Write Stuff – Cover Girls

Headlines about classic lit don’t usually include words like sexy, lure, and teens. But a recent ABC News article used just such provocative language in a piece about updating classic book covers. Are literary classics being sexed up to grab young readers? No, and any controversy in that headline is more like a fairy tale.

To start with, one look at the supposedly sexy covers reveals that they’re anything but. The cover of Romeo and Juliet, for example, features the lovestruck teens fully clothed and gazing longingly into each other’s eyes. Juliet’s wearing a flower garland and long skirt, with the result that She’s more fresh-faced Woodstock attendee than sultry seductress.

And the modern young Pip on the cover of Great Expectations is no bare-chested Casanova with a brooding stare. Instead, he’s a slightly mournful-looking young man who seems more Beat poet than teenaged Mellors. And Wuthering Heights? It features a close-up of a rose and the claim that the classic tale is ?Bella and Edward’s favorite book.? Yes, that Bella and Edward?the couple that took virginal angst and longing into multiple-sequel territory.

Still, It’s tempting to guard against changing the classics. They attained that status for a reason. It might be for their literary quality, or simply because they hit the right long-ago market at the right time and became (regardless of quality) entrenched in the Western canon. Whatever the reason, their original covers often speak volumes?through colour, typeface, and design?about society at the time they were written.

But That’s never been a convincing argument for leaving initial cover designs in place over the years. In fact, most of the covers we associate with the classics don’t look anything like their originals. Like this original version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, from 1865, which is worlds away from the many others that followed.

Or this oddly cell-like cover on the first Russian edition of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina from 1878; it doesn’t have quite the same celebrity appeal as this 1948 version featuring Vivian Leigh. (One interesting side note is that the first English edition, published in 1886, contained ads in both the front and back of the book.)

The point is that book covers, shapes, sizes, and even bindings have a long history of being updated to appeal to contemporary audiences?whether ?contemporary? means 1953 or 2012. The latest crop of updates simply follows that tradition.

It seems, then, there’s no need for concern about sexy book covers luring teens into classic literature. As for using provocative headlines to bolster click rates?well, on that point I’m not so sure.

S.D. Livingston is the author of several books, including the new suspense novel Kings of Providence. Visit her website for information on her writing (and for more musings on the literary world!).

%d bloggers like this: