A Costume Ball for Classic Books (A Lament)

Elizabeth Bluemle - April 26, 2012

Over the years, classic books — those (mostly) treasured tomes that have become part of the canon, taught in high schools and universities across the land — see their covers revamped every several years to become accessible to a new generation of readers. Or at least, that’s the hope.
Alert bookseller and periodic ShelfTalker guest blogger Kenny Brechner of DDG Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, has noticed that some of these covers are less successful than others in attracting their rightful readership, and he tells us why, most humorously.
A Costume Ball for Classic Books
By Kenny Brechner, DDG Booksellers
The idea of using specially designed cover art to cause teenagers to either buy classic books, actually read them when gifted, or approach homework relating to them with zeal, is not new. Nor can it be fairly said to have exclusively produced the advanced kind of failure which is the subject of this serious essay. There have been instances of success as seen at right.  It is also true of course that there are young readers now, as there have always been, who enjoy reading great books from the past due to their innate disposition as readers. Nonetheless, there is a long standing tradition of cover art failure in marketing classics to young adults. This failure is identified by covers which have two particular qualities. First, the cover must truly appall, disorient, and imperil the sanity of any older reader who already loves the book provoking an immediate verbal exclamation of dismay. Second, it must only appeal to readers who will be certain to loathe the book itself and feel duped.
A classic example can be seen to the right in this cover to the 1991 Bantam edition of The Worm Ouroboros. The Worm is one of my favorite books and I can tell you with honest conviction that it fulfills the first of our criteria admirably. Even at this respectable distance of years the pain is still fresh. The perverse genius of the design is that the cover makes it appear that the book contains fantasy pap circa 1986-91: one reasonably expects a weak Tolkien rip off with magical beasts, quests, some sword fighting and some hot damsels. No literary minded person would get within reading distance of it. Secondly, anyone to whom the cover appealed would be quickly and totally disappointed to find a highly literary fantasy with Saga roots and archaic English arrayed upon the pages. The cover is a perfect failure, it repels its true audience, and attracts only people who will find it unpalatable.
Creating classics for YA cover failure is not a static art however. It requires fresh ingenuity in order to continue to excite the respective vistas of horror and disappointment which are its trademark. The purpose of this essay is to remark upon the latest advancements, propose some fresh techniques, and solicit your involvement in this ongoing struggle to convince average teen readers that publishers, educators, and booksellers are devious, clueless, and not to be trusted. An easy path to failure would be to choose a classic which few teenagers would actually enjoy reading under any circumstances, such as Pamela or Moll Flanders. We are interested in the sterner challenge of protecting classics from being read by teenagers who would actually like them.  Let us look then at three examples of modern, innovative, state of the art failure provided below with commentary. These examples will be followed by our own attempt at a substantive contribution to this important effort.

This is a bold design which succeeds admirably at failing in both categories. Its ability to horrify Wuthering Heights fans proved to be very pronounced in our test group. One tester, after her eyes lit on the cover, literally shrieked in pain saying. “Are you telling me this is real? This isn’t even period. Didn’t someone tell them that it wasn’t a regency romance? Why is this happening? AAAH I can’t look at it anymore.” Others noted that Catherine’s dress would have been quite something to try and walk along the wild moors in. Another tester remarked that “Heathcliff looks more like the quiet guy who sits behind you in chem class, the one your parents wish you would date instead of that long-haired ne’er-do-well you’ve taken up with.” In short, the cover’s ability to completely misrepresent the characters it portrays caused universal feelings of revulsion in our test group. Mission accomplished vis-à-vis appalling familiar readers. In terms of the second element—alluring only new readers who will then dislike the book—Wuthering Heights has a strong appeal to young readers and there is thus an almost unavoidable amount of inadvertent success which is sure to occur with any version. Nonetheless, the vapidly romantic nature of the cover does strongly insure that those teenagers who are too shallow to enjoy Wuthering Heights will be the likeliest ones to open the book.

Here we have a cover which stuns the mature reader into a quick gasp and then an exclamation starting with the word “what.” Why do we see only a portion of a woman sitting in a chair outside as viewed from the ground? Why is a nineteenth century woman wearing colored nail polish? What are we supposed to be feeling? The disquieting sense of voyeurism applied to Northanger Abbey for no discernible reason led to a near universal reaction in our test group summed up by the following observation: “I don’t want to think about this. I don’t want to ever see it again.” Concerning our second criterion, let us reflect that Northanger Abbey has one of the most enjoyable opening passages in all of literature, making it particularly challenging to disappoint prospective readers.  This design’s focus, however, on disorienting and disturbing the reader seems an admirable way of undercutting the dry humor she will encounter upon beginning to read.

This version of Great Expectations afflicted a quieter, steadier horror on our testers. Each one paused and then groaned deeply. Comments ranged as follows. “Oh man, who is this supposed to be for?” “Ouch, that hurts.” “It is unfortunate that the character is looking sulkily at his nether regions with the words ‘Great Expectations’ stamped across them.” And, “What are they thinking? Why don’t they try reading the book?” Though a bit less effective at our first element, this cover excels at the second. It is hard to imagine anyone whom the cover appeals to liking the book. Also, the awful irony of the book’s title coupled with the effect on the reader attracted to the book by this cover is hard to beat. 
Now I know what you’re thinking. “These are strong designs, and easy for you to criticize. Can you do better? Do you have anything to offer?” Our design team, fully alive to the need to contribute rather than simply react, undertook these following two examples at capturing a bold new direction.

This Persuasion cover art has some real positives: clearly the deft anachronism of the cellphone both repels and allures in the prescribed manner. Yet, for all its virtues, and for all that it takes a stride or two in the right direction, one feels that it does not go far enough. Hence…

Here we find a striking move away from any substantive relation to the actual book so that the only allusion comes across as obscene. This factor alone, along with the desecration of the author’s name, is sufficient to ensure that the familiar reader feels that the ground has opened up beneath their feet and that there is nothing left to do but scream into the void. This same disconnect is certain to drive away any prospective readers and leave them with a strong taste of confusion and disgust.
Let us suspend disbelief and consider things differently. What if horrifying familiar readers and pushing away all but the wrong prospective readers isn’t our goal?  In his essay, How to Fail in Literature, Andrew Lang observed that “If anyone has kindly attended to this discourse, without desiring to be a failure, he has only to turn the advice outside in.” Good advice, but I think it is simpler than that. Suppose that there was one prerequisite for a professional producing the cover of a classic book, that the producer must have read and have loved the book. That would cure all. Real romance is not hard to seek in Wuthering Heights. There is no more romantic scene in all of literature that that in which Heathcliff declares, “Kiss me again; and don’t let me see your eyes! I forgive what you have done to me. I love my murderer – but yours! How can I?” All that’s wanted is a loving hand to capture it.
And so now we turn to you: can you top the covers here, for better or for worse? Send them here! Any thoughts on this weighty matter, set them down below.

4 thoughts on “A Costume Ball for Classic Books (A Lament)

  1. Erin O'Riordan

    Oh, I’ve gotta agree with the test audience for my all-time favorite, ‘Wuthering Heights.’ This Heathcliff looks as if he’d have difficulty telling a kitten to get off the kitchen counter.

  2. T-Rix

    On the Northanger Abbey cover I don’t think the cover model is wearing nail polish. I think it’s the reflection from the radioactive, violently scarlet dress.

  3. Carol

    The “Great Expectations” cover looks more like advertising for the “Clockwork Orange” movie of many years ago.

  4. Dianna Winget

    Can I top these covers? Absolutely not! They’re stunning, horrific–and very funny, I might add–all on their own. Would I pick up any of these classics? Not a chance.


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