Dog In the Night

It is common for the jackets of literary fiction to be changed when published in other countries. A work of fiction may have a different cover for every country it is published in. If nothing else, this practise suggests that globalisation, with its tendency towards standardization of design, hasn’t reached the literary novel.

‘Cultural inappropriateness’ is the reason usually given for changing a cover design. However, ‘commercial inappropriateness’ is probably a more accurate reason. A design that works in the USA, for example, may be deemed unsuitable for the Italian market. A brief search on the various national Amazon sites throws up some interesting cover ‘make-overs’, and my far from scientific researches (and years spent buying and browsing books on both sides of the Atlantic) tell me that covers originating in the UK are frequently changed when they are published in the US.

This is confirmed by Susanne Dean, the London-based creative director of heavyweight publisher Random House. Her UK cover designs are routinely changed for US publication. A recent example is her design (Fig. 1) for Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. A book about an autistic child who sees the world with searing, un-metaphorical clarity, it has won a number of major literary prizes and has become a bona fide bestseller in the UK. It is that rare phenomenon, a work of genuine literary merit which is read by adults and children.

Dean’s witty, illustrative cover, with its vernacular typography and run-over dog, is acknowledged within the UK publishing trade as a commercial and artistic success. It neatly captures the dead-pan allure of Haddon’s unusual tale, and appeals equally to young and old – no easy task for the modern designer. But Dean’s design horrified the book’s American publisher: ‘If we put this out, we’d sell three copies,’ they said. The American cover (Fig. 2) is blandly neutral in comparison: the design is mainly typographic with a graphic of an upturned dog as the only concession to the story’s central motif. It looks as if the US publisher is attempting the difficult balancing act of trying to appeal to both the young and the not-so-young, but only succeeding in crash landing somewhere in between.

Design interest in this extraordinary book doesn’t end there, either. The following review by the British literary critic John Mullan in The Guardian Review, a highbrow supplement to The Guardian newspaper, caught my eye: "Many readers," Mullan notes, "will have their experience of Mark Haddon’s novel shaped by a technical peculiarity of which they might not be conscious. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time uses a sans serif font: that is, a simple kind of print in which letters lack the little tails and plinths that printers call serifs. This is highly unusual in any published book; the convention is that serifs help the brain’s visual apparatus as a line of print is scanned. The tiny thickenings and thinnings of the limbs of every letter give the eye something to catch on to. Sans serif fonts may be used in advertisements, headlines and the like, but their simplicity is almost physically uncomfortable in any lengthy text."

It’s worth quoting Mullan at length (he’s a senior lecture in English at University College London, as well as a prolific critic) because it is unusual to find any prominence given to typography outside the design press. And even more unusual to find remarks about a book’s typography within a serious review in a national newspaper. Mullan spotted that the use of a sans serif font (Frutiger) aided the author’s intent: "The font’s discomforting simplicity," he states, "is perfectly suited to Haddon’s narrator, Christopher, in all his pedantic veracity (sometimes just cataloguing or enumerating) and the plainness is even there in the lettering."

The book’s design was by Peter Ward. The text is interspersed with illustrations, diagrams, equations, charts, maps and other graphic ephemera. Ward is reluctant to take much credit for the use of the sans serif font, but is fulsome in his praise of Mark Haddon and the book’s editor Dan Franklin. "The font was probably Mark’s idea," he states. "I was given the manuscript and I was instantly struck by it. It was wonderful, and the job of translating Christopher’s thoughts and speech was a designer’s dream. A really wonderful job."

Ward also designed the text for Irving Welsh’s ‘Filth’, in which a wandering tape worm makes frequent appearances. It is not unknown for novelists to be interested in typography. Evelyn Waugh was a noted connoisseur of typography and collector of fine printing; in the current era Dave Eggers takes a sharp-eyed interest in the typographic construction of his books. But it is rare within literary fiction, where semantic and conceptual adventurousness are highly prized, to find alternatives to justified blocks of serif type.

It’s worth noting that the American publisher did not retain the use of Frutiger for the book’s text. What does this tell us about the difference between UK and US graphic perception? I wouldn’t presume to guess.