Sonya Chung is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher who nourishes her split personality by living part-time in the S. Bronx and part-time in rural PA. She writes and grows vegetables in both places. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, BOMB Magazine, and Sonora Review, among others. Her first novel, Long for This World, is forthcoming from Scribner in March 2010. You can find her fiction and blog-chronicles (adventures in publishing a first novel) at sonyachung.com. I. If you've ever wondered what goes into designing a book jacket, you're not alone. It was one of the things that seemed a bit mystical to me when my novel went into production. In fact, the process remained shrouded in mystery up until the moment I received an email from my editor with jpeg attachments of a few prospective designs. Let me back up by saying that one of my favorite quotes is a line from indie actor/filmmaker Steve Buscemi, who said, in a profile in The New Yorker a few years back: "There's something about being naïve. Really interesting things come because you don't know what the rules are, what you can and can't do." I went into the publication process with little-to-no knowledge of what goes into producing, promoting, or releasing a book. And I had a vague sense that it might be fruitful to maintain some measure of that ignorance; that becoming immersed in the ins and outs of production and marketing could be detrimental, both to my writing process and to the publisher's ability to do its job. How much of a sausage-making expert did I really want to become, and how useful to the publisher would my porky hands be? II. In the current publishing environment, this is a rather old-fashioned way of thinking, and unrealistic. Much more pro-activity is expected and required from authors, now that marketing budgets (for unknown writers, especially) are dwindling; and readers have come to expect and crave more personal connection with authors. As Farrar, Straus & Giroux Publisher Jonathan Galassi put it in his recent interview for Poets & Writers, "We're selling authors, not books. We're selling people the illusion of an experience with an author... They want the full experience." So it's a somewhat complex relationship, an intricate dance. Contractually, the book no longer belongs to the author. And yet collaboration each step of the way is ideal. When it came to the book jacket, I was invited to be involved, and my input was both valued and incorporated; at the same time, I sensed that fussiness would be received as such, and knew that, technically speaking, the final decision was not mine. As a first-time novelist, new to the dance, I felt a little like I had two left feet. III. I did not have a specific picture in mind of what I wanted my book's jacket to look like. But I did have a vague idea of what I didn't want it to look like. I did not want the design to be too literal; I myself am drawn to jacket covers which are more evocative of a novel's essence than descriptive of its plot or characters (I dislike, for instance, the movie-poster jackets of books which have been made into films, which often present celebrities' faces for characters you'd rather imagine). I also knew that conveying the cultural elements of the novel in a jacket image could be tricky. In a recent article in Hyphen Magazine, books editor Neelanjana Banerjee expresses a frustration with the easy cultural tropes that are often used for the covers of novels by Asian Americans - fans, geishas (or other painted-faced women in traditional East Asian dress), dragons, chopsticks, lotus blossoms (I would add peonies, cranes, and scantily clad Asian temptresses) - to "mark" the books in an exoticized way and thus, presumably, sell more books to readers attracted to the familiarly exotic - whether or not those tropes best represent the novel's actual thematic content or storyline. So when I received the jpeg attachments, I was relieved to find that each of the drafts centered around a dream-like (non-literal) main image; which did not include any of the above-named objects or tropes (none of which are particularly relevant to the novel). The image was a rather spare photograph of a single, hatted (i.e. wearing a canvass sport hat commonly seen in the southern regions of South Korea), female figure, shot from the back, looking out into an illuminated horizon - somehow both figurative and abstract at once in its facelessness - that I thought evoked the emotional core of the novel quite well. IV. What's strange about the jacket-design process is that the people who are weighing in are in a sense the least qualified to provide an informative gut-level response - a simulation of that half-second book-browser reaction. My agent, my editor, and I have all (obviously) read the book, so we came to the image as anything but blank slates. After considering my initial (positive) reaction, I registered a concern that the image was a tad too abstract, and that it would not be clear to someone who did not know the story what the figure was doing (she is taking a photograph). So I forwarded the attachments to a couple of trusted friends, one of whom knew almost nothing about the story (about a Korean family, mainly an immigrant father and his American-born photojournalist daughter who find themselves reverse-migrating to the father's village hometown in South Korea), the other of whom knew a little. I asked them, simply, "What do you see here?" The former wrote: "I see a white woman looking off into the distance, most likely taking a photograph." The latter wrote: "I love it! But why is the woman white?" Whaa? This, you may have guessed, was not at all the response I was expecting. V. I mentioned these responses to my editor. She was shocked; it never occurred to her that the figure would be perceived as non-Asian, nor did it to me. As I looked more closely, brightening my screen settings, I saw that the woman's hair had brownish highlights, accentuated by the light emanating from the horizon; it also had a slight wave to it. I thought, this must be what my friends are reacting to. So I asked my editor (trying not to trip over my two left feet) if she could track down the origins of the image, to see if it was a composite and might be altered. While she was (justifiably) dubious that the perceptions of two people warranted an alteration, she kindly agreed to do the research. In the meantime, I sent the image to a dozen other people. I literally received six responses identifying the woman as Asian or "non-determinate race" and six responses identifying her as white (one person even used the word "WASPy"). I was stumped. What's more, there was no discernible pattern in the responses, no correlation between response and respondent: people of Asian descent, people of non-Asian descent, people who knew the story or didn't, male or female, political persuasions one way or another – the responses were all over the place. (One of the people who identified her as white was a Korean American woman who herself had brownish wavy hair.) By the twelfth response, I just had to laugh. Fascinating! This was turning into a kind of Rorschach test. My editor wrote me back with the results of her research: no, it was not a composite and thus could not be altered. But, as it turned out, the model in the image is in fact Korean; and here, attached, is a photograph of her from the front. Did this help settle it for me? Well, no. Not really. VI. What is the primary function of a book jacket? The adage "You can't judge a book by its cover" is, to me, despite its cliche status, rather sophisticated in its irony; because in fact we know darn well that not only can you judge a book (and, to some limited degree, the metaphorical person to which the adage refers) by its cover; but that a good many book-buyers do judge books by their covers. I was encouraged to focus on the question, "Does it make someone want to pick up the book and find out what it's about?" In the case of this design, I'd say sure, and most of the respondents would, too. Regardless of the racial identity of the figure, the emotional evocation is, I think, compelling overall. But would the perceived race of the figure affect one way or another whether someone would pick it up? And what about after the half-second impression? Has the jacket cover fulfilled its purpose at that point? Would finding that the character is of a different race than initially perceived (and that the story is a bicultural story) affect the reading experience? And does the fact that the "truth" of the image matches the "truth" of the story - that the model is Korean - matter, if the reader does not have access to this background? The questions spiraled out from there: how much does the author's name affect the reader's expectation of the novel's content? Does the name "Chung" on the cover incline readers to certain assumptions? What does it mean that some segment of the population expects that an Asian woman would have straight black hair though not all of them do? Is it productive to work at meeting the expectation, or is the time ripe in our culture to test the waters of deviation and diversity? I could also hear in my head the voices of Ethnic Studies activists and feminist scholars challenging the tyranny of Western beauty standards and the blondifying of Eastern cultures. What to do? VII. There is actually an end to this story, and a rather anti-climactic one. (No dramatic showdown between author and publisher, no grand moral stances taken.) As my editor and I discussed it further, we realized that her computer screen was showing black hair. So I asked her to send me hard-copy printouts of the image; and as it turned out, it was in fact variations of screen views that created different hair-color shades and thus impressions. The hard-copy showed black hair, and without the highlights, the appearance of the wave was slightly less pronounced. We liked the image all along, and we knew it would be hard to recapture all that we liked about it if we went back to the drawing board. We decided to go forth. I am still a little nervous - having no control over the final printing process, color-correcting, etc. - about what this cover will look like. But I also realized that as each response piled on one after the other in my inbox, I was beginning to delight in the wackiness of the whole thing. Would Jane, the character in the novel, be so easily identified or defined by race? She is unambiguously an American of Korean descent; but she is also many other things: a war photographer, sister, daughter, lover, survivor of trauma and tragedy. She is a woman looking for her life in the wake of death. She would never deliberately deceive; but she would embrace the essential mystery of identity, the complexity of perception from the viewpoint of the beholder. And - no surprise - so do I.
Like most other art forms, fiction has undergone many configurations over the years, but its core has remained, as always, the aesthetic pleasure of reading. When we read, we connect to the immaterial source of the story through its outstretched limbs. The “limb” or variants of it are what the writer has deemed fit for us to see, to gaze at and admire. It is not often the whole. But one of the major ways in which fiction has changed today -- from the second half of the 20th century especially -- is that most of its fiction reveals all its limbs to us all at once. Nothing is hidden behind the esoteric wall of mystery or metaphysics. The writers who do well to divvy up their fiction into fractions of what is revealed to the reader are the writers who tend to achieve transcendence, which, according to Emmanuel Levinas is recognized “in the work of the intellect that aspires after exteriority.” In fiction, a form of art expressed through letters, exteriority in this sense approximates meaning. For the writer endures himself to turn that which is interior inside out for the reader to see. Writing, then, is an act of turning out that which is in. The triangular writer then is he who projects meaning relentlessly yet systematically to the reader, and in the process of which readers glimpse something else. And then, something else. They see a man standing on the top of a cliff about to descend to his death, but they also see a cause -- perhaps a nation’s communist past -- standing there, about to plunge to its end. When, in a text written more than 2,000 years ago, a character says, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again,” the percipient reader hears at least two things: (a) In keeping with His miracles to this point, the said temple could be destroyed and this man, Jesus, can raise it up again with his miraculous power; (b) Once one has read to the end of the gospel of Matthew, one understands that “the temple” in fact means the man himself. It is he who will be killed, and he who will be raised again. This multi-layered meaning is, in the biblical concept, necessary because of the spiritual property of the book, and hence deemed “exegetic.” But the writers of triangular fiction achieve this in their fiction too. This is because the “divvying up” into fractions or parts that eventually become one and whole often works to more than one level of interpretation. The works of fiction that achieve transcendence are those works that lend themselves to this multi-layered interpretation. I believe that fiction should work on at least three levels of interpretation: The personal, the conceptual, and the philosophical. In other words, the shape of the core of great works of fiction must be triangular -- it must be emotional, cerebral, and sublime. The personal level of interpretation is that basic level where the story meets the reader at his most human level. I will prop up three novels by some writers of this kind of fiction, Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye), Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), and Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart). A young black girl in Jim Crow America who desires blue eyes. We know such a child has existed, and probably still does, and we cringe at the futility and even folly of such a desire. But we cannot deny its unvarnished humanness. A middle-aged man who has a crushing desire for a young pubescent girl whom he names his “nymphet.” We appreciate the humanness of his lust, and are disturbed/moved by it. Or a pre-colonial strongman of an Igbo village who has risen through hard times and established himself, his small kingdom, his traditions, and all that exist within the boundaries of his compound -- and even beyond -- “with a strong hand,” and then an encounter with a group of foreigners destroys all of that and brings him to become the lowest among his kinsmen, an akalaogoli, who cannot be accorded the common honor of a burial. We can understand these characters and their stories as the writers, Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabokov, and Chinua Achebe have created them on this personal level. But we can see, too, that much more lies behind these personal stories. The marigolds blossom, desire the bleak sun, and die, and in their protracted destinies share equivalent fate with Pecola. We see that the lust that fuels and drives Humbert Humbert, the lust in which he is imprisoned, is revealed in the thickets of language in which he is caught. But the aggregate meaning of the entire enterprise stretches beyond the page to the authorial intention expressed in the account of the monkey who, on being given a paper and pencil and taught the human art of drawing, draws the first thing in its mind: the bars around its cage. From this bar, its existence is enclosed and constrained. It cannot leave it. Its desire to leave comes and dies, unfulfilled, in futility, until it again surrenders to the reality that it will remain imprisoned. This is the distinct quality of the lust that possesses, and eventually destroys, Humbert Humbert and Lolita. In Things Fall Apart, we can see, too, the ascension and power that Okonkwo acquires, and its flourishing when, at its peak, he receives various titles, and even has his daughter wedded. Then, an internal crisis erupts within him and slowly tears him apart. As he breaks down because Nwoye, his first son, has joined the ranks of the enemy, we also see -- simultaneously -- the villagers of Umuofia trying to understand what to do with their own brothers who have joined the white man’s religion and ways, causing the tribe to fall part. It is at this point that it becomes clear that Okonkwo isn’t merely an individual; he is Umuofia, he is an entire civilization, and it is not he alone but everything that falls apart. The marigold, the monkey, the village of Umuofia -- these become philosophical images on which these writers have constructed the personal stories of individual characters. On these things and on the vested characters, these triangular writers make profound philosophical statements while carrying through with strong, engaging plots. They are able to achieve this synchrony of vision because of the conceptual layer of their narratives. Morrison’s introspection into the head of her primary character is matched with an unblinking gaze from the outside through a girl her age, in Claudia. Thus, we are looking into Pecola, and looking at her at the same time. Humbert Humbert’s story is itself caged in bars. The writer within the story has died by the time the story is being published, and thus cannot change or touch anything in the manuscript. He cannot answer for anything that has been said, nor make restitution for anything that may require restitution. And within the precincts of the story itself, he is enslaved by an effusive, unguarded language as fecund as a wasteful forest, within which he himself gets lost. It is an imbroglio that yields, nonetheless, affecting flights of lyricism and ambient prose. And on the man on whom a poor beginning had been bequeathed, his rise is chronicled through a third person voice that intermittently strays into the omniscient. We see the knife that tears him within as it slides through the civilization of the Igbo people. It is thus too difficult to not say, most definitely, that these three novels -- The Bluest Eye, Lolita, Things Fall Apart --were conceived because their writers had diligently set themselves “the design of rendering the work universally appreciable” according to Edgar Allan Poe. Poe provides in that seminal essay that he had hoped to achieve this by seeking to “contemplate” the “beautiful,” a literary esotericism reached only by focusing on the effect of that which inspires beauty, and not the commodity of the beautiful itself. This is because “when indeed, men speak of Beauty, they mean, precisely, not a quality, as is supposed, but an effect -- they refer, in short, just to that intense and pure elevation of soul…” This is the trajectory by which writers of triangular fiction approach literary truth. For, in their works, that which is personal is at the same time a philosophy, and at the same time a conceptual/artistic conceit. And as we read, we can not help but notice the transcendent power of triangular fiction.
Getting a director for Stephen King's The Stand was almost as difficult as surviving the virus. The latest director to try is Josh Boone, who is no stranger to adaptations because he's bringing The Fault in Our Stars to screen. To brush up on your King, read our essay on learning about America through his novels.
On February 17th, the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program will launch a free digital course open to everybody with an internet connection. The course is entitled “Every Atom: Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself,” and registration is now open. The course will “take a collective approach to a close reading of America’s democratic verse epic."