Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Bad Cover Version

Students: here's a clue. If you come in to university two weeks before the academic year begins because you're worried that you haven't done enough preparation for your dissertation, then you'll probably be OK. It's your colleagues who do exactly the same thing two weeks before the dissertation deadline who should be worried!

But it's lovely to see students like this. We had coffee, I saw their holiday photos, they fed me cake and I showed them a pile of (anonymised) previous dissertations and we talked about structure, and argument and most importantly of all, making the dissertation their own work, rather than a list of what other critics think about the primary text.

I said all the necessary stuff about time management and having something distinctive to say, but I have to confess that I've only ever had a marker's perspective on undergraduate dissertations: my own degree was assessed only by examinations. That suited me, being the kind of person who worked well under short-term pressure and afflicted by habitual lassitude when it came to sustained work over a period of time. It did mean that the MA and PhD dissertations were rather a struggle, however. I'd add one thing that sometimes gets overlooked: for your own sanity pick texts and lines of arguments you'll enjoy, because you'll be spending a whole year with them. Nothing will spoil a major piece of work more easily than boiling resentment. I know it's not always possible (every cohort contains some students who really don't care one way or another), but it definitely helps. I've recently marked dissertations of Foucault and Country House Mysteries (it was a blast), Milton and Pullman, Dystopian Visions, and (too many) World War 1 Poetry pieces.

Everything's worth writing about, providing you think about them carefully enough – the bane of any marker's life is the Fan's Dissertation. In English, that's usually about Tolkien, with the major Brontë novels not far behind. Here's a hint: 'Why Lord of the Rings Is Brilliant' doesn't cut it. However this year I am supervising a dissertation on Tolkien's notions of heroism, and it's looking good because it's analytical and located in JRR's cultural context.

The other thing that caught my eye today is this new line of 'classic' novels (i.e. famous ones that are out of copyright) published with pulp covers by Pulp The Classics.

Aesthetically, I like them a lot. One of my friends collects pulp novels just for the covers – I don't have the room to start another collection, but I can understand the attraction. I'm not entirely convinced by this range though: pulp is a very 50s thing, and I'm not sure a contemporary audience is being invited to re-assess the texts or pulp itself. Certainly there are plenty of 'classic' texts which would justify the pulp treatment, such as the 'penny dreadfuls' and 'yellow press' works of the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Varney the Vampire would do very well.

However, I do like the pastiche art and the wit evinced by this new line: check out the cover text on The Hound of the Baskervilles:

I do rather worry about this quote prominently carried on the publisher's website though:

'It is so great that you are doing this kind of publishing. Turning classics into fun.' - John Bird, founder of The Big Issue

'Classics' is a dubious category, and I particularly resent the idea that they aren't enjoyable per se. Do new covers affect one's reading? I guess they do because they set up a reader's expectations, but I'm not sure the cover would stay in my consciousness as much as the experience of reading the actual words contained in the text. Though on the whole I'm keen on attracting new readers to texts which might otherwise seem forbidding, which is why I'm a huge fan of Clueless, the greatest Austen adaptation (of Emma) in cinema history (oh yes it is).

Original pulp novels are fascinating, and not only for the art-work. They introduced to the reading public subjects unfit for 'polite' society: particularly anything sexual. For instance, lesbian pulp fiction was sold as shocking exposes of the perversion hidden within the midst of normality, yet isolated lesbians in 50s America read them for solace and solidarity, discarding the thin veneer of moralising. The freedom from the scrutiny of cultural gatekeepers was liberating (and perhaps lucrative). Hence The Price of Salt, a 1952 lesbian thriller by 'Claire Morgan', later unmasked as respected author Patricia Highsmith.

 They were often exploitative, badly-written and shoddily produced, but they acted as a social subconscious: while people liked to be seen with the 'classics', sales figures tell you a lot more about we really liked to read. Little-read current Nobel Literature Prize winners will give future readers a rich sense of our culture, but Fifty Shades of Grey's popularity tells us what everyone else was interested in.

Pulp publishers had an eye on the money, rather than literary quality. Sensation sold, hence the emphasis on eye-catching artwork. Always keen to save money, some of the original pulp houses had the same idea as Pulp The Classics. Elek's 'Bestseller Library' imprint, for instance, started publishing out-of-copyright 'classics' with often very misleading covers and straplines. They knew that to English-language readers, anything French or Italian was assumed to be Utter Filth (thanks partly to censorious Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks). As the customs officer at Dover remarks to the hero while confiscating his books,

If we can't stamp out literature in the country, we can at least stop its being brought in from outside.

The rule for buyers, of course, is caveat emptor: once the book is purchased, readers are very unlikely to return it complaining that there wasn't enough sauce, and the publishers knew that very well. No hassle from the police, no comeback from the reader who has accidentally bought some Literature. Even by the tamer standards of the period, The Decameron, the naturalism of Zola and Stendhal, and the stylised desperation of de Maupassant et al. aren't particularly racy: Fanny Hill is far more explicit.

Of course publishers aren't only after the Pervert Pound: they repackage all sorts of work for marketing purposes. I pick up Jane Austen reprints whenever I spot them. Because publishers think women and young people are scared of 'serious' work (and perhaps because they don't think women capable of producing it either, she's being sold as 'chick-lit', which sickens me. The notion of 'chick-lit' is patronising and thin enough, while Austen's work has to be read very much against the grain to force it into the conservative paradigms of stereotypical chick-lit. So the publishers take the lazy way out: pastel covers, handwriting-fonts, superficial blurbs.

Very much a 'classic' - but at least it doesn't trade on the author's sex
Still serious, but now trading on Austen's sex rather than the novel's content

Finally! A non-threatening 'girly' edition. Consider yourself marginalised, Ms. Austen.

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