BY DAVID HORSPOOL
Last week, I was editing a review by James Fergusson on the subject of dust-jackets (it's very good: should be in the TLS shortly). Until relatively recently, it turns out, collectors were pretty sniffy about them. Nowadays, dust-jackets (mustn't call them "wrappers", apparently), are an integral part of the value of modern first editions.
But for those of us who intend merely to read books, rather than trade them, covers, as I propose to call them, are supposed to fulfil their traditional function of drawing the reader in, and giving us an idea of the contents. And as there seems to be no slacking off in the rate of publication, you would have thought that publishers' design departments would make every effort to ensure their product stands out from the rest.
In fact, the opposite tendency seems to hold sway. It took five minutes of not very systematic searching among the review copies in the TLS offices to discover that three particular themes are currently very popular, or "trending" as I'm learning to call it.
Number one: Legs (see above). The first book I recall with a legs-only cover was Andrea Ashworth's memoir Once in a House on Fire. The most recent book I have actually read whose dust-jacket could have been entered in a knobbly-knees competition was Will Eaves's s splendid This Is Paradise (yes, Will Eaves used to work at the TLS, but the novel really is excellent). Most of the legs belong to girls, and it has been suggested that if the feet are turned in, that means pathos, if not downright misery. One foot kicked up, and you can expect laughs, or at least some bitter-sweetness. As you can see, designers are now branching out into boys' legs, but still no faces.
Next, an interestingly specific genre. The Backs of Women Looking Out over Water:
And, in case readers think I am skewing my results towards novels by women (and specifically Marika Cobbold, whose designers can at least claim to be creating a visual "brand"), my final offering is a masculine one: some thrillers, or Tiny Men Walking into the Distance books, as they should henceforth be known:
Now, of course we know about books and covers and judgement, but may I suggest it might make it easier at least to distinguish between novels if the people who design the covers pop into a bookshop from time to time, notice what's already there, and see if they can come up with some new ideas? It's dispiriting to think that, actually, they probably do so already, and have decided that we readers can be handily categorized as "Legs", "Water Gazers" and "Walkers Away". Any less cynical explanations, or indeed any more examples of cover themes, will be gratefully entertained.