by Pat Holt
Friday, August 3, 2001
THE LOP-OFF-THEIR-HEADS SCHOOL OF JACKET DESIGN
I don't know what it is, but a new trend in jacket illustrations seems to be emerging in which the heads of people pictured on the cover are unceremoniously hacked off.
The effect is so disconcerting that it tends to ruin a key aspect of reading - that luxurious gazing of the jacket as one finishes a chapter or passage but isn't quite ready to put the book away for the moment.
The eye lingers over the author photo and cover illustration, and often it is in that moment that one feels grateful to the jacket designer for grasping the essence of the book and putting it right there for all to see, yet never giving it away. This hint of unfolding the author's secret can become a treasured memory in itself.
But along come "All the Finest Girls" by Alexandra Styron (Little, Brown) and "Augusta, Gone" by Martha Tod Dudman (Simon & Schuster), the latest examples of novels in which a real-life model is pictured from head to toe (minus the head).
In the Styron novel we see a young woman's body clothed in a sun dress and party shoes, standing with folded arms by the wall of a house or cottage. Long hair drapes around bare shoulders, and we follow the line of her neck up past the chin and can almost see lipstick until - whap! the rest of the head is lopped off as though the photographer were Jack the Ripper.
In "Augusta, Gone," a woman slouches on the deck of a house, one hand in the back pocket of her jeans, her feet turned sideways as though in a laid-back stance. There's a bit of insouciance in the bracelet tattoo encircling one bare bicep, and the straps of her halter reach up just beyond the clavicle until - whap again! The head has been sliced off so neatly that not even a hint of neck appears.
Granted, a key aspect of the jacket illustrator's art is never to rob readers of the act of creating the characters and setting of a novel. The whole idea of fiction is that the author produces the tools, the mood, the details and the meaning while readers paint the scene with their imagination.
[In Europe publishers don't seem to mind using human models on the covers complete with their own heads, which for some readers (okay, me) ruins the story. It's like seeing the book before you see the movie - "my" Rhett Butler looks nothing like Clark Gable and I would never allow "my" Lily Bart to expose her despair as blatantly as Gillian Anderson does in the movie version of "The House of Mirth").
Ordinarily it's wonderful to see the inventiveness of jacket illustrators who use models but fade 'em out in the background (as currently happens in "Yellow," "Word Freak," "After You've Gone," "Sputnik Sweetheart"); turn 'em around with their back to us ("The Peppered Moth," "Mouthing the Words"); block the face with a hand ("In Fidelity," "Thanksgiving," "Riddles of the Midway"); create semi-naked torsos with a little peek in the nether regions ("Pages for You") or flash a naked leg or legs ("An Italian Affair," "Good in Bed," "Babe in Paradise").
All these approaches give the reader plenty to ponder and to imagine, on the page and in the old brain pan; but real human bodies with sliced-off heads? Only the Red Queen should make a decision like that.
Dear Holt Uncensored;
I have some comments regarding the AOL/Amazon deal [in which America Online bought $100 million worth of Amazon stock]:
* Although anything can happen, a technology deal is usually just that: Amazon will provide its core platform tools, so AOL can have a robust and reliable e-commerce platform and doesn't have to reinvent the wheel. There is a big difference between providing technology that enables collaborative filtering so AOL can make recommendations for the products they're selling and providing the database of customer purchases in order to seed those recommendations and market to Amazon's customers. Permitting AOL to do that is diametrically opposed to Amazon's self-interest, even for the $100 million.
* But I admit that there has to be something else driving this deal. They could have easily gotten the $100 million from a number of other large well-known companies.
* Most recommendations engines don't work very well and many e-commerce sites have been removing them. For example, on one "test" account I have on Amazon, I purchased "The Beatles Anthology" (book). My music recommendations include the new Paul McCartney Hits & History CD, which makes sense, although it didn't recommend any of the Beatles Anthology CDs, nor did it recommend the Anthology video. But it did recommend the Joe DiMaggio biography. Is there really a high correlation between customers who bought the Beatles Anthology book and the DiMaggio biog? I doubt it.
* Let's take that one step further and look at what else AOL sells. You might be able to develop a correlation between book and music interests and periodical interests, but can one make a direct correlation between particular music, book or video products purchased and particular kitchen utensils, auto supplies, consumer electronics, etc? If a user purchases a Britney Spears CD, they might be a candidate for an MP3 player, a Britney t-shirt, tickets to a concert or Sixteen Magazine, but that's about as far a correlation as one can make, in my opinion. Aside from selling a subscription to History magazine, how would it help AOL to know which Amazon customers purchased the John Adams biog?
* I agree with you about "when is big, big enough?" One primary example is radio, which has been totally ruined by the conglomerates. For all practical purposes, there are only two radio chains, Infinity and Clear Channel. But this isn't a case of synergies working against the public interest that is the biggest issue. It's a case of big money appealing to the lowest common denominator that has made most commercial radio unlistenable to any intelligent adult .
* However, I disagree that there's always an "intention behind the deal." And even if there is, in a large corporation it is usually very difficult to get the line managers to execute a strategy dictated from the top. Anyone in a large corporation will tell you that it's easier working with an outside organization than an inside one.
I think Sony is a perfect example of a large conglomerate where supposed synergies simply don't work at all. And this has been a strategic problem at every conglomerate (Reed-Elsevier, CBS) that I have been employed by.
While it's true that if you surf to particular pages within AOL, you get pop-ups or pop-unders for subscription offers to People or Sports Illustrated, that could happen even if those periodicals weren't part of the "family."
If the economy continues to decline, I think that you'll find some of the conglomerates starting to sell off the pieces that no longer fit the core strategy, even if that strategy was originally defined as little as a year ago.
CBS used to own Columbia and Epic Records; Holt Rinehart & Winston, Dryden Press and many other publishers; a very large consumer magazine division, which has been broken up and sold many times since; Creative Playthings and many other toy companies; Fender Guitar, Steinway pianos and many other musical instrument companies and even some trade schools. CBS is now strictly a broadcast company that became a division of Westinghouse, and later a division of Infinity Broadcasting and Viacom.
So there's always hope!
Dear Holt Uncensored:
You're right. Oprah really doesn't need someone to defend her, but I appreciate that you stood up and said it straight. She's done more for readership in this country than any single person outside of Carnegie, I suppose. She's chosen mostly good books, sometimes extraordinary books, and she's presented them as something to be read, absorbed, talked about, argued about, and sometimes just raved about.
She's a more public version of the neighborhood book discussion group, and in fact she's spawned more of those than anyone can probably count. In the best sense of the word, this is amateur reading, reading for pure love. Let the critics stand on their pontifications of self-importance and leave the reading to people who love reading.
I will take exception to the comment that no one should have that much power. Why not? When merit rises to the top (and merit is not the same thing as brilliance), the power is earned. When the power is abused, the power is lost.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
Regarding Oprah's effect on reading habits): The romance section didn't disappear at Stacey's - it was just reduced by about 50% - read your old column, missy! :-) (and good for you for sticking up for Oprah!)
NOTE TO READERS: If you've been following the story of the woman named Jack at KBOO Radio in Portland, Oregon, the question was whether Jack was offended by column #252, which described her tough-yet-sweet interview with Terry ("Tuffy" - a childhood nickname) Ryan. It turns out Jack, having said that the contest entries written by Terry's mother are "sappy and saccharine," has written a jingle of her own:
little mis tuffy came to town
Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.
"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
To subscribe, send a blank email to:
To unsubscribe, send a blank email to: