This post has been corrected.
One of the best new books this fall is the toast of the literary elite—but you might well be embarrassed to be seen reading it.
Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a Lost Child, the final novel in her acclaimed Neapolitan series, was released in English on Sept. 1. The series begins in post-War Naples and spans 60 years of friendship between two women. Staggering and intoxicating, heavy with violence and psychological warfare, the books tell a “beautiful and delicate tale of confluence and reversal,” according to the New Yorker’s James Wood. The Los Angeles Review of Books calls the books “searingly intense parables of artistic creation.”
But the artistic creations on the books’ covers have found less acclaim. They feature a baffling aesthetic, evocative of nothing so much as a $4 romance book found in an American gas station.
Ferrante’s books are bestsellers, sure, but they’re no 50 Shades of Grey. They are those unicorn commercial successes with profound literary merit.
But you wouldn’t know it by their covers. As one tweeter put it:
“People I know who love these books hate these covers,” design critic Steve Heller, who was the art director of The New York Times Book Review for nearly thirty years, tells Quartz. “These things look like Hallmark cards or bad romance novels. The cover for The Story of a New Name looks like a Viagra commercial.”
The designs might be victims of the books’ success, says Erik Carter, who has designed a number of books at another publishing house, New Directions. “Any sort of best seller has to go through a process with a major publishing house,” he explains. “They have to appease the author, publisher, and marketing department. Then some crazy watered-down thing comes out.”
But Sandro Ferri, Europa Editions’ publisher, says the covers were not an accident of too many cooks in the design kitchen, but rather a conscious choice. Writes Ferri in an email to Quartz, “The ‘vulgarity’ is our intention. We don’t want to make the typical ‘literary’ cover designed for an audience of ultra-sophisticated readers. … Ferrante’s novels are a mix of popular literature and highbrow, intellectual writing. We want to communicate this though our covers as well.”
The US and Italian covers, designed by Emanuele Ragnisco, are the same. Quartz reached out to Ragnisco, but he did not respond with a comment on the covers.
Though Ferri says that the intended irony is evident to fans, it appears to be lost on an American audience, for whom the cover designs evoke the aesthetic of Lurlene McDaniel or Danielle Steel. If the intention was irony, says Heller, “They’re not vulgar enough. They’re generic. They look like stock photographs.” Says Carter, “If they’re trying to be ironic, it would have to go further. It would have to be ten times cheesier than they are. These are the most generic, standard thing possible.”
The novels follow two girls from their childhood in a poor neighborhood in Naples as they face brutal violence, the pressures of motherhood, and the heartbreak of their own turbulent friendship against the backdrop of fascism and class warfare. The language of the characters vacillates between the high Italian of literary society and the rough dialect of their neighborhood, just as swiftly as the prose moves the reader through its compulsively readable plot, and through the lives of two complex, fierce, unknowable women.
Though these books are about women, they’re the furthest thing from the froth of “chick-lit.” But an unfortunate result of their cover designs is they risk alienating potential male readers (as well as any women who don’t wish to be seen reading pulp).
“If I didn’t know somebody who had already read the books I would never pick these things up in a million years,” says Heller.
A book’s design matters, says Penguin Random House’s Chip Kidd. In Judge This, the famed book jacket designer writes, “Whether it’s ink on paper or pixels on a screen, a book cover is not only the face of the text, it’s your primary connection to it.”
But with print book sales on the decline (pdf) and book store chains closing their doors, the elegant, striking book cover may very well be becoming less important.
Perhaps the success of the Neapolitan series, despite its covers, is an indicator that the raised lettering begging to be touched by a customer wondering the aisles of a brick-and-mortar bookstore is losing its power. Instead, the effusive tweets and rave reviews that send readers right to Amazon may be the book cover of the future.
Correction (Sept. 29 10:21 am): This post originally identified Erik Carter as an art director at New Directions. He is a designer and art director based in New York.