Frankie and I disagree about many things. But we have had one argument for as long as we have known each other, probably. It is as fundamental as “where the sun sets”; a difference which probably defines each of us: it makes me irredeemably shallow, and her delusional.
It hasn’t cropped up recently (one advantage of not-being-talked-to), but once again she raised it today, on Facebook. So I decided to set out my case here.
It revolves around books. And at its simplest, the impact that book covers can have. I accept that book covers can influence my choice of books; Frankie believes she is above and beyond the influence of designers, illustrators and publishers, and that their skillful manipulation of emotions and, particularly, purchasing behaviour have no effect on her. None whatsoever.
I think this is just bunkum. Even if she might choose to pretend otherwise, book covers must have some influence over her. It could be a negative one, determining her to ignore their impelling her to buy. But an effect they must have.
Worse, she is a psychologist. Her subject is about the working of the brain; and we know that the brain works in a very strange way indeed. Much of our decision making happens without us being aware of it; even when we think we make rational choices and decisions, we’re usually fooling ourselves and really just going along with what our reptile-brains want to do anyway.
It is her wilful ignorance of this – her assertion that book covers make no difference to her at all – that gets me.
I think book covers can make a huge difference. When I go into a book shop – not a rare occurrence, I must say – and I’m confronted by the choice of thousands upon thousands of different books, of course the covers matter. If a book cover fails to catch my eye, I won’t even be aware that I’ve not noticed it. If I like the illustration and the design, I might pick it up, look at the author, see what else they’ve written, and what the genre is (though I don’t really get the idea of genre in fiction: a story is a story is a story).
If I don’t pick up the book, I’m certainly not going to read the blurb on the back, the snippets of reviews (do I generally agree with the reviewer?) and the endorsements of fellow authors (do I like their work?).
It is particularly important for authors new to me. How else am I to judge whether I might like a book or not? I have nothing else to go on. The cover tells me a lot: it sends all sorts of signals. Even the publisher’s imprint tells me a lot about a book.
Put simply, the cover has to attract me – and there are a huge number of ways for it to do so; but that is its job, and to pretend that it is possible to ignore all those messages is pretence.
Frankie might want to believe that the art on a book jacket doesn’t tell her something, that she never reads the blurb, that she doesn’t look at the endorsements. Maybe she’d like to pretend she doesn’t even buy books.
But I don’t believe her.