Judging the book cover judging | Bleader

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Judging the book cover judging

Posted By on 02.08.07 at 11:22 AM

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Nobody can get through the average day without at least a handful of generalizations, but sometimes the ones in print can be hard to swallow. In the February issue of Bookslut there's a piece by Heather Smith on the cover designs of recent food books that employs a few eyebrow-raising ones. The article's thesis? Popular books about food are no longer food porn, focusing on travel and cooking, but muckraking nonfiction about the state of the industry, and the covers reflect that. "No more soft beiges and maroons, out-of focus photographs of fruit, and calligraphic typefaces," writes Smith. Designers must now create appealing covers for sometimes unappealing or dry topics.

There's a germ of an idea here--there are more conceptual, sometimes abstract covers of contemporary books like Mindless Eating, Fast Food Nation or Heat. And Smith's individual design analysis, while scattered (she doesn't cover the more abstract stuff), isn't that horrible, despite clunkers like, "The '60s may not have been a good era for design." But the frame she creates for the discussion is just too glib. It can't remotely support what she's trying to hang from it.

I'm going to be a pedant for a moment here, so 'scuse, but part of the problem is that the article starts with an enormously bad example of the food porn she's trying to call passé, if not dead. The first line:

"Way back in that hazy bygone age that we now refer to as the 1990s, if you went to the store to buy a nonfiction book about food, you would most likely come home with a book like this one--books that were kind of eating porn, in which people traveled all over the world looking for the most perfect, exquisite loaf of bread, or the most tender baby sheep that charmingly scampers and gambols on the sun-dappled Tuscan hills..."

The example? MFK Fisher's foodie ur-text The Art of Eating, collected and published in 1954 (1990s?). The cover the piece links to is from the 50th anniversary edition, published in 2004 (1990s?). Not to mention there already was a 1990 edition--the Macmillan re-issue--which had a different cover, an evolution from the custom for food books prior to that, which was mostly of illustration (click on this image to see covers for The Art of Eating from 1954 through 2004). The 2004 edition, which uses a famous painting for its cover, is actually a break from both that illustrative tradition and food-porn photography. Not to mention that using Fisher as an example of what Smith's talking about is just off. There's a lot of warm fuzzy food writing out there from recent years, but Fisher (who died in 1992) is not what Smith's trying to reference. You could argue that Smith's point is that Art of Eating would be a book popular in the 1990s, although even that's not very accurate, but the essay doesn't say that.

Smith claims: "It's not that people have stopped writing food porn (as long as authors can write off meals and vacations as 'tax deductions' food porn will be with us), it's just that people stopped reading it." I don't know where she's looking, but nobody's stopped wanking. There are more food magazines, catalogs, books, and blogs than ever, all coated in more beautiful food photography than ever. More memoir, more travel and food writing. There is just more food media, period. Popular nonfiction books about the food industry and food trends aren't subsuming the flow, they're spiky sub-currents.

An additional design issue Smith doesn't address is that these books' covers (the sparer, more abstract ones) are indicative of their crossover with popular nonfiction analysis in general, which often has similar design (think of the cover of Freakonomics and its appleorange)--there's just more of it related to food lately. And lastly, the covers of the kinds of books she's talking about? They don't all fit the theory. Marion Nestle's popular What to Eat looks like your basic cookbook. And then there's the obvious example of Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, exactly the kind of book Smith is talking about topically but one that at first glance--with its chiaroscuro still life of grapes, mushroom, and egg--looks almost exactly like The Art of Eating.

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