Sunday, September 11, 2005

Books by their Covers

As I crawl out from the beginning-of-semester landslide and blink in the sunlight of the blogosphere, I see that I nearly missed Josh Corey complaining about the cover of the latest issue of Fence. And a heck of a cover it is, featuring alternative-cheesecake model Quinne topless (and no, there are no poems by or about Quinne inside; nor, sadly is there a centerfold — though rest assured I looked and looked). Calling the cover a "desperate rather than playful move on behalf of the editors," Josh is miffed by the idea of "poetry as commodity." Josh is a bright guy, and his complaint is worth taking seriously. Rebecca Wolff, the editor and publisher of Fence, seems to have anticipated reactions like his, though. Her editorial for the issue preemptively justifies the cover by reminding her readers of the low sales of a recent issue of the magazine with a rather low-key image on the front:

Those of you who read these occasional notes with any degree of interest may have already sniffed my abiding engagement, as the publisher of this magazine, with its sales figures. Imagine my wry bemusement, then, to see that [a recent] issue, as worthy as any other, sold significantly less on the newsstand and at bookstores than any others, before or since. A typical issue of Fence has a sell-through rate of around 60 percent. This issue ... sold a mere 35 percent of its allotment to our distributor. The bemusing part is that, upon noting this, I knew immediately what must be the cause of the drop. And it ain't the economy, stupid. The cover of this particular issue was rather, shall we say, subtle. [It showed] a charcoal drawing, by featured artist Jimbo Blachly, of a slightly inscrutable feature of some landscape, perhaps a hole in the ground surrounded by some grass and with a few small cans tipped over on the horizon line.

There's no doubt that an eye-catching cover moves product (I can already see Josh cringing at the use of the p-word). I remember talking to Eirik Steinhoff back when he edited the Chicago Review about how issues with catchy covers always outsold the low-key numbers. Steinfoff's issues (the big special numbers of Dorn and Zukovsky) gathered less dust on the shelves at Borders than did the old, monochrome editions of that redoubtable journal. But handsome as the dapper Zukovsky looked on the cover of the Spring '05 issue of the Chicago Review, there's a categorical difference between his nattiness and the indie-rock sexiness of Fence cover model Quinne.

What to think about the flogging of lit mags by the clever use of snappy cover images? Certainly there's a lot to be said of the movement over the past few years to make literary magazines less hideous and less conformist in format than they've been for the past few decades. I mean, sometime around 1976 something went radically wrong with literary journal design. At the start of the seventies, you'd find magazines like Toothpick, Kayak or Floating Bear in all kinds of sizes and formats, sometimes stitched together out of weird fabrics, sometimes too tall and narrow for your bookshelves, sometimes with odd and provocative images on the covers. Then something happened (the movement of almost all the journals to the universities, perhaps?) and suddenly everything was an 8 1/2 by 5 1/2 digest with perfect binding and a cover you'd forget before you got to the short reviews in the back. Not that the content went to hell (the bad poetry of the early seventies may have been worse than the bad poetry of any other era, after all), but there was a certain visual sameness to most mags.

Recent moves away from this surely deserve some praise. McSweeney's raised the bar with their individualized-for-each-issue, arty, beautiful, often hardcover designs, and their sister publication The Believer has the most recognizable visual signature of any literary magazine now being published in America. Even the venerable Paris Review has, in its latest issue, gone for a larger format and an interesting retro design. Great! I mean, beauty and variety are virtues we hold to be self-evident, right? And anything (short of editorial compromise, that is) that helps sell issues and keep the journal afloat should be seen as positive.

A cautionary example of the results of not paying enough attention to aesthetic detail came to me the other day via a mass emailing from Maxine Chernoff, in her capacity as an editor of New American Writing. The magazine has terrible sell-through at the chain bookstores, and is in a state of financial crisis. It is not coincidental, I think, that New American Writing has had some of the least inspiring covers (and one of the least inspiring titles) of any of the literary magazines — a sad shortcoming that may threaten the existence of what has been one of the best-edited, most vibrant journals out there.

"But," asks the bespectacled 21st century literatus from behind his laptop and his latte, "hasn't Fence gone too far?" I'm going to come out and say no. The cover is more interesting, but no more prurient, than the average cover of the average women's magazine in the rack by the cash register in the supermarket. If it can get Fence some attention, some publicity, and a few more sales, I'm all for it. Marketing is only a dirty word when what you're selling is in some way flawed, inferior, or fraudulent — a fact that actually leads me to the reconsider my position. After all, the latest issue of Fence contains a big feature on Jorie Graham...