Fictions. Part II

The first section of this article can be found:


I apologize for the delay in posting this second part—I really have no free time at all.


This is part two of what is, even after being dramatically cut for web consumption, a very long piece indeed. If I can stand it I'll post the whole thing ( in multiple installments) though I reiterate that I reserve the right to stop in the middle—even mid-sentence—if I so desire. Editing the thing down and formatting it takes more time than I thought it would.

But enough with the dithering—onward.

Thanks again for reading,





 "Everything is a cipher..." —Vladimir Nabokov, Signs and Symbols

"Symbols have one characteristic in common with signs;
they point beyond themselves to something else. " —Paul Tillich


If you'll recall—last week I began to examine the jackets for Nabokov's masterpiece Lolita, and, for the most part, found them wanting. 1

Though many of these covers are formally satisfying—

and though many are successful in representing some facets of the text—

few of them, I thought, addressed the true critical (or ethical) difficulties the book confronts readers with.

More importantly, none of these jackets seemed, upon desultory glance, to tackle what I called the book's "underlying significance;" it's tacit agenda. This led me to ask whether we designers are, or should be, in the business of representing 2 the underlying themes put forward by the works of fiction that we are charged with making jackets for.
" it our job, in the case of Lolita, to represent "the central sexual relationship between a young girl and an older man;" or are we being asked to delve deeper?"

In order to answer this question properly, it's necessary that we understand the role of the jacket in the marketplace, in the home, and in the culture at large. It is further required that we delve into the mechanics through which novels and stories themselves convey meaning, such that we may observe how jackets mimic and map this process. 3

A daunting assignment...

So l will begin here at the narrow end of the discussion: the construction of the jacket itself—as that is my particular area of expertise. 4 I will work my way, slowly, laboriously, back towards the broader questions (the larger role of the jacket; the semantics of fiction), and at the end of the day, I hope that through this process we will have come closer to understanding whether "delving deeper" into the thematic significance of novels and stories is indeed part of our purview as jacket designers. 


When setting out to design a book jacket for a work of fiction, whether we are aware of it or not, we designers are picking our subject matter from a limited set of bins. Though the choices we can make as designers are unlimited, the categories that define most of the choices we make when we pluck these ideas from their native fictions, are, on the face of it, quite easy to list.

To wit, some broad categories for fiction jacketing subject matter: 5

1. “Character”

Put a person on the cover. Frequently a winning design tactic, though also tricky— as we designers don’t want to rob readers of their satisfying acts of imagination. One should always show a portion of a character rather than the whole magilla. Body parts: hands, feet, hair, ears, etc are, and should be, more common than full frontal facial disclosure. Much of our work is spent hiding, occluding, interrupting faces.)

Above, we see John Gall's lovely cover for the Vintage edition of Lolita. 6

2. “Object”

Put a thing on the cover. Always compelling, and sometimes serves to establish place, tone and character as well. Paul Sahre’s covers for Rick Moody’s books spring to mind, as do the pair of shoes Gabriele Wilson put on her cover for Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.

The loathéd, yet somehow obligatory, Lolita lollypop. I hereby declare a moratorium. The above is not an actual Penguin cover- I just borrowed the format to prove a private supposition of mine that almost any image whatsoever, when placed in a fetishistic context like the one above, will resonate metaphorically. In other words, all the art here is in the template, the frame, itself (Jaime Keenan's I believe?). 7

3. “Event”

Put a recreation of, or documentary evidence of an event on the cover. Especially useful if our work of fiction is historical, for which a wealth of extra-fictional reference materials already exist (think of all those Napoleonic War paintings adorning War and Peace jackets). The “event” can refer to any occurrence which transpires during the course of a work of fiction (or is alluded to) and which feels particularly resonant (Like, say, the bullfights in The Sun Also Rises).

4. “Place”

Put a place (or something indigenous to or indicative of a place) on the cover. Deploying this category is a very common method for constructing fiction jackets. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been told by editors and publishers that a novel needs a jacket which provides “a sense of place.” NB often the “place” category also provides the “Time” category, as well as the “Theme” category, and obviously all these categories overlap in a myriad of ways...

5. “Time”

Indicate a narrative’s time period on the cover. Provided most often as an ancillary benefit of categories 1-4, often of several at once. Imagine, for instance, a jacket with Wiener Werkstätte wallpaper adorning it. One would see this book jacket and one might guess that the story inside came to pass some time around the early part of the Twentieth century and most likely took place in some kind of mitteleuropan setting. An example of the above (Here—substitute Art Deco for Wiener Werkstätte) is Coralie Bickford Smith’s jacket work for Penguin UK’s F. Scott Fitzgerald series. The Art Deco patterns (as well as the high production values) tell you everything you need to know: that this book unfolds during, and amidst the trappings of the Jazz Age.

6. “Text Sample”

Put an image that corresponds specifically to a line of text on the cover (frequently this line of text will be the book’s title). One frequently sees jackets designed to represent a gobbet of text. If a designer was given “Gone with The Wind” as a title, I see no reason (except for one of taste) that he couldn’t invoke wind, or the “windblown” as his jacket design subject matter (though we designers hate to simply parrot or re-iterate book titles on our jackets).

As I mentioned above, titles are frequent sources of inspiration for jacket designers as they often reference the previous categories and are frequently, themselves, windows into the author’s main thematic concerns.


Which is to say that these two publishing instruments (titling and jacket design) do similar work on behalf of the narrative and in the selling thereof.

As it turns out, fiction titles themselves can also be categorized in the groupings listed above:


Character: Anna Karenina; Tristam Shandy; Gilgamesh; Lolita
Object: The Maltese Falcon; The Scarlet Letter; The Golden Bowl; The Overcoat
Event: Sophie’s Choice; The Tempest; The Crying of Lot 49
Place: Moon Palace; Howard’s End; Berlin Stories; London Fields
Time: 1984; Parade’s End; Light in August; Spring Awakening 

Text Sample: The Catcher in the Rye; Handful of Dust; The Day of the Locust; Tis a Pity She’s a Whore; Rememberence of Things Past (though only in English)

7. “Affect, or Tone”

Put an image that represents the tone or overall emotional disposition of the narration. Sometimes a jacket amounts to no more than the mood it sets 9

8. "The Tell-All"

Put as many explicit plot elements as possible on the cover. "The Tell-All," I realize, is not really a category of material in the sense that the others are—it is, rather, comprised of the other categories and is thus more of a methodology (an extremely ill-advised methodology).

(Character: check; Setting: check; Time period: check; Object: gotta assume that sword's going to come into play...)

I've chosen a deliberately jarring example here— but let it be said that the raison d'etre, as well as the pictorial grammar of this romance novel cover above is no different from that of countless literary fiction jackets produced every day. As it happens, this category, this crammed-together grab-bag of plot points I'm calling the "Tell-All" is a tried-and-true favorite of those in publishing who would believe that
the primary job of the jacket is to report as much of the storyline to the viewer as possible and that signaling a book's genre through character and setting is paramount.

The "Tell-All" represents the apotheosis of the diegetical 10 form of jacket design. There is no editorializing here; there are no veils to penetrate. Only one part of the author's output is being addressed here- the most mundane part. Namely: "what happens" during the course of a given tale. 11

Which is to say: The "Tell-All" is not merely an admixture of the above categories. Almost all book jackets for works of fiction are admixtures of the above categories. Rather, the "Tell-All" crowds out all other forms of representation, leaving us with nothing more than the particulars of plot.

I detest this kind of jacket for reasons which will become clearer soon.

And, finally:

9. “Theme itself” 

Put a representation of the book’s “big idea(s)” on the cover…

1980 US Putnam, Perigee Books


As we can see- all of these categories I've just identified seem to collapse neatly into two classes:

1. The narrative facts (Character, Object, Event, Place, Time, Text)
2. The meta-narrative facts (Theme, tone, affect…)

We might now come to the logical conclusion that jackets are either literal or metaphorical; narrative or thematic.

And we would be wrong to do so.

It is obvious that these two classes coincide and interact—that jacket imagery can perform some kind of semiotic double duty 12.

Good fiction jackets, it seems to me, relay information to the viewer by means of imagery constrained to the particulars of a given plot, whilst hopefully, simultaneously, signifying something of the meta-narrative facts as well. Just look at that plucked flower above: It is clearly participating in both the "Object" and "Theme" categories...13


What is the exact relationship between these two classes? How is this mutuality brought about? What is the nature of the interaction between the specific image and its general metaphoric implications? How can the representation of a specific plot point on a jacket also be a reference to a clearly established thematic denotata? Let's return to some concrete examples and see…


1. At the very end of this catastrophically long series of blog posts I might itemize all the Lolita covers I've designed myself (like the Coke comp in part 1) and will find them wanting as well. (i do not put myself above the fray here). Also—it's extremely tempting to design covers to serve as illustrations for each and every argument made here, but a guy's only got so much time...

2. The vast majority of book jackets for works of fiction are representational (we will discuss both ABSTRACT, as well as ALL-TYPE jackets in a later installment).

3. As David Hume famously pointed out, you can't turn an "is" into an "ought." Nevertheless, understanding the "is," (how designers actually work) goes a long way towards clarifying the "ought" (how designers should work)

4. The "construction of the fiction jacket itself" will be broken down into four sections: 1. Materials 2. Methods 3. Medium and 4. Meaning. The Four M's!

5. Though I've tried to be as thorough as possible, it is entirely possible that I've omitted some obscure miscellaneous category here (bearing in mind that there are a couple categories like "All-Type" and "abstract" I have still in my back pocket).


I realize that this entire section will seem willfully reductive. Building blocks are supposed to be irreducible. So this crudeness is purposeful. Does that excuse it? Perhaps not.

(I should mention as a footnote to this footnote that the true irreducible components of any two-dimensional design are shape and color.)

6. What I find compelling here in John's treatment is that through the use of extreme cropping he has effectively transformed the face (of Lolita, one presumes) into an almost-abstraction. One senses instantly that this face is more than just a face. So then, one wonders, what does this mouth, pregnant with import, stand for? I'm not entirely sure, though, if we look at John's rejected comp for this same edition, we get some indication...

Rotating the image, John radically alters its meaning:

What was once a mouth, is

This rejected cover does quite a nice job addressing the appropriation, manipulation and distortion of innocence spoken of in Nabokov's text. An innocuous image here is force-ably transformed into something lubricious. The photo's treatment, at the hands of the designer, becomes an apt visual analogy to the forced degradations little Lo must endure.

(We are getting a tiny preview here of ideas that are coming imminently in this essay—ideas on meaning and usage. Manner of usage is an important concept in jacket design and, I would imagine that we are all tiring of me saying this, but: it will be referred to in a later post)

7. See?

8. And: lo and behold...

9. On a related note (and as an addendum to the earlier “wit in design” screed: if I never see another book jacket that portrays, through its graphics, the opposite of its title (i.e. if the book is called “Happy”, the jacket looks sad; if the book is called “Black” the jacket is white; etc) it will be too soon. This is an example, not of cleverness- but of obstinacy. When I worked on Thomas Bernhard’s book Frost for example,

the temptation to be shunned was not that of making the jacket look “frosty.” But, rather, I had to practically physically restrain myself from making the jacket look hot, or fiery. That contrarian solution might have been more pleasing to segments of the design community, but it would have made the book look droll when it is anything but.

10. Diagetical meaning relating to characters, things, etc inside the primary narrative

11.  I am making an important distinction here between implication and outright regurgitation. This is a distinction that will become vitally important later in this essay when we begin to dissect the work a jacket does over time...

11. All imagery, in fact, performs "some kind of semiotic double duty", whether intentionally or not.

13. though this particular object, this flower, does not have relevance to the plot per se, and thus is more of an emblem of the plot as a whole, rather than an instance of something specific mentioned in the course of the story's unfolding.


Section III coming up next (maybe next week or the week after if I can get to it).

I will continue the conversation above; examine some examples of fiction jackets which take on "Theme" without recourse to narrative particulars; I will contend with abstract fiction jacket designs, the "non-sequitur" fiction jacket, and I will discuss the all-type jacket for fiction as well.

See you soon I hope.