Don’t judge a book by its cover
How often are we seduced by the cover and let down by the contents?
You remember the old proverb. It was drummed into our heads by our parents and teachers. ‘Don’t make hasty negative judgements about people based on their appearance.’ Well I’m here to turn that old wisdom on its head and warn you not to have too high expectations of a novel based on the quality of its cover design.
How often have you picked up a book because of its arresting art work, but then got to the end of it thinking either (in Peggy Lee’s immortal words) ‘Is that all there is?’, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!’, ‘What a waste of a good story!’ or, worst of all, ‘How did this rubbish get published?!’ It’s at times like these I’m glad that, being poor, I get most of my reading matter from the library. I’d hate to spend thirty odd dollars on a book and end up feeling cheated as well as short changed!
Spoiler alerts: these studies go into great depth.
Part One: Is that all there is?
The Lost Letters of Aquitaine (aka The Canterbury Papers) by Judith Koll Healey (Harper Collins 2005) is based on an interesting premise. Ms Healey has resurrected one of the lost women of history, Alaïs, Henry II’s young mistress, a girl who had been destined to marry his son Richard and had been brought up as one of the children of his household. (If you have seen The Lion in Winter, you might remember her.)
We pick up Alaïs more than twenty years later, middle aged and unmarried, living in the household of her half-brother, the king of France. Tired of her half-life as a virtual non-person, Alaïs is planning to retire to her country estate when she receives a message from Eleanor of Aquitaine. The messenger, a trusted and noble retainer of the late King Henry, carries a letter from Eleanor pleading with Alaïs to cross the Channel to Canterbury Cathedral and retrieve a hidden cache of letters she wrote to Thomas à Becket many years earlier. As an inducement, Eleanor promises Alaïs information about the son she bore to Henry who was taken from her at birth.
Already the reader suspects a set up. Eleanor hates and mistrusts Alaïs and the feelings are mutual. Why would she ask her to undertake such a mission, a mission that could, depending on the content of the letters, put Eleanor in Alaïs’ power? And why send a woman when the very man who carries the message is quite capable of carrying out the mission on his own? Who, we wonder, is being set up here, Alaïs, or the reader?
Although a pleasant enough read, and competently written, The Lost Letters of Aquitaine time and again sets up expectations that are not met. The novel begins with a sensationalist prologue in which Alaïs is kidnapped. (This is the latest trend which is meant to meet readers’ perceived expectations of a rape, murder or kidnapping in the first two pages of a novel. If, heaven forbid, this is not forthcoming in the text, ie the text starts at the beginning of the story and not at its climax, the deficiency is made up for with a prologue which anticipates it.) Later we find that Alaïs was never in any actual danger as her kidnapper is her old childhood companion, now King John, who, although unstable, has no real intention of harming her.
On reaching Canterbury, Alaïs finds that the acting abbot of the monastery is another childhood friend, William, an orphan who was also raised in Henry’s court. Meeting him brings back painful memories of her relationship with Henry and the night, when Alaïs was barely sixteen, that Henry came to her bedroom giving her no say in the outcome. William, we are later told, was acting as Henry’s trusted secretary at the time and they were also very close. Finally, we learn that when Henry and Eleanor split up, all of the older children took Eleanor’s side while Henry kept only John, the youngest, with him.
Given this build up, and hints in other literature that Henry was partial to both boys and girls, the reader is led to believe that a dramatic revelation is coming, that Henry seduced William, as well as Alaïs, and perhaps, given the instability we witnessed earlier, sexually abused John. We read on in breathless anticipation, but nothing comes of it. Why is this? Did the writer not see for herself the expectations she had created? Did she begin going along that path and then pull back for fear of what — being politically incorrect, veering into melodrama? Or was she just leaving a convenient opening for a sequel?
Eventually, Alaïs finds out all about her son, but not from Eleanor, and the letters contain no startling revelations, so what was it all about? Why is the novel so disappointing? There is a clue early in the text when Alaïs is on her way to Calais and comes across her uncle and his party. Remember now, we are still in France and the people we are with are all French. So what language would you expect them to be speaking? Well, the party is joined by an Arab scholar, who, we are told, speaks lightly accented English. It is only one word, but it speaks volumes. Why didn’t anyone pick up this small, but obvious, error? What was the editor doing? Was the book actually edited at all?
It is one word that confirms my theory: that modern publishing houses put more resources into the cover artwork than into editing the text. And why is this? Because basically they want the public to buy the book, to pick it up off the shelf, to handle it, to take it to the checkout. They care very little whether you actually read it. They see editing not as an investment, but as an expense. They have no interest in cultivating an author. If an author’s second book doesn’t succeed, who cares? There are plenty more where she came from.
Part Two: You’ve got to be kidding!
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks (Fourth Estate 2001) is a beautifully written book. Set in 1665/6, and inspired by actual events, the novel tells the tale of a remote village in northern England which contracts the Plague from an infected bolt of cloth sent up from London. Inspired by their charismatic young rector, the villagers decide to quarantine themselves so as not to spread the contagion.
The effects of this dramatic undertaking are witnessed by Anna, a young widow, and housemaid to the rector and his aristocratic wife. Although inexperienced, in these extreme circumstances Anna discovers in herself a talent as a healer and midwife and in this role comes into contact with all aspects of village life. And, in her position as housemaid and confidante to the rector’s wife, Anna discovers the tragic secret behind their seemingly ideal marriage.
For the most part, the reader is enthralled by the story, characters and poetic language, but every now and then one is left shaking one’s head. Anna sometimes seems to have superhuman powers. Having only learnt about midwifery by observing her long dead mother, on her first call out to attend a birth, Anna manages to turn a breech baby in the womb, an achievement found difficult by the most skilled midwife. And we sometimes feel like warning the author that her research is showing. Trying to maintain an orphaned girl’s claim on a tin mine, Anna and her genteel mistress don breeches to go underground and do some mining, explosives and all. It is as though the author, having done so much reading on tin-mining, is determined to get it in there, no matter how unlikely the circumstances might be.
The author’s modern sensibilities are also in evidence. Anna is shocked and indignant when she discovers the secret of the rector’s marriage. As arrogant and self-righteous as the rector might be in the penance he extracts from his wife for a youthful indiscretion, it is not physically cruel or out of keeping with the time. In fact, for his time, the rector’s actions are quite enlightened and even compassionate. The climax of the novel is, in large measure, unrelated to the effects of the Plague, and its main function seems to be to blacken the rector’s character even further. The author seems to be at pains to make the point that all men are bastards, and all priests are hypocrites.
The ending, too, strains credulity. Fleeing from England, Anna fortuitously finds herself in north Africa, in the very town where the author of the medical reference she has been studying lives. There, with little ado, she is taken into this Arab doctor’s household, ostensibly as one of his wives, but in reality as his student. The reader can only take it as a surreal moment of wishful thinking.
Part Three: What a waste of a good story!
Despite earlier disappointments, I once again found my eye caught by a sumptuous cover which promised so much more than it delivered, The Devil and Maria D’Avalos by Victoria Hammond (Allen & Unwin, 2007). Sporting the beautiful Venus of Urbino by Titian, and an evocative blurb, it seemed to offer a novel of both beauty and passion. However, even though I picked up the book for free from my local library, I felt seriously short changed.
On the 16 October, 1590 in Naples, Maria d’Avalos and her lover Fabrizio Carafa were horrifically murdered by Maria’s husband Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Vanosa. Carlo avoided legal retribution as the authorities found his action to be justified. He even escaped revenge from the two powerful families the lovers belonged to. Nor did his action render him unfit for society, for he soon remarried into the prestigious d’Este family. But his hold on sanity was tenuous for the rest of his life. Tormented and erratic, Gesualdo was a brilliant composer, whose prophetic music sank into oblivion until it was rediscovered in the mid-twentieth century.
It was through a television documentary on Gesualdo and his music that art historian Victoria Hammond discovered Maria d’Avalos. Here was a story of colour and passion and it is no wonder that the author was drawn to it. As a published writer of non-fiction, she was able to get a grant to visit Italy and research the story on the ground, a chance any novelist would die for. It is a pity, therefore, that this priceless opportunity was so sadly squandered.
Hammond has written about art and history, and I have no doubt from some of her writing here that her books on those subjects are well worth reading. But I’m afraid her writing talents do not stretch to fiction, if fiction this book is, for, although the author calls it a fiction, the publishers categorise it as biography.
Although her characters are well defined, Hammond has difficulty with some of the basic elements of fiction writing. Her dialogue is stodgy at best, her scene setting lacks momentum, as does her structure. Ironically, Hammond’s writing only takes off in the last couple of chapters in the book, after Maria’s death, when she drops all pretence at writing fiction and starts writing history.
Those final chapters give us a glimpse of what this book might have been if Hammond’s editors had had the wisdom to guide her in the right direction. If she had approached this book as history, with all the story had to offer in the way of characters and settings; art, architecture and music; passion and human frailty, she could have produced something like John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (only better). Instead what we have is a great story gone to waste.
Reading this book as I have between self-published historical novels, I am reminded again of the old chestnut: it ain’t what you know… Why are these other novels, which are so much better than this one, unable to find a publisher, while this novel not only gets published, but gets a government grant?
I wish Victoria Hammond well as an art historian, and hope she continues to be published in her own field. I just wish she would leave fiction to those whose talents lie in that field.
Part Four: How did this rubbish get published?!
I’m afraid that I cannot write a complete review of The Innocent by Posie Graeme-Evans (Simon & Schuster 2004) as I could not finish it. (I had no intention at the time of writing a review!) Already put off by the sloppy writing, fantastical characterisation and implausible plotting, I had to put the book aside when I got to the pornographic sex.
Born under strange circumstances, Anne is brought up in Arcadian innocence in an enchanted forest, learning about the healing power of herbs. When she reaches her teenage years, she is taken from this isolated and idyllic life directly into the heart of the city of London and put into the household of a powerful merchant with links to the court. The merchant’s wife is dying of a mysterious disease which all the best doctors in London cannot cure, but after very little persuasion, the master of the house happily follows his newest maidservant’s advice to dismiss all these eminent doctors and allow her to take sole charge of his wife. Of course, the woman is miraculously cured and one can already anticipate how Anne will come to the King’s attention. Meanwhile, one of Anne’s fellow maids has become pregnant as the result of a sadomasochistic sexual relationship, complete with whips, with the son of the house. Is it any wonder I felt no need to continue?
I had to ask myself how this amateurish effort could have been published, and, I now find, go on to spawn a whole series. I guess the old saw is still valid: You’ll never go broke underestimating the taste of the public. And who is the author that she should so well understand this fact? She is just an executive of Australia’s major commercial television network which is owned by one of the country’s biggest companies with extensive holdings in publishing. Does that answer my question? And to add insult to injury, soon after this book’s publication, Simon & Schuster announced they would no longer publish new Australian authors. What a swansong!
So, the next time you find yourself drawn to an attractive cover in a bookshop, pause before taking it to the cashier. Are you really willing to pay that much for the artwork alone? If so, proceed to the cash register. If not, you might do what many of us do: take a note of the title and request it from your local library!
©Pauline Montagna 2006/2008
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Originally published at http://www.paulinemontagna.com.au.