Last week, Africa Is a Country, a blog that documents and skewers Western misconceptions of Africa, ran a fascinating story about book design. It posted a collage of 36 covers of books that were either set in Africa or written by African writers. The texts of the books were as diverse as the geography they covered: Nigeria, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique. They were written in wildly divergent styles, by writers that included several Nobel Prize winners. Yet all of books’ covers featured an acacia tree, an orange sunset over the veld, or both.
"In short," the post said, "the covers of most novels ‘about Africa’ seem to have been designed by someone whose principal idea of the continent comes from The Lion King.”
Read more. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]
I came of age without a literary soulmate. Growing up, I read every book recommended to me. Nick Carraway’s lucid account of the 1920’s seduced me. Huck Finn’s journey up the river showed me the close link between maturity and youth, and Ray Bradbury taught me to be wary of big government as well as the burning temperature of paper. While the male characters of literature built countries, waged wars, and traveled while smoking plenty of illicit substances, the women were utterly boring.
The assigned, award-winning, cannon-qualified books about women were about women I didn’t want to be. Jane Eyre was too blinded by her love for Mr. Rochester, as were all of the Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice. Hester Prynne of The Scarlet Letter was too maternal, and no one wants to grow up to be Anna Karenina. These women wanted to get married and have kids. They wanted to whine for 300 pages about a man who didn’t want to be with them. They wanted, it seemed, to be supporting actresses in their own stories. Their stories were equally about the men who shaped them as what they themselves wanted.
These female characters had love stories of heartbreak, but no stories of solitary self-discovery.
Read more. [Image: BBC]
Jane Eyre.Wuthering Heights.The Awakening.The Lifted Veil. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” What these works have in common is, of course, that they’re all pieces of fiction written by women authors in the 19th century. Undoubtedly as a result, they all share an explicit or latent fixation with the domestic sphere to which so many women were relegated at the time — and with the psychological implications of that confinement.
These are the subjects of Julia Callon’s Houses of Fiction, a series of photographed models that depict rooms from these novels, exploring both their sedate surfaces and their chaotic subtext. “The dichotomous representation of women — mad or sane — is crucial to represent in this series,” Callon writes. “Therefore, each story is presented as a diptych: one image represents the passive, subservient woman, while the other represents ‘madness.’”
Publishers like short stories, and they love novels. But when a writer submits a mid-length work that falls somewhere between two genres, booksellers balk and editors narrow their eyes. This is the domain of the novella, an unfairly neglected literary art form that’s been practiced for centuries by celebrated writers—from Charles Dickens to Jane Smiley to Alain Mabanckou—yet faces an ongoing struggle for commercial viability. “For me, the word denotes a lesser genre,” literary agent Karolina Sutton told The Guardian in 2011. “If you pitch a book to a bookseller as a novel, you’re likely to get more orders than if you call it a novella.”
Mid-length works suffer from a koan-like criticism: They’re too short and they’re also too long. Novellas hog too much space to appear in magazines and literary journals, but they’re usually too slight to release as books. If a reader’s going to spend 16 bucks, the notion goes, he wants to take home a Franzen-size tome—not a slim volume he can slip in a jacket pocket. […]
Now the beleaguered genre, at long last, has found a worthy and consistent champion: Melville House Publishing, whose "Art of the Novella" series is an ongoing celebration of the form. The Brooklyn-based press offers 47—and counting—novellas from writers like Cervantes, Jane Austen, Anton Chekhov, Joseph Conrad, Mark Twain, and Virginia Woolf. Specifically drawing attention to the novella’s brevity, diversity, and lineage of distinguished practitioners, the series is the first of its kind.
Each sleek, modernist edition comes suited in a monochrome cover with French flaps. There are no blurb quotes, no graphics or illustrations. Just the author’s name, the title, and on the back, a pull quote. At nine dollars each, they’re a steal.
Read more. [Image: Melville House]