Like we did last year, we’re going to have a little fun comparing the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Rooster contenders. Book cover design is a strange exercise in which one attempts to distill iconic imagery from hundreds of pages of text. Engaging the audience is the name of the game here. and it’s interesting to see how the different audiences and sensibilities on either side of the Atlantic can result in very different looks. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
Shortly after I turned in my new novel, The Stager, my editor sent me a startling black and white photograph of a woman in a chair. The woman is in a state of graceful repose, with long legs extending into strappy black shoes. She is sultry, sexy, and extremely unsettling. She appears to be beautiful even though you cannot see her face because she is wearing a mask. The art director was suggesting updating this image to use as the cover of the book. It was apparently an iconic Bauhaus photograph. I could toss the word Bauhaus around as well as the next person, but to be honest, I didn’t really know what it meant, apart from having something to do with Germany and a slim treatise on architecture by Tom Wolfe. That Bauhaus might also involve Jungian images of women in chairs was surprising; more puzzling was what this had to do with my novel -- a dark comedy about home staging set in suburban Maryland. But to be honest, I didn’t really care. I loved this photograph in all its weirdness and, more to the point, I was just relieved that no one was proposing slapping on my novel the image of a woman holding a briefcase, a baby, or a mop. The updated image that was created for the book jacket hewed closely to the original, but now that it was infused with color and light, not to mention the comical silhouette of the belligerent rabbit who plays a central role in the book, the cover seemed more playful than spooky -- or so I thought. Not everyone I showed it to agreed; my agent reported that the British publishers thought the cover was “too S&M,” for example. Still, the more I studied it, the more I could see a perfect symmetry with the narrative. At the center of the novel is a home stager whose job involves coming into a house to strip it of personality, to depersonalize it so that others can see themselves living there -- to mask the interior. The home stager, as it happens, is masked, herself. She’s incognito in the home of her former best friend, about whom she knows secrets. And the home is full of symbolic totems from their past. Masks and more masks. While I was in high gear connecting the dots on all the mask symbolism, a friend looked at the photograph and became nearly apoplectic when he saw the chair the woman was sitting in. It’s a Wassily, he explained. “The most disturbing chair in the world, next to the electric.” With its black leather straps in place of cushions, not only is its appearance formidable, but it is evidently quite uncomfortable. Sitting in it feels like having a broomstick shoved up a certain part of the anatomy, or so I was informed. I had never heard of a Wassily chair. I take pride in my house and I care about my surroundings, but my own sensibility leans decidedly toward the Anthropologie catalogue with a little Pottery Barn mixed in, which is to say that there is no rigorous intellectual underpinning to the way I have put together my home. Also, modern furniture has no place in my design lexicon, so the chair on the cover barely caught my eye. A little research turned up the following: made of tubular steel and inspired by the construct of a bicycle, the chair was originally called the model B3. It was designed by Marcel Breuer in the mid-1920s, when he was the head of the cabinet-making workshop at the Bauhaus. The painter Wassily Kandinsky evidently admired it, and Breuer made a copy for his quarters. Years later, when it was reproduced in mass quantities, it was named the Wassily. The chair needed to go in the book, my friend said. But I was unconvinced; the Wassily does not belong in the shabby chic faux Tudor mansion where the story is set. Besides, by this point I had already been sent the copy-edited proofs. Adding the chair was going to require a fair amount of work on a project I had psychologically declared finished. But my friend persisted; the chair was on the cover for a reason, he said, and the next thing I knew I had a stack of furniture books on my desk and was reading From Bauhaus to Our House and a doorstop called 1,000 Chairs. The chair inserted itself rather easily, despite my resistance. One of my characters is a Swedish tennis pro who, now that he is no longer on the circuit, has developed a shopping addiction. It turns out that he acquired this chair on eBay, and that it had once been owned by three-time Wimbledon champ Boris Yablonsky. This felt like one of the most natural sentences I’d written in my life. The chair was out of place in this house, facing the wall in the living room like a forlorn child sent to the corner for misbehaving. The owner of the chair did not belong in this house, either, as it happened. He was going quietly insane, strung out on an alphabet soup of prescription drugs which were causing even crazier side-effects. By the time I finished the final page proofs, the chair had wormed its way not only into the final scene, but was referenced on page one. The more I bonded with this chair, the more I wanted to know about both Bauhaus and the original photograph. A little research turned up the fact that the woman behind the mask is either Ise Gropius, wife of Walter Gropius, founder and leader of the Bauhaus school of modern architectural design, (who later served as chairman of the Harvard Graduate School of design) or Lis Beyer, a Bauhaus student. The fact that no one -- not even, evidently, the curator of an exhibit at MOMA, where this photograph appeared in 2009 -- could definitively identify this woman was its own form of intrigue, and a puzzle I might explore further, perhaps even with an eye toward my next book. Life inspires art and art inspires life and truth is stranger than fiction. Add to this: art inspires fiction, and fiction inspires art. And let’s raise a glass to art directors whose visions inform the books, themselves.
I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through.
● ● ●
George Orwell never thought that his work would outlive him by much. After all, he considered himself “a sort of pamphleteer” rather than a genuine novelist, and confidently predicted that readers would lose interest in his books “after a year or two.” Yet sixty years later, Orwell endures, and I am not sure that this is a good thing. I say this as someone who not only reads Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four once a year, but who also owns collections of essays, biographies, and even a copy of Orwell’s 1936 novel Keep The Aspidistra Flying, which according to one reviewer “at times mak[es] the reader feel he is sitting in a dentist’s chair.” But for people like me who are under 30, there will always be something remote and incomprehensible about Orwell. I was in preschool when the Berlin Wall fell, and I know perestroika and détente as answers to exam questions rather than lived experiences. I grew up fearing nuclear power plants more than ICBMs, and found LBJ’s infamous “Daisy Girl” ad far less terrifying than some of the spots from the 2008 presidential election. I think of politics in terms of individual issues and partisan planks rather than grand, historicizing political ideologies. In short, because my worldview is so different from that of Orwell and his Cold War-era readers, I have to “think” my way into their political struggles in a way that someone even twenty years ago probably did not. In ninth grade, I was required to read Animal Farm. My class read the book over a period of three weeks, which was not that hard of a task, since it is all of 30,000 words. Our teacher gave us the barest outline of historical context, enough at least to know that Napoleon represented Stalin, Snowball represented Trotsky, and that was about it (a whole unit on allegory would have to wait until sophomore year, and Billy Budd). But because the book is a “fairy story,” I learned its themes easily: power corrupts, principles are elastic, revolutions will be betrayed, and evil’s greatest allies are the unthinking masses. Two years later, I found myself following Winston Smith into the cabbage-smelling hallways of Victory Mansions on a bright cold day in April. This was the year of “relatable” protagonists, so after Ralph from Lord of the Flies and Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, I was primed to look for affirmations of my own worldview. And Nineteen Eighty-Four was both cynical, anti-authoritarian, and a paean to hopeless dissent in the face of inexorable conformity (its working title, after all, was “The Last Man in Europe”). To my teenage mind, Winston was both pathetic and sympathetic – a role model – even if Big Brother got him in the end. Surely, I thought, these were the only lessons that were worth keeping from the book, since nothing else was obvious. If there is such a thing as a “right way” and a “wrong way” to read books, then my high school approach to Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four would have been the latter. But that was because I did not know exactly how these books were shaped by their times, and how contemporary audiences would have reacted to them. We never heard about Orwell’s influences, such as Arthur Koestler, Yevgeny Zamyatin, or James Burnham, because they are not part of the literary canon. We never learned about the show trials in Moscow or the Spanish Civil War, either, because that was meant for history class, not English. And any textual analysis that smacked too much of politics was strictly out of bounds: I did not, for instance, understand that the concept of “Ingsoc” was supposed to be a satire of Nazism, whereby fascism advanced under a socialist veneer, until much later. In short, I could not have known what Orwell intended his works to be, and so I understood them in the only way I knew how, as advice manuals for the American adolescent. I’m not the only one who never quite “got” Orwell the first time around. Because few people who read Orwell’s novels in classrooms also learn about their context, most people misunderstand them, or at least half-remember them, in the same way. Sometimes, his name gets applied to topics that he never really thought about, such as the “Orwellian” investment philosophy of Goldman Sachs (at best, Orwell railed against the “sheer vulgar fatness of wealth” and the “worship of money” in general) and the “downright Orwellian” American Community Survey form for the 2010 Census (Orwell has nothing specific to say about government paperwork). Other times, this means that Orwell’s political enemies try to claim him for their own side. This is nothing new: in the 1950s and 60s, for example, Soviet publications like Kommunist and Izvestia argued that Nineteen Eighty-Four was actually a critique of American excesses and amorality, and in 1984, Norman Podhoretz famously tried to make Orwell into a pro-nuclear neoconservative hawk. But even though Hitler and Stalin belong to the dustbin of history, people still manage to find shades of totalitarianism and organized lying – Orwell’s favorite targets – in more places than ever. During the summer of 2009, for instance, opponents of health care reform wielded Orwell’s name indiscriminately. Steven Yates, a philosophy Ph.D. and member of the John Birch Society, told us that “‘Obama-care’ would make George Orwell spin in his grave.” Bill Fleckenstein, an MSN Moneywatch columnist and hedge fund manager, also decried such an obviously “socialist” project: “For those who aren’t clear on why socialism doesn’t work, I recommend reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm.”3 And Tea Party protesters have carried signs reading STOP. YOU’RE STARTING TO SCARE GEORGE ORWELL, ORWELL WARNED US, or ORWELL WAS A VISIONARY. Never mind that, in “How the Poor Die,” Orwell criticized how the indigent had inadequate access to health care; never mind that, in The Road to Wigan Pier, he blamed inadequate government intervention for poor nutrition and squalid living conditions in northern mining towns. Never mind that, for most of his life, Orwell advocated nothing short of a socialist revolution in England! As far as these people were concerned, Orwell’s works amount to nothing more than an anti-government, anti-change screed. Overuse on the one hand, distortion on the other: what perversely fitting tributes to a writer who underscored the dangers of reductionism, revisionism, and willful ignorance. Clearly, George Orwell is a victim of his own success, and in a peculiar way – there are no public fights over the legacy of Hemingway or Joyce or even over other midcentury political writers like Hannah Arendt that rival the ones for Orwell’s posthumous stamp of approval. So Orwell was right to consider himself more pamphleteer than novelist. Many critics have dismissed this as a kind of false modesty, but in this case, Orwell was not merely managing expectations. Pamphlets are designed to make a specific point to a specific audience, and then to be thrown away because they can no longer serve the purpose for which they were intended. Orwell’s works are ephemeral too, in the sense that they cannot really be understood without some semblance of historical and intellectual context. It takes a lot of patience, a lot of reading, and a lot of extracurricular effort to do so, however. Obviously, many readers simply find it easier to shout down any opposite political position with Orwell’s own words – Big Brother, thoughtcrime, Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others – than to really understand what these words, in context, were supposed to represent. And Orwell was wrong to believe that good writing alone could promote honesty. He wrote that euphemistic, dishonest, and generally bad prose “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” whereas “good prose is like a windowpane,” through which the author’s purpose can be seen clearly. All true. But good writing can still be perverted, as many of his readers have shown and continue to show. As Louis Menand observed in The New Yorker, “Orwell’s prose was so effective that it seduced many readers into imagining, mistakenly, that he was saying what they wanted him to say, and what they themselves thought.” His style, in other words, has overwhelmed his substance, and if he had not been such a good, clear, memorable writer, he would not be plagued by grave-robbers. Clearly, literary immortality has its downsides. And as the last sixty years have shown, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four are not like other canonical works of literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby, whose messages are straightforward in comparison. Instead, they are as much pamphlet as novel, which means that it is impossible to understand his political purpose without knowing the intellectual and ideological environment in which he wrote. Until Orwell’s readers bother to do so – which, as a rule, they don’t – then we can look forward to another sixty years of use and abuse.