Sunday, June 16, 2013

Roth Wrapped in Bacon?

What would his mother think?

Roth, of course, is recently minted octogenarian Philip Roth, and the wrapping in question is the unmistakable yellow cover of Portnoy’s Complaint designed by Paul Bacon. 

The Rothmania that swept the literary world (and Newark, NJ) on the occasion of the author’s 80th birthday in March, has subsided by now, but it had me looking at early Philip Roth book covers. There’s a lovely Goodbye Columbus cover by Paul Rand, and quite a stylish constructivist cover for the Zuckerman Bound compilation. But nothing beats the 1969 cover of Portnoy’s Complaint for iconic simplicity.

The color yellow, in publishing, has always signified salacious or scandalous content (French yellow books, yellow journalism, etc,). Furthermore, the associative meaning of the color had recently been reinforced in the public mind with the release of the film, I Am Curious (Yellow). Given the amount of sex and nudity consumed today as standard fare on screens of all sizes, it is hard for us now to imagine the shock caused by the Swedish import when it opened here in 1967. The film is now famously remembered as America’s first exposure to explicit sex on the big screen outside of a porn house.

Likewise, Portnoy’s Complaint delivered explicit sexuality (often of a solitary nature) from a literary author, to a mainstream readership. The hilariously vulgar novel debuted to an outraged public that, immediately, put it on the bestseller list.

Paul Bacon had recently hit upon a very commerce-friendly approach to cover design, which became known as the Big Book Look. He could deftly distill a novel’s essence into a single, small conceptual image, which he would combine with bold typography for the book title and author’s name. In an interview with Steven Heller, Bacon explains the pivotal role Portnoy’s Complaint played in the evolution of his design style.
Asked why he avoided his signature conceptual image, Bacon says it was because of the difficulty in portraying the book’s most prominent element: masturbation. But also, “In color, it was just so simple and raw.” He continues: “This was one of the things I started to do for books like Sophie’s Choice – that were strictly lettering covers – which in some ways I suppose was a coward’s way out. But it just seemed appropriate for these enormously complicated books.” Given the epic roots of Sophie’s Choice and Ragtime, Bacon felt that attempting to do anything other than a solution that proclaimed “Important book – read it!” would not work. “I guess that’s kind of a dumb thing to say, but it was at the back of my mind,” he admits.
This is a terrific example of how often "brilliant design" is a matter of instinct. Though Bacon claimed that the lack of “content” was a “coward’s way out,” the cover’s broad expanse of the brightest yellow possible couldn’t have been more perfect. The blankness hints at the anonymity of the old plain brown paper wrapper, and the color assures us of sexual content. The blaring, oversized type, however, announces that this book's subject will not be kept under wraps.

And there’s actually some commonality between the designer and the author. Bacon too is having a big birthday this year—he’ll be 90 in December, both grew up in Newark NJ, and both have an astonishing number of best sellers under their belts. While Roth’s output is admirable for its consistent critical acclaim and commercial success, Bacon’s is staggering. He’s designed over 6,000 book covers. 

You may be familiar with some of these …

Bacon designed some 200 record-album covers as well. In fact, it was through his involvement in the jazz world (read a four-part interview here) that he started designing record covers even before he concentrated on books. 

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