Three pairs of hands and some waffling on genre. Also, Fabio.

There has been quite a bit of debate on various SFF blogs in recent months over the nature of book covers. I’m not going to rehash the whole thing because the people who have been following the discussion are all probably really sick of it by now, but briefly, some people are annoyed by the sameyness of a lot of SFF cover art at the moment, with all the hooded figures and swords and things. Which is a valid enough complaint. On the other hand, other people have pointed out, a major (perhaps the primary) function of the cover is to sell the book to as many people as possible. That means making sure that regular readers of the genre see the book and recognise it as the sort of thing they like. Those cliche elements on the cover act as useful signifiers. [I’m simplifying unfairly – if you haven’t read this stuff and want to, go here, here and here].

On the whole, I’m neutral. I’d like things to be more original; then again, the fiction I read doesn’t usually have this problem – I haven’t read as much epic/ sword and sorcery fantasy in the last few years as I used to. Plus, generic covers have been useful to me as a romance reader, so I can quite well see why they would perform that function for someone who reads fantasy in the same way. So yes, cover cliches as useful signifiers of genre make sense to me.

I was very amused a couple of years ago when the good people at Sepia Mutiny came up with this hilarious Anatomy of a Genre post where they pick apart the various elements of a generic Indian Novel In America (is there a less clunky term for this category of book?) cover*. The book in question is The Mango Season by Amulya Malladi. For a more detailed pointing out of what, specifically, makes that cover so…generic, you should probably read the SM post. Or just look at the picture of the cover below, along with a couple of other books that deal with a similar theme.

Except, wait. One of these things is not like the others.

Earlier today I read about Heather Tomlinson’s Toads and Diamonds on John Scalzi’s blog. Toads and Diamonds is a retelling of a Perrault fairy tale set in India. What it is not is a generic Indian Novel in America. But would you be able to tell by the cover?

Tomlinson’s book is set in India and the publishers are justified in using an “Indian” image (however cliched) on the cover. Just as, for example, the publishers of Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia could have argued for the inclusion of a romantic image on their cover (the title is apparently a play on the Russian for “I love you”). Yet if I’d gone into a bookshop and seen this I’m pretty sure I would have been surprised and confused (and delighted!) to find Roberts’ book between the covers.


(Yellow Blue Fabio)

It’s a silly example, but that is how weird it feels to see a book from one genre with a cover that so obviously suggests it to be part of another

I have no idea whether Ms Tomlinson’s publishers purposely designed the book to look like the sort of covers above, or if it’s all a very odd coincidence. Perhaps it’ll get mis-shelved, or someone walking past the SFF section in a bookshop will do a double take and buy it and so become a hopeless fantasy addict? I do not know.

*The existence of this sort of genre raises a few other interesting questions in the context of this cover debate – I’m footnoting them because I don’t really want to make them the subject of this post. In some of the discussions around covers people brought up the issue of publishers “whitewashing” covers (which the publishers involved presumably think will sell more books) vs using cliches to indicate genre. (which the publishers involved presumably think will sell more books). To my mind the difference is obvious, yet here is a genre where the cover conventions are entirely dependent upon presenting a very specific picture of India to a mostly Western audience. You could hardly call that entirely divorced from race. Hmm.

4 Comments to “Three pairs of hands and some waffling on genre. Also, Fabio.”

  1. I will not comment on the suitability of the cover for Toads and Diamonds. I will only say: A blossoming flower cupped at crotch level by a bride. How… subtle.

    Compare with the cover of Rahila Gupta's Enslaved, a book about desi women married to NRIs and literally sold into slavery. Notice the closed legs, protectively clasped hands.

  2. This comment isn't connected to the post above. But, I just wanted to say that your article on Dictionaries in Indian Express this week was a good read. Keep writing.

  3. Pradipta – *grin* Also, note that despite the vulnerable posture and lack of colour, the book still shows many of the same markers of Indianness. Henna, check. Embroidered sari, check. Bangles, check. That, plus the Emma Thompson quote that makes it rather clear who the thing is being sold to.

    Goutham – Thanks very much! But the article in question is posted just under this one in the blog – if you want to discuss it further, could you take it there, please?

  4. Stop me if I've said this before–I once did a very unscientific survey of the Indian writing shelf in a bookstore and found more than 60% incidence of either a (primary) colour, a fruit or an animal in the title. Often we are given two of the three: blue mangoes, mango-coloured fishes, guava orchards, white tigers, et al.
    The jaws of the cliche trap are contentedly chomping away.

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