- we, as a professional community, seem to have elevated the visual bon mot above all other virtues. Again, I won’t delve into the “why” of the matter here for want of space, but suffice it to say that clever work is the work that is celebrated in our community. Not that wit in itself isn’t valuable, and doesn’t have an appropriate place in design- but wit is not the same thing as insightfulness, and often insightfulness is what is called for in a book jacket. Our fetishizing of cleverness has taken a toll I believe, in that (quite often) these clever solutions work at cross-purposes to the (more often than not sincere) narratives they represent. A book in which an author has gone out on a considerable limb in order to write in a genuine and unaffected fashion does not want a cover that winks at the reader. Wit, when it becomes compulsive (as anyone knows who has a friend who puns too often) quickly becomes its opposite- dullness or predictability. Are we, as a professional community, that punning guy? I hope not.

3. Or, could it be the work of the young HH?

4. Christopher Hitchens, describing his (and my own) mutating relationship with the narrative: “When I first read this novel, I had not experienced having a twelve year old daughter…I dare say I chortled, in an outraged sort of way, when I first read, ‘How sweet it was to bring that coffee to her, and then deny it until she had done her morning duty.’ But this latest time I found myself almost congealed with shock.” Hitchens also judiciously reminds us that “immediately following each and every one of the hundreds of subsequent rapes the little girl weeps…” Read that sentence again. Now survey again the treatments this book has been given. Feel the disconnect?

5. The book jacket which always springs to my mind when thinking of exhausted metaphors and their remedies is Chip Kidd’s brilliant jacket for Richard Lattimore’s translation of The New Testament. In lieu of yet another meaningless cross or crucifixion scene (divorced from any real notion of death, torture, or sacrifice) Chip gives us a photo of a real, actual, honest-to-goodness dead person. Offensive you say? I counter that you are inured to the once vibrant meanings that underlie your sacred texts. 

6. This is a good a time (I.e. Sooner rather than later) to mention that book designers are only partly responsible for the covers they produce, in the sense that their work has to pass muster with a marketing department as well as an editorial division (not to mention authors, agents, etc. who also must be appeased). It bears repeating that in attempting to sell a book, designers must, not always, but sometimes, pander to the very public I was just dressing down- a public which can on occasion lack the interpretive subtlety to parse literary subtext. I.e. if the general reading public expects a schoolgirl, or schoolgirl uniform on a Lolita jacket, then book buyers and book sellers will also be expecting a schoolgirl or schoolgirl uniform on a Lolita jacket; and one can then reasonably assume marketing departments in publishing houses will want them as well. In the end, going backwards, upriver towards its source, even editors begin to take their cues from misinformed readers at large. I will reveal that on one occasion, a good friend, who is a multiply best-selling author (ahem) was told by his editor (NOT AT KNOPF) that his latest work wasn’t up to snuff because it “didn’t seem enough like the kind of thing” he writes. Ie, on occasion, even authors cannot beat back the tide of their own marketing expectations. (Dead authors have no say in this process, which is one reason we designers love them as much as we do). In any case, managing these expectations is, sadly, also part of our jobs as jacket designers.

7. I am aware that “about” is a tricky word. We’ll get to that in a minute.

8. "Even Lolita, especially Lolita, is a study in tyranny." Martin Amis, Koba The Dread

9. For the record, I am a big fan. Just— not for the same reasons that I am a fan of say, James Joyce's 
10. I will confess that many times I find, in my own work, that decorating a book jacket is a more efficacious approach than that of attempting to represent or explain its meaning The “explication” versus “decoration” schools of book design will be discussed later.


It is extremely complicated to explain what one means when one says that a book is “about” something or other (difficult because the word “about” is hard to define; difficult in the sense that most good books proffer more than one central argument; and difficult, especially difficult,  in the wake of the putative “Death of the author,” Barthes, Saussure, Derrida, pluralities of meaning, and nearly fifty years of intertextuality, etc.)

And yet…

what I call “the cover design test” would be useful in Comp Lit discussions: i.e. if your theory of meaning (Marxist, Post Structuralist, Feminist, Freudian, Post Colonialist, etc.) cannot translate into a commercially viable book cover, then it fails at properly describing your text. (For instance: what would Roland Barthes have envisaged for the cover of Balzac’s Sarrasine—The subject of his structuralist analysis in S/Z? I would posit that this imaginary jacket would be a catastrophe, as his famous interpretation of the text was highly idiosyncratic and personal.) All of which is to say that I believe there to be more consensus around what books are “about” than most may think. We designers, in our jackets, attempt to capture meaning which is not exactly consensus-driven, but rather meaning that is both true enough, and flexible enough such that most readers won’t find it a stretch to believe. That is to say that we are trying to maximize understanding. In this sense, jacket design is a kind of interpretational utilitarianism.


Next installment—a continuation of the first. Examining the jacketing process for fiction in more detail (I will break it down, index the processes...). Along the way: a brief conversation about fiction titles. After which we return to Lolita with (hopefully) greater understanding.

Coming Soon