Never Judge a Book by its Cover

We see images of perfection and deception from the time we wake up until we go to sleep. Have we lost the ability to see beyond this cult of appearance?

Article by Elizabeth S Moore

I have a feeling that if you expressed the sentiment ‘Never judge a book by its cover’ today to anyone under say 40, they would look at you blankly. What else, these days, do you judge a book by? There are of course other things, such as whether the person who has written it has been a model, or appeared on a reality television show, but the cover is very important. We all love a browse in Waterstones, trying to decipher messages from flowering trees full of blossom that looks like tiny skulls, or stick men beneath a glowering sky, but if you are a lover of books currently in ‘the prime of life’ you might recognise that this is a relatively new phenomenon.

I tried to get my daughter to read Wuthering Heights as a child. My copy, plain blue cover.  It sat, the beloved pages unturned, by her bed for years. When it was reissued with a Penguin do over, as part of their Clothbound Covers series, designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith, I gave it to her as a Christmas present and she finished it in three days. It is of course a thing of beauty, lovely to hold, and impressive to read on a tube train or by the pool on holiday, but it is the same words, and the same story.

Now there is nothing wrong with putting something in a beautiful cover. I adore beautiful things, they are the silk pillowcase on the lumpy pillow of life.  A perfectly tailored coat, an elegant, confident woman, a perfect plate of lobster in the sublime surroundings of Le Gavroche, or the chestnut salad looking like autumn on a plate at Trinity in Clapham Old Town. These are all wonderful, and they cheer the soul. Beauty in all its forms from music to kittens exists to make our hearts sing. The thorny issue in the 21st century, for me at least, is that it is only how things look and not how they actually are that matters, a bit like ordering the lobster, taking a picture of it for Instagram and not caring what it tastes like. We see images of perfection and deception from the time we wake up until we go to sleep. Very little of it is real. The rise of social media has pervaded every corner of our lives, and except for ‘alternatives’ who embrace lives without these seemingly vital connections and live according to Hygge rules…..hiding in log cabins and fishing for salmon while wearing fur from animals that they have personally hunted, we are all its slaves. However individual we think we are being, we all seem to have wandered into an echo chamber of our own creation which doesn’t have a clearly marked exit.

Books jump through a long line of hoops before they appear, the main one being ‘are they marketable?’ followed by ‘Is the person writing them marketable and brandable?’ Then there are the ‘conversations round the book’, very important, and those also have to be palatable, politically correct and follow trends. There are bottom lines, and financial stressors and when those sort of things come into contact with art and artists there is always conflict.  What an artist, of any type, values, is his art. That is his imperative, and he wants it left alone, but we are not in the age when Elvis Presley could walk in, make a record at Sun Studios, hear it played on the radio and then see it go to number one in the charts. Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby would battle to get signed by any company who were looking for a return on their investment these days, as would Tolstoy battle to find a publisher for War and Peace.

So, looks matter. The catwalks of Milan would also say that it matters who your mum and dad are, as they are filled with the progeny of rock stars and celebs who had dubious talent to start with, certainly not enough to automatically pass it on to the next generation. Dynasties have never been good for creativity, and now that the Beckhams of this world can pay for their son to produce a book of photography at 18, and register their daughter as a brand at four, where does that leave the truly talented? The slush piles of publishers undoubtedly contain gems which never see the light of day, and they never get wrapped in a pretty cover as they don’t hit current zeitgeist.

It has even invaded our personalities, this cult of appearance. Put your head above the parapet at your own risk. Trolling, the fun social media bear baiting of the new age is aimed at people who never said they were beautiful in the first place. Usually they have accidentally come to the attention of this baying crowd by reviewing a paper or having an opinion on anything from Tudor England to salmon. If you are a little chubby, bald, short, or even not ready for your selfie, all of these are crimes punishable by a jury of peers who don’t see kindness, or selflessness, or intelligence as assets. People view their disgust as a right, the ability to be an unaccountable judge and jury is addictive, and the self-righteousness palpable. Their judgement is entirely superficial, gone is the age when you could just get on with life, be physically moderately passable, and live happily ever after.

So….I have a book coming out. When I finished it I was just deliriously happy that several lovely publishers wanted it.  It is now with the printers, packaged up tight, beautifully edited, ready to go.  However, I should point out that I do not just have a book coming out. I have also acquired a website, a wonderful PR, an advertising campaign; I tweet, I Facebook, I Instagram – are those even verbs?  I apologise if not.  I lie awake worrying whether my cover is conveying the message I want to get across, I talk to my publisher, I get another version of the cover. I change the colour of the cat on the cover; that might do it. I worry that the cover doesn’t feature the house the action takes place in. I worry that it doesn’t feature the main character. I drive my publishers mad with my worries. I wonder whether a tube is a better place to sell my book than online advertising. I am also on a diet, partly for the book publicity and partly so that my daughter can introduce me to the guests at her wedding shame free and I am currently attending Weight Watchers while injecting myself daily with Skinnyjab. I am then, a walking contradiction, a hypocrite who is wondering whether she can fit in some plastic surgery before my beautiful girl marries her truly delightful man whilst believing that authentic is best and talent should be talent and not based on what it looks like. It’s very tiring.

I am conflicted like the world I inhabit. I want to be a bona fide writer in a garret, but it doesn’t seem practical as no one will read my book without a marketing campaign. I want to send my book out into the world as Dickens once did, weekly in Bentley’s Miscellany, but it isn’t an option. I alternate between a conviction that my writing must speak for itself, and a gut feeling that this just won’t do these days and I count my twitter followers. Meanwhile at the Writers’ Summit I sit with my publishers and listen to talks on ‘How to have a banging first 30 pages’, or ‘How to maximise social media.’

So, does that seem a gloomy enough picture I have painted? Doomed I hear you cry, we are all doomed. However, there is one part of the puzzle that I have ignored, and that is the human spirit.  It is an endlessly adaptable, imaginative, resourceful thing. Just as I am waking up to social media, others are stepping away. There is a wonderful advert on television at the moment entitled ‘A Modern Dating Nightmare.’  A girl meets a man who has no social media presence of any kind, by choice. It ends with the girl being told to run away by her friends when she asks how he finds out about people and he just says he talks to them. Shock, horror. Funnily enough he is the hero of the piece and all the others look crazy. I have a feeling we will see more of this.

Human nature is also fighting back against homogenised branding, with small publishing houses springing up like mushrooms next to the boutique gin distilleries and craft ale breweries. Writers and artists have the biggest platform they have ever had, and have started to believe again that perhaps there is a real market for intelligent, innovative books, or art that doesn’t ‘fit the market’.  It’s happening all around us, little spring like shoots representing an undercurrent of new and exciting ways of cutting through the confusion and these start ups and clever innovative ideas are being met with a collective round of delight.  Salons abound, you can go to the Savoy and listen to writers reading and discussing their work, or enjoy evenings of encouraging mingling with other writers and artists at places like the Riff Raff, and wonder at the energy of their founders.

There may still be a bit of taint around self-publishing, but there are also multi-millionaires who have ignored the rules and gone for it.  There would be no Fifty Shades of Grey if it hadn’t been self-published, and it came out in instalments just like Dickens.  Eventually, we won’t accept the Emperor’s New Clothes argument, we will put down the latest homogenous thriller that we aren’t sure whether we have already read as it is so similar to the last one, and we will look for something challenging. People always do, and we will forget the time when you could go into I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here because your husband is a footballer, and long instead for something that awakens something important in our souls and makes us ask questions.

Eternal truths are still truths. Physically unattractive people can be wonderful, insightful and sensitive. They have developed personalities in a way that the polished, nail perfect selfie takers, bless them – have never had to. Old people can be wonderful sources of joy and wisdom, if we slow down and talk to them. Kind people and people who march to the beat of a different drum are the ones we should search out if we want to be happy. No cover, make up contouring, Chanel coat or perfect jus can make up for a lack of substance within, and while the spark of joy I have looking at the cover of The Man on the Middle Floor is wonderful, and I hope it gets people to read the book, if it’s a success maybe I will try and persuade my publisher to put the next one out with a plain blue cover. Let’s see what happens then. Meanwhile, I haven’t tweeted for hours, interest might be waning. Hmmmm, what to hashtag…? riddle_stop 2


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