21 October 2006

On the threshold of snobbery

I'm all politicked out for the moment - or, at least, I don't feel the energy or will to write about "big" politics. So, today I'm navel gazing with an examination of my own prejudices ... specifically, my snobbery about book covers.

I prefer paperbacks to hardbacks. I like to carry books around with me, to pull them out and read them on trains or at bus stops or in cafés and supermarket checkout queues (have you ever stopped to think what an odd word "queue" is?), and paperbacks serve that usage far better than hardbacks. And whereas most hardbacks have a loose, removable dust jacket over a plain cloth binding, paperbacks have an integral cover design which you are stuck with. Science fiction and fantasy authors, in particular, suffer all sorts of indignities at the hands of their publishers' ides of what will appeal to the target reader.

Some of Ursula K Le Guin's work falls legitimately under the genre label "science fiction", some of it under "fantasy", but much of it is adequately described only by her own term "psychomyth". In particular, the coming of age novel published in Britain as Threshold and in the US as The Beginning Place is a psychomyth. I had always had a copy of Threshold since it was published (Gollancz, 1980), and always think of it under that title, but when my last (Panther, 1982) copy was borrowed and never returned I bought a "Tor Teen" edition from Amazon under the original US title.

This new copy arrived with a cover (see illustration, top left - click to enlarge) which the publisher obviously feels will appeal to a teenage audience. It didn't appeal to me, but that was OK; I bought it for the content, not the cover. The content deals with two damaged and shy (though not lacking in courage) twenty year olds; the cover depicts two refugees from Buffy the Vampire Slayer on their way to an episod of Xena, Warrior Princess. Both of the figures in the illustration are in anatomically unlikely poses. Both are apparently being attacked by strange haircuts - which may be why the young man is waving a sword behind his head in a way which contravenes several laws of physics. Never mind; having studied it in wonder for a few minutes, I forgot about it.

Forgot about it, that is, until I pulled the book out of my bag to read on a train yesterday. I was sitting comfortably at an otherwise unoccupied table, reading happily. Then the train filled up and I was sharing the table with three other people ... and suddenly I realised that I had subconsciously lowered the book towards the table so that nobody could see its dodgy cover.

How shallow is that?

A few years ago, I was taught a lesson in this respect. I had disregarded the novels of Kate Atkinson because their covers were, at the time, of a style which subconsciously said to me "lightweight biographical romance bandwagon"; but an impassioned recommendation from a young reader made me sample them - and I discovered the wonders which I had been missing through my prejudice. Alas, it doesn't seem to have been a permanent or general lesson, if I can still hide the cover of a book which consider to be great.

If I can unconsciously fail to defuse prejudice in such a small matter, and unconsciously continue allowing it to decide my behaviour, that doesn't bode well for issues where the stakes are higher.

  • Ursula K Le Guin, Threshold. 1982, London: Granada, 0586054073 (pbk).

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