Infinite Jest Jacketing
Poor David Foster Wallace. The sad story just continues to get, well, more sad.
I just finished reading ALTHOUGH OF COURSE YOU END UP BECOMING YOURSELF. The book is a transcription of a five-day-long interview given by DFW just after the publication of his landscape-altering novel INFINITE JEST. The interview was for a Rolling Stone profile, though it ended up shelved...until now that is.
Despite the fact that I constantly wanted to chuck the book out the window, I bravely, stupidly, (complicitly) read it all the way through.
It is clear from this "biography in five days" that DFW was deeply uncomfortable with all the attention his recent literary stardom had drawn (as if we didn't already know this) and yet here he is, trotted out posthumously to further the career of others. What makes this act of grave-robbery especially galling (even more so than the fact that the interview's publication is being presented on some level as a public service- as if), is that the book consists mostly of offhand, sophomoric, hot air- exactly the sort of hot air that that would have been so embarrassing to the punishingly self-critical DFW. A lot of what is said in these interviews is just crap. Total, late-night, navel-gazing crap. And, of course it is- just because the man was a great writer doesn't mean his every utterance was meaningful . For want of a better word: duh.
There are very few truly insightful or probing ideas in the whole book (and, full disclosure, i am A HUGE fan of DFW- which makes all this much, much worse). There's just enough good material to justify a, er, blog post, perhaps. The only salient info we glean, is what most fans of Foster Wallace's already knew: that this man was not comfortable in his own skin. That he struggled with the basic facts of existence. That he over-thought his public persona. That he lacked ease. That he was painfully sensitive. And that he was just too innocent, too trusting, or too new-fame-addled to realize that this book/transcript would become part of the permanent historical record. A shame really. But now that we are in full-on hagiography mode, I guess we should expect more from the publishing industry along these lines.
The matter of the book jacket for INFINITE JEST (a jacket that I loved back in the day, back before I was a book designer, and still love) arises about halfway through the transcript. The jacketing issue is addressed in a couple of sentences. But of course, my ears pricked up.
DFW: "Oh, I had a number of—there's a great photo of Fritz Lang directing METROPOLIS. Do you know this one? Where he's standing there, and there are about a thousand shaven-headed men in kind of rows and phalanxes, and he's standing there with a megaphone? It would have been...Michael (Pietsch, DFW's editor at Little, Brown) said it was too busy and too like conceptual, it required too much brain work on the part of the audience...."
Now, (and i think we can file this, again, under the heading "Because the man was a great writer doesn't mean he was a great: designer/conversationalist/ humanitarian/etc.") DFW, if he had had his druthers, would have put an image of Fritz Lang, on set, onto the cover of his book- and he would have been very wrong to do so.
It's a great image, no doubt (and I can't seem to find it online or I'd post it). Though personally I prefer this METROPOLIS shot:
His image of choice would not have worked on the jacket for his book- and not because that particular image would have required too much "brain work", but because it would have required too little (being so specific), and would have been misleading both from a textual point of view, as well as from a commercial one (it would have signaled non-fiction: a history of cinema perhaps).
Book jacket design should concern itself with, in my estimation, equal parts enticement ("Come buy this book") and exegesis ("This is what this book is about, more or less.") A good cover doesn't let one category trump the other. A good cover should not resort to cliché in order to accomplish either. But the real key here, in both categories (enticement and exegesis) is the designer's ability to work the sweet-spot between giving-away-the-farm, and deliberate obfuscation.
Book jackets that tell you too much, suck. Book jackets that try to change the subject also suck, and are furthermore, too easy. There may have been a way for DFW's METROPOLIS image to work (an insanely creative cropping perhaps, or some kind of collage), but, frankly, the picture in question would have been both obfuscating (I mean, i get the parallels with the IJ text, but does that image truly encapsulate what DFW thought his book was about?) and would have been too easy in its reference to film, and brave new worlds. (Not to mention the associations that METROPOLIS, a masterpiece in its own rights, has accreted- associations that would have muddied the waters when glommed onto IJ.)
Now, a perfectly blue sky... A sky that only an advertiser could have dreamed up- a sky that could have been subsidized...A sky that stands in for satisfaction, but a satisfaction that is almost sinister in its perfection...(and, of course, HUGE type, because, well, that's just what's called for)...I think that was a very elegant solution. It tells you something very important, but leaves everything to the imagination. Thank God for Michael Pietsch.
Among the lessons learned here: writers, even writers of authentic genius, by virtue of their proximity to the text, are not better suited to choose jacket art; in fact, they are worse off for lack of perspective; and, more importantly...
...Please: enough with the "Saint Dave". We should be evolved enough as a culture not to mistake the man for the artist.
ps. The hardcover jacket (shown at top) was the work of the excellent Steve Snider
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