You’d never say that an orchid could do with a bit deeper shade of eyeliner.
“Images are suggestion, invitation, and narrative all at once.”
I play a specious if fun game in book stores and libraries: I judge books by the cover. It’s a game, rather than a practice or a habit, because it has rules. The rules go like this: If I can’t get the cover out of my mind in a few days then I play a different game. We’ll leave that aside, because of a man called Frank Kelly Freas.
I don’t know if you had a father. I had one. Rather a good one, by all accounts, who dandled well and taught me my letters, when he had time between serious grown up things like napping in sun beams. One thing that I should probably mention about my father is that he liked a good story about space ships and aliens and things, which he made clear by leaving books about the same lying about in stacks reaching practically to the ceiling. That proved a notable feature of my otherwise uninteresting childhood.
Showing good sense, my mother, that other half of the parentage, made a decision towards his books in the early part of the 1990s, vis., that if this habit of book stacking went unchecked much longer there would not be enough room in the humble cottage for kit and carry, to say nothing of the human inhabitants. If something weren’t done then the noble ancestors would have found themselves in the position of camping on the front lawn, while the population of books mysteriously increased, presumably by nuclear fission. An adventure with, no doubt, its charms, namely star gazing and cooking one’s meals over an open fire. Said charms are no doubt pleasant for a time—say, a weekend in early summer—and for a particular class of person—I hear the Boy Scouts of America like nothing better than a fire-cooked meal, sprinkled with ashes. But my mother would not be having it.
My father, being informed of the error of his ways, realized he had a choice: slow down on the book purchasing to as near a standstill as makes no difference, or find himself living the life of a hobo. In a flash of wisdom, he picked the former.
The upshot of it was, I grew up in a household filled to the gills with books that were, many of them, nearly older than I was.
Not, in itself, particularly worth writing home about. Most of the time that has been is abaft me rather than before me, as some poets say. More books out-date me than do not. I only mention it because of the particular fantastical content that caught my father’s eye.
It wasn’t somber, dusty tomes that loomed down at me in leathern covers stamped in gold and silver. It was not moody literature, rasping across the generations in grand voices, forsoothing and bespoking from the dimmer days of the past when your average man, no doubt, had a little trouble keeping awake during the more wordy portions. My father avoided that sort of book with a casual abandon.
Instead, if you watched young Oliver walk into his parents’ library, ham-fisted and mop-headed, looking for stories, you would see his eyes widen.
There, glaring down at him from every wall, were the goblins and robots and the ray gun wielding frontiersmen of science fiction’s Golden and, indeed, Silver Ages.
Many of the pictures on the covers were by the above mentioned Mr. Freas—there was a connection to be made after all. Every cover had a new story on it. Every fainting maiden and shocked man, flinching away from beasts which defy imagination, all in the gaudiest of deliciously foul colors, filled my little mind with sounds and smells. Every explorer looking out across landscapes preternatural, if preternatural is the word I want, with eyes intrepid, if intrepid is correct. They caused my little imagination to whirl to a frisson with stories.
Thinking back on it, I feel that I may have gained some benefit from reading some of those books. I can’t say that I ever cracked one. I only looked at the pictures on the fronts.
Those days were some of my formative days as a storyteller, though. It always seemed to me that it would be a fine thing to write the story that inspired those breathtaking pictures.
In my Judging Books by the Cover and Liking It game ends when I start the next game: the Judge a Book by the First Chunk of Writing game. In this game, I pick up whatever book’s cover lodged in my memory when I judged its cover, then I read the first paragraph, or first page, or first few pages. Then I put the book back, and leave it alone, until the next round when I may, or may not, actually take the book home to read, depending how the first section anchors itself where the image from the cover first took root.
I called my game specious. It is a specious game. I’ll always render a grudging rumble or two whenever I hear somebody say, “I picked it up and read it because the cover caught my eye,” and I know perfectly well that’s hypocritical of me. I’m a writer. My mantra is, “can’t they love me for what I’m saying? Why do we need cover art anyway? That’s just tarting up an already gorgeous flower. You’d never say that an orchid could do with a bit deeper shade of eyeliner, would you? Well, there you are. Nor ought you to say it about the pure psychic ambrosia which proceeds from the clicking of my fingernails on the keyboard.”
See? Hypocrisy and speciousness. I can own to it.
Thing is, that’s not really what a good cover’s all about.
There are, naturally, lots of kinds of cover art.
When it’s done right, cover art is a magical thing. Because when it’s done right, cover art is another artist seeing what I’ve had to say and speaking back to it. Cover art, when done right, is a conversation between art and art.
Sometimes, the conversation starts in the story, and the artist paints a picture to tell the world, “It got my imagination heated up. See what it’ll do to yours.”
Sometimes, the piece of art starts the talking, and a writer apophatically surrounds the art with the few hundred thousand words it would take to suggest what the senses and emotions can tell already.
And sometimes the written art and the seen art develop separately, but in parallel, finding different ways to express similar thoughts, until their artists bring the art together and make something more by joining them.
Anyway. I wax poetical. It gives me pleasure to do it, but I think I shall turn this over to Lisa, who will search where she knows for some picture or other to smack at the top of my little treatise to set it on its way to begin its conversation with you.
Brought to you by Lisa Renee (she’s the one with the “Ask me about Unsplash” pin).
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