Genre uncovered: books and their jackets

Paul Raven @ 19-01-2011

Looks like one of genre fiction’s more perennial debates is about to resurface, so why not stir the pot a little bit? Damien Walter takes the podium at The Guardian to ponder the question of  cover art:

… there is no denying that genre fiction also has its share of fashion victims. The tedious parade of tattooed, faceless young women gracing thousands of paranormal romance novels is a fashion that can only be improved by ending. And the original US cover for the 12th volume of The Wheel of Time saga actually seems to be issuing a challenge to the reader, via its stumpy-armed hero, daring us to test if the quality of the prose matches the illustration. But American independent publisher Baen Books have raised bad genre covers to an art in itself, producing covers so shamelessly packed with SF clichés and militaristic jingoism that it is hard to believe they are not some ironic spoof.

To some extent, I think there’s a subcultural effect at work here: with Baen’s covers, for instance, I expect the very cliches that ensure I avoid Baen titles as if they were megaphone-toting high-street evangelists are the visual aspects that make them appeal to their (undeniably large and consistent) audience: the packaging matches the product, in other words. But fashions and trends sweep with increasing rapidity across the covers of genre in general, and experience dictates that sometimes the best books have the worst covers of all – a feeling sometimes shared by their writers, as was the case with Peter Watts’ Blindsight. (Watts actually went so far as to make an alternative jacket available.)

My suspicion, based on personal experience, is that cover art is there to hook neophyte genre readers rather than us old veterans. I ate my way through countless Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms RPG tie-ins in my early teens, and the covers spoke bluntly and efficiently of what I’d find withing their pages. By the time I was old enough to be slightly embarrassed by the cheese factor of the covers, I was already an addict… and already valued the product far more than the packaging.

So as to avoid tarring everything with the same brush, there are some genuinely wonderful and seductive examples of cover art out there, though they seem to come predominantly from the better small presses (ChiZine Publications’ covers totally blew me away at a room party at last year’s EasterCon, for instance) and the titles that are deliberately being aimed further afield (China Mieville’s literary urban fantasy romp Kraken, for example, or Charlie Stross’ the-future-is-now nerd-lit novel Halting State). But I find that personal recommendations and author/publisher reputation is far more likely to sell me a book than its cover… indeed, sometimes they manage it in spite of the cover!

Perhaps the rise of ebooks (and the associated need to have a cover that looks good as a thumbnail on a virtual shelf) will change the landscape; indeed, as book-buying becomes more “social” (in the web2.0 sense of the term), perhaps the book cover’s role in enticing purchasers will fade. In the meantime, there’s plenty of yucks to be had at Good Show Sir!, a blog that unearths and photographs some of the more egregious examples of genre cover-art cliche for the amusement (or bemusement) of all. (At the risk of seeming to pick on an easy target, the posts tagged “Baen Books” are a great place to start…)

Got a favourite book jacket that sold the book to you fair and square? Got a shining example of cheddary cliche that sums up every stereotype of genre fiction held by non-readers, or of a brilliant book in a dreadful disguise? Link ’em up in the comments!