The Variable Look

Critic and humorist for PUNCH magazine. R. G. G. PRICE appears frequently in Accent on Living.

Bantam Books have started something all right. When reviewers differed over John Hersey’s new novel, White Lotus, some of them took it as a historical allegory; for others it was “a story of an exotic girl.” So for the paperback, the ingenious publishers have provided a choice of covers, red for lovers of exotica and white for readers who like a serious message. I can see this thing growing till it’s bigger than all of us.

In the theater, playgoers will get a choice of program. Say the play is Hamlet. Members of the audience who are hoping for a bloody revenge tragedy get a program decorated with hands dripping in gore, and misty, lowering battlements, while those who are looking forward to spending the evening on a philosophical inquiry into the Nature of Things can have an abstract design in shades of black and possibly some rather exhibitionist typography.

How dull the ordinary restaurant menu will seem when the Bantam Way gets going. Do you want Avocado Pear with Prawns or Prawns with Avocado Pear? Both will be listed so that fish lovers and fruit lovers can have the approach that appeals to them. For the bibulous, dishes will be listed under the wines they are cooked in.

I can see art galleries being influenced by this trend. Perhaps frames could be varied. Take an Italian primitive of a saint in a landscape. On the odd days of the month the frame could be all gilt and ecclesiastical and do everything it could to direct attention to the saint. On the even days, art lovers would be directed to the setting, and the frame would suggest the blueness of distance or the grayness of city walls seen in the background. Nonreprescntational work would look quite different according to whether the frames were bright or drab.

The record-album industry, which sometimes seems more inventive than the music industry, could easily provide up to half a dozen packagings for a single disc. Sometimes the original, vestigial tune would be emphasized, sometimes attention would be drawn to what the group had done to it, and sometimes the container would concentrate on the biographies of the performers. Then there could be another about the attitude to life — sorry, Life — expressed by the lyric, and why not a version devoted to the performers’ manager?

More and more sociologists are turning aside from intractable problems, like the images presented by political parties to minority groups, and compound for their pleasure in lowbrow entertainment by producing statistics about it; for these neardedicated academics there could be a special thesis-oriented album.

I can see a future for Bantam Books’s happy thought in the furniture trade. With the help of histories of the subject, you could find quite a clutch of names for those pieces on which more than one person can sit — couch, sofa, davenport, and so forth. There can be an equal freedom of description for period. If the buyer prefers “mideighteenth century” to “Chippendale” or “Georgian,” good luck to him. The man who is going to get ahead is the man who can devise seven completely different descriptions for one chest.

Naturally it will be in the book trade that this offbeat initiative bears the finest fruit. Take illustration. One illustrator, faced with the manuscript of a novel, will bring out the surface horror of the story, another will light up the humor, a third will help the reader to grasp the deep underlying symbolism. How different, after all, Alice in Wonderland’s subliminal effect would have been if it had been illustrated by Daumier instead of by Tenniel.

One surefire attraction for publishers is the past. The market for history books of one kind and another never seems to get saturated. I foresee a scries that appears in at least three versions. One is full of old prints and charming little woodcuts of milkmaids and pictures of parish churches. One is packed with charts and tables. And the one that sells best is illustrated with pictures of scaffolds and torture chambers and the sack of towns and very decollete mistresses of European kings.

Travel literature? Of course, why not? You will be able to buy your Guide to North Africa or the Caribbean in at least four separate versions. For the studious, geographically minded traveler who likes to know where he is, the book’s cover will be a map. The kind of tourist who is more interested in a country’s past than its present will be lured in by a montage of museum specimens. There are also, let’s face it, earthy travelers who regard a trip as a change of restaurant rather than a change of cultural environment; they will be able to buy the book in a mouth-watering cover that highlights the food. Even earthier travelers will get nudes.

I wonder what Mr. Hersey’s reaction was to this stroke of enterprise on the part of his publishers. Was he allowed to suggest that one cover rather than another fitted his inspiration? Did he get a chance to sketch his own ideal packaging, perhaps a design that drew attention to the prose in which White Lotus was written or even conveyed a strong impression that it was his best book to date?

I have a horrible feeling that the trend after this one will be for publishers to select covers and then hire novelists to write books to fit them.