Judging a Book by its Cover: The Jaws That Bite

Jaws That Bite Header

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; one should never judge a book by its cover. However, that’s exactly what I am going to do. In my defense I have to point out that with every single one of the books that I select for this series of blog posts I have read the books themselves. So, really what I should be saying is that you can’t judge a cover without its book. You cannot assess the effectiveness of a piece of cover art without knowing the book it was meant to represent.

A little more on that later.

The Jaws That Bite, The Claws That Catch by Michael G. Coney is a minor work of science fiction which has not had very favourable treatment from its cover art in any edition.

Michael Coney was a British science fiction writer who spent the later half of his life in Canada. He was a pleasant and very congenial man, however, in the last interview that he gave before his death he said; “I’ve nearly always been disgusted by my cover art… The worst was the DAW cover to The Jaws that Bite, the Claws that Catch.”

Freas_Jaws That BiteThat artwork in question is by famed science fiction artist Frank Kelly Freas who has produced some of the most memorable science fiction cover art. This, however, is not one of his best efforts.

The cover has a rather uninspired, almost insipid, colour scheme featuring mostly yellows. It depicts a naked woman strategically covered with blue star shapes. Behind her is a rather cartoonish, almost comical shark creature with legs and feet. Well, one, at least. The naked woman covers up most of the beast and its hind features are obscured.

THJWSTHTBT1975The naked woman has an metal hand which holds the shark creature’s chain. In the background are vague, plant-like shapes. Freas’ artwork was never, strictly speaking, realistic. His figures are always highly stylized. The same is the case here, but somehow it comes across less as stylization and more cartoonish. The woman’s head is larger in proportion to her body, it seems and her hair, rendered in bright white pastel, curves and flows around her head in an impossible manner.

The woman is meant to be a character from the book, Joanna, a prisoner with whom the main character is obsessed. The land sharks feature heavily in the text although they are far more menacing in the book than the rather comical creature that Freas presents us with.

The book’s setting, a community built up around the wreckage of an old ocean vessel, and the ocean itself, plays a big part in the story as it is the venue for which the main characters engage in a sport called sling gliding. None of that is depicted by Freas.

16179It is, however, depicted on the cover of a British edition of the book which sports an alternate title: The Girl With a Symphony in Her Fingers. This cover from a 1975 hardback edition from Elmfield Press features a depiction of the main character (presumably) engaging in the sport of sling gliding against a pink sky. Behind the intense expressioned figure you can see a little bit of the bay and its boats which figure prominently throughout the text. Unfortunately I could not ascertain who the artist was.

Is it a better cover? Somewhat. It is still stylized, but it is not nearly as sexy as the Freas cover with all its absurdities. The title, as well, seems somewhat incongruous alongside a depiction of what looks like an ultra-manly activity. The girl, her fingers and the symphony are nowhere to be seen.

I said earlier that one cannot assess the effectiveness of a piece of cover art without knowing the book it was meant to represent. The problem with publishing, and particularly with artwork, is that a lot of the time the artist is not given the entire text of the novel he or she is hired to illustrate. Sometimes a breif is given to the artist by the art director, describing what is needed. That gulf necessarily gets filled in by the artist’s imagination and preferences. The cover is meant to move units off the shelf to the cash register, after all. Sometimes the content of the book tends to get lost in that shuffle.

Sometimes a striking image is all that is desired to sell a complex text. Whether or not the image is appropriate to the object it is advertising is, for the most part, immaterial.

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  1. In the fist cover, the artwork seems to show a porn novel. In the second, the title seems to show a porn novel. In both cases I am so intrigue to see why the publishers decided for those covers that somehow I want to read the book. A fail success? or a successful failure?

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