I feel for Joan Wong. It must have been intimidating, the prospect of designing a cover for Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Clothing of Books, a slim volume about the complicated relationship between books and their covers, and also about how much Lahiri dislikes the covers of her books. She calls them generally “upsetting.” She says, “They depress me, they confuse me, they infuriate me….There is a certain awful cover for one of my books that elicits in me almost a violent response. Every time I am asked to autograph that edition, I feel the impulse to rip the cover off the book.”
Lahiri is not likely talking about Wong’s design—in which the book is made to resemble a cartoon denim jacket—if only because she didn’t seem to know what the cover would look like when she wrote the text. Late in the book she just says, “The American edition will wear its cover, the Italian another.” Nothing beyond that. And so maybe all Wong can do is wonder what Lahiri thinks of her work.
I’ll admit it: my sympathies incline toward Wong on this, because Lahiri’s testiness sometimes comes off as unchecked privilege. Jhumpa Lahiri is the kind of author whose name sells zillions of books all by itself, no matter what else is on the cover (or underneath it). As evidence, consider the fact that I paid money for The Clothing of Books, which a book that only reaches seventy-one pages, and only gets there because of very small pages, a great big font, and generous spacing. It’s basically a longform essay—the kind of thing you might read in an issue of the Atlantic—packaged as a book. You get to do that when you’re Jhumpa Lahiri. And so when she writes, “I am forced, at times, to accept book jackets that I dislike,” I don’t find myself crying lots of rivers on her behalf.
On the other hand, I am a fan of Lahiri’s fiction, and she also makes some good points in this essay. For one thing, there’s the ugly way in which her work is sometimes covered in visual stereotypes—either saris or American flags, depending on what aspect of her identity is being targeted. And of course her work is not alone in receiving this treatment. A Korean-American friend of mine points out how Asian writers’ books always seem to feature a picture of an Asian woman from behind, so that you can look at some shiny, black hair—or they feature an Asian person’s eye. For Jewish books, it’s got to be bagels, six-pointed stars, or black hats. For African writers it’s all acacia trees and setting suns. So, that’s a place where Lahiri’s word “upsetting” describes my reaction, too.
At a more general level, there’s the fact that a cover’s “function is much more commercial than aesthetic….if it doesn’t sell the book, it has no value.” If stereotypes end up on covers, in other words, that must mean that stereotypes sell; anything that ends up on a big-publisher-book must be there in order to sell copies. Lahiri publishes with big publishers, of course, and their focus on the bottom line means they probably do put a lot of pressure on her to accept commercially-appealing jackets. And what gets lost is the possibility of an image that simply “reflect[s] the sense and style of the book.” Or, also lost, the possibility that the text and the cover could end up in an interesting creative conversation with one another.
All of my personal experience has been with small presses, places that may not have a marketing person, let alone a marketing department. They don’t have the staff to sit around a conference table and debate the commercial potential of various images. In fact, the process usually begins with an editor asking the author, “Hey—do you have any ideas for what you want on the cover?”
This is, then, one of the advantages of working with small presses: if you want there to be an interesting conversation between the cover and the book, you have some say in that. Three of my books, for example, feature paintings by artist David Guinn on the front, because I was able to suggest those paintings to my editors. David is a very close friend—a creative brother—and we have been in an ongoing creative conversation with one another for almost three decades now. We’ve talked about the purpose of creativity, about the way our emotional lives inform what we do and vice versa, and about so many other things. When I look at those three books on my shelf, I see the continuation of that long, wandering dialogue. And I see that my writing changes his paintings and that his paintings change my writing, in ways neither of us could have predicted when we separately set out to do our work, not anticipating that it would end up literally bound together.
Or there’s my novel, Miss Portland, set in Maine, and inspired in part by my mother and her approach to life. The image on that book’s cover is a photo by my mother, who was, among other things, a talented amateur photographer. She died three years ago, and there is something deeply wonderful about the experience of her work and my work talking to each other, including talking about things that she and I were never quite able to say to each other as people, things about the challenges of making your way through a world equipped only with your small collection of skills and aspirations and courage.
Or take the cover to my non-fiction book The Artist’s Torah. I didn’t have any say in this design choice, actually, though probably only because I didn’t assert myself; Wipf and Stock probably would have listened to me if I had made a suggestion. But now here was a book that was almost demanding a stereotype—bagels, black hats, etc.—and yet the publishing house came up with a cover of fire, like the whole book was fire. Well, Torah, in mystical literature, has been referred to as black fire on white fire, so it was a tremendously thoughtful and beautiful choice, and it put my work into deeper dialogue with mystical tradition.
Covers can go wrong, obviously. I was once looking at some possibilities for a short story collection of mine that was all about parenting, and one of those possibilities—not a painting by David Guinn—elicited this response from a friend: “When I see this, I think ‘child murder.’” Which is to say that not all creative conversations are good ones (e.g., between a book about parenting and a cover that suggests “Maybe somebody should kill our kids”). So again I was lucky that I had a say and could move things in a different direction.
For her part, in The Clothing of Books Lahiri expresses a longing for “the naked book”—the book with a blank cover or no cover—so that the text might be appreciated and understood for itself, and only itself. And I understand that longing. But I also like the fact that a book is a multimedia object, that its full expression is not entirely verbal. Even ebooks, which Lahiri seems to relish for the way they deemphasize their covers, are full of visual choices, in terms of font, spacing, size, and so on. Books are inescapably multimedia; the only way to consume the book without any visual input is either to hear it read aloud or to read it in braille, which are both sensory experiences of their own.
Again, this multimedia collaboration can go wrong, but we cannot avoid the collaboration. And so why not embrace it, and get actively involved in it? Granted, it’s complicated; instead of a writer and visual artist working directly together, there’s a publisher in the middle, and often that publisher has an understandable profit motive. But lots and lots of good things happen, too. And they do become part of the work, whether we want them to or not. As Lahiri herself says, “Even when I don’t particularly like one of my jackets, I end up feeling some affinity for it. Over time, the covers become a part of me, and I identify with them.”
Late in the essay, Lahiri asks, “What is the perfect book jacket? It doesn’t exist.” And of course she’s right, which is why I think we should change the question, should stop looking for perfection and start looking for conversation.
The first step, in any case, is a conversation about the conversation, which gets jump-started by Lahiri’s The Clothing of Books—and which is in the rest of our hands to pursue further.
David Ebenbach is the author of eight books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, including, most recently, the novel How to Mars (Tachyon Publications, 2021) and the poetry collection Some Unimaginable Animal (Orison Books, 2019). He teaches at Georgetown University. Visit him at www.davidebenbach.com. (updated 6/2021)
Ebenbach founded the AGNI blog in 2015 and edited it until 2019.