Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bulwer-Lytton lives on!

Most people have never heard of Victorian author Edward George Bulwer-Lytton. Even of the most avid readers, most have never read one of his books. Yet the first words of his novel "Paul Clifford," written in 1830, are familiar to almost everyone. Why?  Because they were immortalized by Snoopy in the comic strip "Peanuts." These first words are: "It was a dark and stormy night..."

See?  I knew you'd recognize them. But what you might not realize is that those are only the first few words of the sentence which begins the novel:
"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness."
This sentence has spawned an interesting literary contest called, appropriately enough, the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. It was begun in 1982 by the English department of San Jose State University. The challenge was to create a badly-written opening sentence for the worst of imaginary novels, while keeping the tone and style of the opening sentence from "Paul Clifford." While the original sentence was a little awkward and contained a shift in perspective, I never found it that bad an opening sentence. But nevertheless, thanks to the contest, it has been the inspiration for some of the most awful and funny opening sentences ever penned.

The contest has been going strong since then. The 2011 contest results have just been announced. See them here:

The grand prize-winning sentence is:
Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.
To me, this is not representative of the best (worst?) efforts of years gone by, since it is short by contest standards (only 26 words) and not that rambling. My favorite grand prize winner was this one, awarded in 2002:
On reflection, Angela perceived that her relationship with Tom had always been rocky, not quite a roller-coaster ride but more like when the toilet-paper roll gets a little squashed so it hangs crooked and every time you pull some off you can hear the rest going bumpity-bumpity in its holder until you go nuts and push it back into shape, a degree of annoyance that Angela had now almost attained.
Here's the complete list of past grand prize winners:
Let me know which you think is the best/worst.

Although Bulwer-Lytton's name is now synonymous with bad writing, I think the author has gotten a bad rap. He was a very popular novelist, poet, and playwright of his time, and also a politician. Besides being the originator of that famous dark and stormy night, he was also the creator of a few other memorable phrases such as "the pen is mightier than the sword" (from his play "Richelieu") and "pursuit of the almighty dollar" (from his novel "The Coming Race"). So here's to Lord Bulwer-Lytton, a baron and minor Victorian author who has created several memorable literary phrases and provided the inspiration for thousands of dreadful ones.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Cover story

You can't tell a book by its cover. At least that's how the saying goes. But publishers are betting on the fact that book cover design is an important factor in increasing book sales. Is it true?

In a 2007 issue of "Entertainment Weekly," actor and director Sean Penn said that he was browsing in a bookstore, was attracted to a book because of its cover, bought it, and read it twice through in one day. He liked it so much that, the next day, he inquired whether the movie rights were available. That's how the movie of Jon Krakauer's "Into the Wild" came to be. Okay, so maybe that's an extreme case of how a book cover can make a difference. But still, a good book cover can draw in potential readers and affect follow-up sales.

Authors don't usually have a say in the cover art used on their books. Instead, this is marketing decision made by a publisher based on the costs of the cover, including image rights and hiring a designer, and on other marketing factors.

There are many organizations and web sites that create lists of the best book covers and cover art, often on a year-by-year basis. Examples of these include the website, the Covey Awards (which present awards for both cover art and video book trailers), and lists by Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and Amazon. The New York Times also ran an article entitled "Book Covers that got Away," showing some covers that didn't make the cut for one reason or another. See it here:
I have to admit that some of them are strange or unappealing.

I "uncovered" (sorry for the pun) an interesting story about the cover art used on the British and American editions of the bestselling book "The Help." Look at UK cover art for "The Help":
The American publisher, Putnam, didn't like the look of the cover, and felt it was politically incorrect. So the American edition was published with this cover:
The American cover gave no clue to the book's theme, but at least it wasn't offensive to anyone!

When an American publisher decided to reprint Terry Pratchett's Discworld series as mass market paperbacks, it used new, more contemporary and stylistic covers that are very different from the detailed cover artwork created by Josh Kirby. Take a look at the first book of the series, "The Color of Magic":
UK edition:
US edition:
Even though I tend to prefer less cluttered artwork, I think the UK covers are better, not only because they are works of art, but because they better illustrate the characters of Discworld. Of course Discworld fans are as obsessed as Star Trek fans, so they created an entire wiki for Discworld book covers around the world:
This wiki actually started in Polish, but switched to English.

AbeBooks produced a list of 50 iconic book covers. Take a look:
A lot of them look old-fashioned by today's standards and would not draw the interest of the contemporary book browser. However, that's not true for some of them, which are still used today on reprints of those books. For example, look at the covers on "The Godfather," "To Kill A mockingbird," and "Catcher in the Rye." Even the jumping man on the cover of "Catch 22" shows up now and then on a Joseph Heller book.

Another way publishers try to gain the attention of potential readers is by issuing a book under several different covers. I've seen this occasionally, including different colored covers for "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Terrell." For many books, the paperback cover is different than that of the hardback, and the trade and mass market paperback covers are also often different. I don't know why this is the case. I would think that once a publisher has "branded" a book with a carefully selected cover, they would stick with it. But I suppose that consumer tastes change in the year or so between editions, and therefore the covers do too. Let's not forget that once a book is made into a movie, a new paperback edition is usually issued with a scene from the movie and the words "Now a major motion picture" on the cover. For an example of this, look at the latest trade paperback reissue of "The Help," which was mentioned above:,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_.jpg

When all is said and done, the packaging for a book is no different than that of breakfast cereal or canned soup: the publisher tries to attract the consumer's attention. There is one interesting quirk about book covers that I still haven't mentioned, but it would make this blog post far too long. So I'm saving it for my next post. Until next time...

UPDATE:  I just saw a list of the best book covers of 2011:
Best book jackets of 2011
I agree with the list for the most part, but the cover for "West of Here" reminded me of an old poster and was not particularly attractive. I agree that the cover of "1Q84"  (as well as its interior design) is a stunning work of art. However, the jacket is made of stiffened tissue paper, and when I hold this weighty book (almost 1000 pages long!), the cover flaps have a tendency to slip out. As a result, I have removed the jacket while reading, and will replace it when I have finished. Even with the jacket off, though, the cover, both front and back, is a work of art. It's also a perfect cover and jacket for the weird world of Haruki Murakami.