Book designers work hard so you can make a useful judgement from the cover: “Exciting thriller!”, “Feel-good romance”, “Tear-jerking saga, “Important literature”.
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series – the author considers it a single work in four parts – is rare in being both acclaimed literature and a sales phenomenon. Since the first part was published in 2012 (book four in 2015) the tetralogy has sold over a million copies worldwide. As a comparison, David Foster Wallace’s famous Infinite Jest from 1996 has only now achieved similar sales after 20 years. (Foster Wallace’s opus weighs in at 1,080 pages, Ferrante’s at 1,700 pages.)
Much of the intrigue about the supposedly autobiographical fiction arises from the author steadfastly remaining anonymous, as if in rebuke to our celebrity-crazed culture. Compounding this refusal of publicity, the remarkable sales have been achieved despite controversial, unloved covers. (Amazing sales despite problematic covers proves a point deflationary to designers’ egos.)
Quartz magazine asked, “Why does this brilliant, bestselling book have such a cheesy cover?” Another headline: “This bestselling book has a terrible cover. Here’s why.” For the TLS reviewer the covers suggested “bland escapism.” The UKSpectator took the trouble to note that the cover of book four “features a dreadful illustration of two little girls dressed like fairies.” In Park Slope, Brooklyn – ultimate hipsterville – a Ferrante-enthusiast bookseller described them as “forgive me – ‘chick-lit’ covers.”
Discussing the original design of book one, My Brilliant Friend, the Italian publisher, Sandra Ozzola of Europa Editions, explained:
[the novel] would conclude with a scene of a very vulgar Neapolitan wedding … an extremely important moment … That’s why I intentionally searched for a photo that was “kitsch” … vulgarity is an important aspect of the books, of all that Elena (the narrator) wants to distance herself from.
Ozzola then said they “had the feeling that many people didn’t understand the game we were playing … dressing an extremely refined story with a touch of vulgarity.”
A cover featuring a wedding of kitschy vulgarity could, if the viewer was primed, be read as an ironic response to the narrator’s personal discomfort – but, as we all know from bitter experience, irony can be notoriously hard to convey. To ensure an ironic reading, you would have to embed a winking emoji into the image. Design critic Steve Heller says, “these things look like Hallmark cards or bad romance novels. They’re not vulgar enough.”
A contrarian reading proclaims that the covers are “no joke”. Because “dismissing the covers for looking like the covers of Christian self-help books (they do!) or Nicholas Sparks novels (this too!) also dismisses the types of women who might purchase and read those kinds of books.” Which is simply perverse or reverse snobbery. One might as well say that the covers actually dismiss the types of women who revile self-help books and Nicholas Sparks novels, or indeed, the books’ narrator herself.
Everyone initially involved in the Australian edition of My Brilliant Friend – publisher, editor, marketing and publicity – was of one mind about the original Italian cover: “no”’ This was a couple of years before the spread of#FerranteFever. My design opinion was required, so I read the book. Here is what stood out to me a few pages into the opening chapter: “We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died.” This was followed by a vivid list:
One … had stepped on a nail and died of tetanus … that night was dead, crushed, the blood pouring out of his ears and mouth … killed because he fell from scaffolding … missing an arm, the lathe had caught him unawares …
The narrator maintains that brutally unsentimental tone unabated to the concluding wedding scene:
The plebeians were us. The plebeians were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better.
You had to read the book to discover that the original cover was truly ironic. Deciding to make new un-ironic covers meant that Australia is the only Anglophone country with a different set of designs.
Instead of kitschy soap opera, my design was guided by Italian art films – the cinematic, emotional appeal of Visconti, Fellini and Bertolucci. The typography was created in homage to the commercial signage of mid-century Italy. In our version, vulgarity was replaced with a sophisticated aesthetic, one that we thought far more likely to attract the readership for “an extremely refined story.”
Part of the narrative charge comes from the understanding that the narrator is an autofictional character – Elena Greco, like her creator Elena Ferrante, is also an author, and they seem to be writing each other’s story.
For the cover of the final book, The Story of the Lost Child, I chose an image one could construe as a frank depiction of the narrator, Elena aka Lenù. And so by the logic of the metafictional frame and the vacuum pressure of the author’s insistent absence, it becomes a surreptitious imaginary portrait of Elena Ferrante herself.