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The Point Of Jhumpa Lahiri's New Book On Book Covers Really Escaped Me

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07/02/2017 4:27 PM IST | Updated 07/02/2017 8:04 PM IST
Neil Hall / Reuters
Author Jhumpa Lahiri poses with her novel "The Lowland", ahead of the 2014 Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction in London June 4, 2014.

This much is clear: Whoever asked us to not judge a book by its cover had zero knowledge of the workings of contemporary publishing. Whether their warning holds true as a metaphor is another matter, but anyone who has ever written, edited, created, sold and, of course, read books will agree that covers can have the power to make or break the fortunes of a writer.

You can't blame publishers for trying to seduce readers with covers that may be more glamorous than the content they enclose. Or for all the gushing adjectives and adverbs they squeeze into the blurb (which is really meant to be a brief description of what the book is about). Or for putting every scrap of praise they can get from anyone who has the semblance of a public profile — even bloggers will do. A book, in the age of Snapchat and Instagram, is competing with a zillion other visual distractions available on the Internet or IRL. And in a market like India, where several hundred books get published every year, its chances of being spotted on a shelf at a bookstore (mostly chaotically and arbitrarily stocked in this country) depend almost entirely on the way it looks.

You can't blame publishers for trying to seduce readers with covers that may be more glamorous than the content they enclose.

To push the metaphor to social context, crass as it may sound, our chances of getting noticed in a crowd are possibly more if our sartorial tastes are more inventive than others around us. Whether the quality of attention we get is positive or not depends on the kind of personality we have. Transpose this situation to a reader browsing through the pages of a beautifully-packaged book, picked out of stacks of dull-looking covers, and my case for attractive book covers may start making sense.

Penguin Random House

All this to say that the point of Jhumpa Lahiri's newest offering, The Clothing of Books, really escaped me. In less than 80 pages — the New York Times calls it a "treatise" — Lahiri makes her case about book covers, drawing on examples of her own work. In general, she doesn't come across as too happy with most of the covers her books have got so far, though that is hardly surprising.

Anyone who's worked in publishing, especially as a commissioning editor or a designer, will affirm how rare it is for a writer to feel pleased with the cover their publisher wants to go with. Tears, sweat and blood are spilled over it — should it be photographic, typographic, illustrative? Comments fly thick and fast, usually between the author and the designer, leaving the poor commissioning editor with the unenviable task of mediating between two clashing egos. Most often, the sales and publicity teams come to the rescue. These two departments, in all trade publishing businesses, are the real bosses, having the last word on what gets published and in what form.

Anyone who's worked in publishing, especially as a commissioning editor or a designer, will affirm how rare it is for a writer to feel pleased with the cover their publisher wants to go with.

Lahiri's attitude to book covers, initially, seems to be of impatience, bordering on petulance, often turning rather anxious. She remembers feeling the same way while growing up in the US, when her mother cajoled or compelled her into wearing Indian clothes in spite of her visceral resistance to the idea. Just as she gave in to her mother's wish, Lahiri also accedes to her publishers' wishes — much of the time, it seems.

But she's keenly aware of her distance from those who have designed her covers: "I ask myself if the artist has read the book, or one chapter, or even a few pages before designing something. I ask myself if she or he liked the book. It's not clear to me". She accuses publishers of burdening book covers "with unreasonable expectations" and loathes the advance praises that are put on them. "Personally," Lahiri writes, "I think it deplorable to place the words and opinions of others on the book jacket. I want the first words read by the reader of my book to be written by me."

Since Lahiri's arguments are confined to physical paper-books, she doesn't ponder the case of the e-book, read ever more widely across the world

Her affinity is with the uniform design style followed by firms like Struzzi Einaudi in Italy — "the mellow colours of the Adelphi series, the dark blue of Sellerio" — where all books appear to be wearing a uniform. The thought comforts Lahiri, just as the sight of her cousins in Calcutta going to school in a uniform once used to. Unlike Lahiri, who went to school in America with children who came from other cultures wearing different clothes, her cousins could assimilate with their peers easily. The sameness of their school clothes made the process even more seamless.

Wearing "foreign" clothes, as people living in India would know, could be frowned upon just as much in this country, especially if the wearer happens to be a woman, as by NRI parents disgruntled by their children's taste in clothes. Lahiri's discomfort with her mother's demands would have made better sense if it were a reaction against gender stereotypes rather than just an extension of her immigrant anxieties. Since Lahiri's arguments are confined to physical paper-books, she doesn't ponder the case of the e-book, read ever more widely across the world, where the cover is usually a thumbnail on a screen where the reader purchases the book. Are we to then believe that e-book readers are "purer" in their intent, in that they go for what there is in the book rather than caring for its trappings?

Lahiri's frustration with the over-emphasis on the external paraphernalia of a book is understandable.

As for advance praise, the correlation between a famous someone's gushing words and sales figures may be hard to establish, but most readers can identify, and exercise a healthy scepticism towards, hard-sell. Even professional book reviewers, used to getting 4-5 books a week, are jaded enough to not trust a word they read on the blurb — though an endorsement from a "big name" can be an incentive to persist with a book, even if it's dull, for a while longer.

Lahiri's frustration with the over-emphasis on the external paraphernalia of a book is understandable. In a pristine world, it would have been possible to be read a book for its content only, without any praise, with the bare bones of a cover (as Lahiri longs for). Such a world, as even seasoned optimists among us would concede, doesn't exist. In a fiercely competitive market, where a book has to jostle with a hundred others to even be visible on a shelf, such is not the case at all.

The scenario may, of course, be very different, if the writer in question happens to be a Pulitzer Prize winner, whose name is recognised by millions across the world.

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