Sunday, April 22, 2012

Personal Peeves Part 01: Cover Art

I have a love/hate relationship with cover art.  As a general rule, I hate cover art.  I rarely love cover art.

Why do I hate cover art?  It is perhaps better to start elsewhere.  I enjoy art in general.  I really enjoy the art that appears on the cover of books.  While some may be bad, and some good, it serves a purpose.  It is a unique visual medium that is equal parts art and marketing rolled into one. I like that intersection of form and function.  Each niche of books seems to have its own visual language.  So you can pick out a history book, paranormal romance, science fiction and fantasy based on their respective covers.  Cover represent an incredible focus of effort on the part of publishers.  The cover is the "elevator" pitch to consumers.  It has to be both unique and familiar.  It has to be above all eye-catching.

It is also for this reason why I hate cover art.  It is this success in creating a striking cover that fosters my dislike.  It is for one very simple reason.  Books are a written medium that lacks a visual component.  It is up to the reader to develop that mental imagery based off the author's words.  Each reader develops those cerebral landscapes differently, as reading a book is unique to each participant.

Cover art however...cover art interrupts that process.  It is a third party injecting their opinion into your own private world.  Worse, it is art that is suppose to be striking and memorable.  It is art that helps drive book purchases.  The end result is that cover art is very effective in interrupting the very personal experience of a reader developing their own visual opinion of the written content of the book.  Even worse, it is a third party's opinion that may or may not be the opinion of the author!

This is what drives my dislike of cover art.  It interjects an opinion that I would rather form myself.  Worse, it injects an opinion that may just be flat out wrong.  So, while I may love art on its own and the skill behind crafting the right cover, I find them intrusive in all but rare instances.

I can give no better example than covers for the Wheel of Time series.  I have hated these covers for nearly two decades.  I think they are really great examples of cover art gone wrong.  They take enough key imagery from the books to be recognizable, and then its twisted into something else, something that fits Darrell K. Sweet's viewpoint.  The worst part is that the art by itself, is very good.  I really enjoy Mr. Sweet's artwork...just not his interpretation of the Wheel of Time.  

The Eye of the World is especially bad as you can tell Tor's marketing department was trying to provide new readers with familiar visual cues.  While I may dislike other covers more, this is the easiest example to provide. The Eye of the World starts off with a trio of riders leaving town at night, how mysterious.  One looks to be the classic D&D ranger garbed in greens and browns.  One a samurai with TWO swords with black swords, black armor and black threatening!  Then you have the diminutive sorceress with comically large breasts and staff.  All of it capped off with the flying bat thing...looming menace abounds.  This must be the start of an epic quest full of danger and heroism! 

But, everyone once and awhile, you do find a cover that is really perfect.  One of my favorite covers of recent memory is the cover of Perfect Shadow by Brent Weeks courtesy of Raymond Swanland.  I think this cover really nails all of the bases.  It is impressive on its own but also captures the look and feel of the Night Angel world in a manner very similar to my own imaginings.

So, there you have it, my peevish opinion of book covers.  I hate them, rarely love them but always appreciate them.  I am hoping to turn this into a series of sorts.  My next peeve will likely be "fandom".

Image Source for The Perfect Shadow: Scanned Cover
Image Source for The Eye of the WorldFrom Heroes to Icons

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