Judging a Book by its Cover

If you’re a fan of the ‘Project Runway’ program with Heidi Klum then you’d love the latest incarnation of the style in the show Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. In this reality series, a group of artists face new challenges every week, where the worst work of art results in the dismissal of the artist until there is an ultimate winner who will have their own showing at the Brooklyn Museum.

Last night was the perfect challenge for a writer to watch. The contestants were to create a new cover for one of the following classic novels; The Time Machine, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Pride and Prejudice, Dracula, Alice in Wonderland or Frankenstein.

The ultimate aim for almost any writer is to see their book in print, slick in a perfectly designed new dust cover, sitting gaily on the shelf of a book store with strangers picking it up and taking it to the check out. Because when a writer has a story idea, they often slave over the work for months, sometimes even years. From little more than a random thought of “I wonder what would happen if…” they have written and then re-written sentences until they don’t even resemble the original version. They had agonised over the placement of every comma, colon and full stop. The characters have become so real in their heads that sometimes phone calls and emails from people in the actual world are ignored because the flow of the story is such that it demands a writer’s full attention.  Finally, an agent falls in love with the story; send it to one of their numerous contacts in a publishing house and JACKPOT! You have sold your story and it’s going to be published so that people everywhere will be able to read the fruits of your imagination – the goal of every hour of work you put into writing the story in the first place.

So it comes as a little bit of a shock that as a writer we will have no say in the cover art of the story. I’m imagining that’s something akin to telling a mother that she has no say in what her new born child is going to wear home from the hospital. Someone (a stranger!) is going to create a cover that is supposed to represent your years of work. They are going to create what will be the first thing a person sees, and sadly, will probably judge whether or not to buy your story. And it’s this reality that made the episode three, “Judging A Book By Its Cover” such an incredible one. The ultimate prize for the winning artist was for their work to grace the cover of the Penguin version of whatever classic novel they had pulled out of the hat, or paintbox as the case maybe.  As you would expect in a show with 12 artists of various abilities and specialities, some of the results were amazing and others… not so much.

The artist Miles Mendenhall confessed that he hadn’t read the book he had been assigned (Dracula) and calculated that it would take him four hours to read. Taking four hours out of a seven hour work period to cloister himself off to read a book so to better portray the story in his artwork impressed me as an author. Just as watching Jaclyn Santos, working on a cover for Pride and Prejudice, admitting she had only read a synopsis of the book before embarking on creating a work that had herself on the cover, half naked with a top hat in one hand, frustrated me both as a writer and fan of the author. And let’s not get into the whole deal that she spelt Austen with an “i’ like the Texas city.

Given the choice between the two artists, as an author I would hope for a Miles to be assigned my book cover – an artist who respected my form of art enough to take the time to represent my work whole heartedly. I would hope for an artist who saw taking the time to get to know the story as vital to the portrayal of the story in the cover.  And it reminded me that the old saying on not judging a book by its cover is sadly very true. 

And just for the record, if anyone in the States just happens to know the eventual winner personally (John Parot, LA, California – The Time Machine) and he is willing to sign a copy of his front cover…please – feel free to hook me up!


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