Hypnerdic

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A Terrible Disease

Let’s take some time away from our ongoing examination of the lunatic fringe of literary culture to examine an affliction that has plagued genre fiction for decades.  I am referring, of course, to Terrible Cover Design.

TCD can affect all kinds of books, from classic literature to university textbooks, but statistics have shown that the demographics most profoundly impacted by this condition are Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror.  Countless works of genre fiction have suffered from symptoms that range from poorly executed medieval paintings, common to Fantasy, to terrible CGI, commonly suffered by Sci-Fi books, and the two manifestations common to all genres: failed photorealism and the ubiquitous tramp stamp in leather pants.

Today we are going to look at a recent example of all that is wrong with Fantasy cover art, provided by the latest forthcoming instalment of The Wheel of Time, “The Gathering Storm”.

Someone was paid to draw this

Someone was paid to draw this

This image, like all cover art for The Wheel of Time, was perpetrated by Darryl K. Sweet.  Remember that name.  It is the name that brings suffering to the eyes of Fantasy fans.  He works exclusively for Tor, which tells me that either the decision makers at Tor know absolutely nothing about art, or that they simply do not give a fuck.  I’m leaning toward the latter, because it’s Tor.  They’re pretty much the biggest name in Fantasy publishing, and they know these books would sell if they put Brian Peppers on the cover in a metal bikini.

But we’re not here to examine the motivations of cynical publishing executives.  We’re here to examine the many ways in which this latest example of Mr. Sweet’s work is godawful.  But first, a disclaimer.  I have never read the Wheel of Time books, in large part because I was put off by the terrible covers.  As such, I will have to limit commentary on things like character design, as I am unfamiliar with the characters and the setting.

The very first things that jump out at me are the layout and colour scheme.  The old artistic cliche of putting the title at the top of a generic medieval painting is deeply aggravating to me.  From that image, I learn nothing about the book except that it probably contains a man and a woman, and that the man might only have one hand.  Beyond that, the cover says “completely unremarkable medieval Fantasy.  Move along.”  The colours only make it worse.  According to Sweet, no one in Robert Jordan’s Fantasy Universe knows how to colour coordinate their renn faire costumes.  On the dashing, constipated gentleman, we see bright red, blue, brown, white and purple.  Seriously, pick three and stick with them.  And primaries pretty much never match.  Anyone working in a visual medium ought to know that.  Combining such terrible colours with the generic medieval painting cover layout leaves me with the strong impression that this picture was painted in 1974, rather than 2009.

The next most grievous flaw I can pick out is the people.  The gentleman standing front and centre, apparently offering to fist the sky, is presumably the protagonist of the story, or at least one of them.  That being the case, these books might actually be interesting, if only because I’ve never read a fantasy novel centred around a hideously deformed hero.  The arms are the first problem I notice.  I’ve been told that he’s supposed to be missing a hand, so I’ll ignore that.  What I cannot ignore is the fact that his forearms apparently stopped developing when he was fourteen years old.  His head, meanwhile, kept growing independently of his body until he was twenty-five.  According to his facial expression, he is either trying to pass a kidney stone, or wearing a vibrating codpiece.  I can’t tell.

As for his lady companion, I can’t help wondering how she hasn’t exploded out of that blouse yet.  Frankly, it looks like someone tried to rip it open, but lacked the strength to overcome her girdle.  Judging by her messy, straw-like hair and the possibly-eager expression on what I assume was intended to be her face, I can conclude that she was interrupted in the early stages of a vigorous sexual romp.

Actually, everything I’ve listed up to now makes a strange sort of sense if you put it all together.  Maybe this cover isn’t the atrocity it appears to be.  Maybe it’s a candid tableau, taken from the scene of a moving personal drama.  Two medieval detectives, investigating a mysterious Victorian house with a hole in it, are overwhelmed by their desire for one another.  Their passionate encounter is interrupted by the young man’s frustration as he realises his underdeveloped arms are unable to rip open her blouse in proper manly fashion.  He raises a fist to the heavens, but chronic degeneration of his facial muscles makes it impossible for him to truly show his anger and misery.  If only we could hear their conversation in this moment.

“It’s okay, I can just untie it!  Your childlike forearms are very sexy.  Really!”

“Why, God?!  Why can’t I have the arms of a grown man?!  Or make proper facial expressions?!”

Being totally honest here, that’s a book I would read.

It is possible that some of these qualms are settled by the content of the book.  There could be a perfectly good reason for a medieval setting to contain a house that looks like it was built in the 1800s.  I can only assume there’s a reason for said house to have a gaping black hole in place of a front door, even though the windows clearly demonstrate that there are lights on inside.  Perhaps the hole is a portal to a dimension of pure darkness.  Or maybe they hung a black curtain over it to keep the bugs out until the repair guy shows up.  So maybe a few of my complaints are less valid than I purport.

That possibility does not excuse the basic issues of layout, colour and elementary human anatomy.  Any professional artist should be well educated in those areas.  Hell, I know professional artists and graphic designers who get queasy at the sight of Darryl K. Sweet covers.  People who could outdraw him with broken fingers, but don’t make a quarter of what Sweet probably takes home for one of these covers.  Why is a guy who would fail a high school art class responsible for the covers of one of the biggest Fantasy series’ of the last twenty years?  It’s disheartening, to say the least.

To make me feel better, I will close with an example of cover art that doesn’t suck.

Objects of Worship, by Claude Lalumiere.  ChiZine Publications.  Image by Erik Mohr

Objects of Worship, by Claude Lalumiere. ChiZine Publications. Image by Erik Mohr

Solid grasp of both human and animal anatomy, inspired combination of negative space and minimal colour, contrasted against a strong splash of red positioned to draw the eye to the title.  A simultaneous balance of beautiful symmetry and deep-level creepiness that is as attractive as it is repellant.  This, my friends, is a cover.

October 22, 2009 Posted by | Art, Books, Rant | , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Don’t Ignore the Problem. Call it Out.

Okay, I’ve had a few drinks, I think I’m ready for this one.

Apparently, women are killing science fiction

That link has had a lot of circulation since the article was first posted more than a week ago.  I’m not going to put too much time into commenting on the misogyny that saturates the article, or the obvious delusions of the charmingly nicknamed writer.  Countless bloggers have done that already.  I am instead going to focus on an aspect of the popular reaction to the article, best expressed in John Scalzi’s response.

“I’m not going to link to it, as abject misogynist stupidity should not be rewarded with links. You can track it down on your own if you like.”

I am generally okay with this sentiment.  “Pro-male/Anti-feminist Tech” and the website he represents are surely hoping to gain some attention from this article, among others.  Why should we reward them?  This is a perfectly valid viewpoint.  I am also entirely in agreement with Mr. Scalzi’s “point and laugh” suggestion.  However, I have seen a few bloggers and commenters suggesting that we are making a mistake by posting any links to the article at all, and there I begin to see a problem.

My generation has been raised in an atmosphere where we are taught that those who act out are seeking attention, and that if we ignore them they will go away.  Being the son of a highly experienced behavioural specialist, I know that there is truth in this.  Many people, particularly children, individuals with developmental disabilities, and particularly stupid people who are still considered more valuable than those with developmental disabilities for some reason*, act out in overtly noticeable ways to gain attention.  In many of those cases, it is best not to reward that behaviour with the attention they seek.  And I can see how the writer of the above article might be ranked among children or particularly stupid people.  This, however, is not the whole of the issue.

Our society, in its current iteration, believes that it has progressed far beyond the prejudices of generations past.  In many ways we have.  We are a far more progressive society than that of our grandparents, or even of our parents.  It is a mistake, however, to think we have overcome all of our prejudices, and I have noticed that our modern culture has a tendency to rest on its laurels, indulging in self-congratulation for how much better it is than generations past.  It is far too easy to grow complacent, and assume that all opponents of equality have been vanquished.

Now, I’m not saying that The Spearhead, wonderfully named site that it is, is a significant threat to social progress on its own.  It’s just one site, populated by a fringe group of deluded wingnuts, after all.  It is, however, a symptom of a more serious problem.  There are people in this enlightened first world who believe the things this writer is saying.  Look at the comments section for the article.  People are agreeing with this.  It has been argued that some of those people have positions of power over the literary field being discussed.  Despite what we want to believe, the problem has not gone away.

So what good does it do to ignore it?  Why is that the better option?  Frankly, ignoring them won’t make them go away, and if we leave these sorts of people to their own devices, they’ll keep shouting until someone listens.  Eventually, they might even get some kind of movement.  It’s certainly not likely, but it’s not impossible.  Ignoring them accomplishes nothing.  We’re not really depriving them of attention, because they’re getting it anyway, from the people who agree with and encourage them.

On the other hand, drawing attention to intellectual failures like the article in The Spearhead raises awareness of a problem that isn’t buried as deeply as some people might think.  It’s important, in my opinion, to shine the cold light of day on people like this.  When they exist only on the very edge of our perception, they can appear much larger and more formidable than they really are.  When we pull back the curtain, we can show them for what they are: small, scared men, unwilling to let go of a past that never even existed.

Link to the article.  Link to it in as many places as you can.  The benefit you will give to the site is miniscule compared to the opportunity you’ll give to others to debunk its claims.  Or ridicule them.  Or simply to be aware that such opinions still exist and must be contended with.  Communities like The Spearhead can stew in ignorance all they like.  We don’t have to do the same.

*I have, in my life, known individuals with developmental disabilities who have been valuable contributing members of society, and wonderful people.  The same cannot be said for those who engage in the willful idiocy I refer to in the case of “particularly stupid people”.

October 22, 2009 Posted by | Books, Rant | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ebooks: The End of Civilised Reading

According to this very clear and entirely unbiased article, we are on the verge of a cultural holocaust.  As the electronic book gains in popularity, the traditional paper book will be inexorably wiped out of existence, taking all the value of human achievement with it and leaving our society drained of all meaning.  We will live in a media reich in which all culture will be scrubbed soulless and trapped in the plastic shell of electronic delivery.  Already, devotees of print media are looked down upon as social anachronisms, clinging to a destructive and worthless medium!

Did that sound a little crazy?  Maybe more than a little.

If Alan Kaufman is to be believed, the rise of the ebook is equivalent to Nazi Germany, Christian expansion and 9/11 all rolled into one.  I assume his article was intended to convince readers to spurn the ebook and hold fast to the holy grail of printed paper.  It succeeded, in my case, at convincing me that even the most banal of subjects can be made outrageous by someone whose grasp of reality is best described as “neglected”.  But no amount of apocalyptic wording or comparisons to cultural upheavals and human atrocity will alter the inherent flaws in the article.

From the first, Kaufman makes entirely baseless assumptions.  Yes, numerous small bookstores have closed down in recent years.  That is difficult to credibly deny.  Kaufman’s association of this phenomenon with the development of the ebook is not so irrefutable.  Small bookstores are closing because of big bookstores.  Amazon.com certainly contributes to this, but the vast majority of their book sales are still in printed form.  Frankly, ebooks have barely begun to catch on, and are nowhere near the ubiquity needed to have a drastic impact on the book market.

The article goes on to make its connection between ebooks and Hitler by calling print media “the despised Jew of our culture”.  That’s certainly a compelling bit of phraseology there, but can Kaufman back it up?  I don’t know if he believes he can, because he seems content to let his alarmist proclamations speak for themselves.  Whatever he believes, the reality is that he’s pulling this idea out of his ass.  Books are not a cultural outcast, at least not in the sense to which Kaufman is referring.  Certainly, there is a small subculture of early Kindle devotees who believe that print media should immediately be supplanted and fade into history.  To keep the Godwin theme going, there is also a small subculture of people who believe Hitler was right.  I will concede that these groups do have one thing in common: they do not represent society in any significant way.

There are times when I feel the art of the book is threatened on a cultural level.  This feeling is brought on not by new technology, but by a cultural trend that, as a bookseller, I can’t help noticing on a daily basis.  We live in a society that does not value its literacy.  In this, our enlightened first world, there are people who disdain reading as an unpleasant chore to be completed only when necessary.  Note, this disdain is directed not at the printed page, but at the act of reading itself.  I could rant for hours about this particular problem, but that’s a post for another day.  The point here is that where Kaufman sees a cultural aversion to books and blames the ebook, I see the same and attribute it to a much deeper problem of anti-intellectualism in popular culture.

Kaufman goes on to blame the market for the supposed downfall of the book, claiming that the more people buy ebooks, the fewer people buy print books.  That much is true.  As more people purchase ebooks, sales of printed material will likely decline.  And I agree that this will eventually happen.  I don’t see it happening in the next ten years, however, and there is certainly no noticeable sign of it now.  He is correct that publishers see books as a profit-venue first and artistic expression second if at all.  This explains why Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer are bestsellers while some of the best writers you’ll ever read labour on in obscurity.  Selling to the lowest common denominator is a surefire way to maximise profit.  When the lowest common denominator accepts the Kindle, I can see some sort of visible shift occurring.  That hasn’t happened yet, and I doubt it will happen soon.  The human mob has always been resistant to change.

A summary of the paragraphs above: Small bookstores are closing because they cannot compete with larger businesses, not because electronic books are impacting book sales.  Literature has fallen to the fringe of pop culture because people would rather watch TV than read, not because ebooks are forcing paper into obsolescence.  Publishers are in it to make money, which results in truly terrible but marketable books getting more love than good books that won’t reach a large demographic, but has no impact on the print vs. electronic argument.

Now that we’ve clarified the ways in which Mr. Kaufman is wrong, I would like to take a moment to explain why this article bothers me.  Clearly, the writer has a problem with ebooks.  Based on his choice of wording, I would say he has a monumental problem with them.  As one nears the end of his article, it becomes clear that the agenda is personal.  He considers printed books to be “sacred”, and integral to culture.  According to Kaufman, as soon as books are transferred to an electronic medium, they lose all cultural value.  Therein lies one of my two problems.

What is so important about paper?  At the moment, I would rather buy a printed book than read an ebook, but that’s because I find reading off of a computer screen uncomfortable, and am uninterested in spending however many hundred dollars it would take to buy an ebook reader.  The problem with ebooks right now is one of practicality and convenience, not of morality.  If a book is read electronically instead of on a page, is the content affected in any way?  No.  You might not enjoy reading ebooks, but don’t use the content to excuse your disdain for the medium.  It is naive at best and deceitful at worst.

The other, more obvious problem with the article is the repeated use of alarmist comparisons, to fascism, terrorism and unpopular history, to inflate the perceived problem.  I cannot, with a straight face, compare ebooks to the Third Reich.  To call this embryonic technological movement “a catastrophe of holocaustal proportions” is ridiculous to the point of absurdity, and I find it insulting that the writer apparently thinks we will simply accept these statements and be appropriately terrified.  Far worse is the realisation that, somewhere on the internet, there are readers impressionable enough to believe Kaufman’s claims without seeking to verify them.  Even if we are not all foolish enough to jump on this particular alarmist bandwagon, someone will be, and Kaufman seems content to exploit that credulity if it means people will agree with his narrow and poinless ideal.

So, Alan Kaufman, you are at best either an idiot or a self-important jackass who would manipulate the gullible and small minded to gain a following.  At worst, you are both.  If asked for my opinion, I would suggest the latter.

October 20, 2009 Posted by | Books, Rant, Technology | , , , , | 8 Comments