There will be mention a little later in this column of all the great ones. Hemingway and Wolfe, Steinbeck and O’Hara. J.D. (for disappearing act) Salinger.
But as this column opens, we are concerned with Ruth Harris, author of the probably soon to be best-selling novel The Rich and the Beautiful. This column opens in the new downtown Burrow’s store on Euclid Avenue, which is itself having a grand opening. George Klein, Jr., of the George R Klein News Company, is standing in the store gazing in consternation at several copies of The Rich and the Beautiful which are arrayed in strange fashion on the book rack.
George Klein’s specialty is distributing and moving most of the magazines and paperback books in northern Ohio. Some days before, the people who work for him had delivered copies of The Rich and the Beautiful to this Burrows. There, a book display had been assembled.
The Rich and the Beautiful, you see, is one of those newfangled books which people do not necessarily buy because of what is inside them. There used to be a saying amongst the literary set that “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” But that saying is no longer true. These days, a book is judged by its cover and often its cover is the only thing worthy of judgment.
The Bantam book people, who printed The Rich and the Beautiful had, when designing its cover, experienced a brainstorm. At first they had considered a tried and true cover featuring a mostly naked lady. It is pretty hard to go wrong with a mostly naked lady cover but the problem is that, since everybody else uses mostly naked ladies too, it is pretty hard to go really right with one.
So, somebody at Bantam got this super idea. Why not display copies of The Rich and the Beautiful in display boxes designed to hold nine books; three across and three down? Each book cover would be designed like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle. That is to say, each book cover would show part of a mostly naked lady. So that when you displayed all nine, lined up in the right order, a mostly naked lady would, so to speak, materialize before your eyes. A materialistic idea, Bantam thought. So that is what was done.
And George Klein’s company had distributed the books, complete with assembly instructions. But now, as George Klein stood in Burrows, he saw that something had gone very wrong.
For, in the hustle and bustle of its grand opening, Burrows had dismantled the Rich and Beautiful display and had placed the books on regular book racks.
This action had chilling results.
Pieces of mostly naked lady anatomy were scattered everywhere on the shelves — here an arm; there a thigh; over here an ankle. It looked to George Klein as if an ax murder had been committed — a bloodless but grotesque ax murder. Hurriedly, he turned the books over so the back cover showed. This, at least, carried the book’s title. And a little promotional blurb. “From Monte Carlo to the sun-kissed islands of the Caribbean ... the sensational, sensuous novel of the golden people ....”
The really golden people these days are the paperback book publishers. It might be said that they have revolutionized American literature. Yeah, that might be said. But not by me. What they have done, it seems, is create a non-literature.
What they have revolutionized is the American book cover. The American book “concept.”
I bought a copy of The Rich and the Beautiful. (Mine features a glimpse of bare shoulder and a pot of roses.) Inside the cover ... and this, admittedly, is a subjective analysis ... inside the cover, there was no book. Oh, there were words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, orgasms and so forth. But no book. Just 278 pages of completely forgettable prose.
“A lot of books these days are time-killers,” George Klein says. “The biggest sales are in airport terminals and places like the Terminal Tower at the end of the Rapid line. You can read these books to kill time. And then, after you read them, you can forget them.”
Paperback publishers, Klein explains, want high volume sales. And get them. During a recent week, a novel called Sophie’s Choice, by William Styron (a respected author for his age), was enjoying a hard-cover distribution of 200,000 copies. This led the hard-cover best-seller list. During the same week, a novel called Wifey (featuring a partly naked lady cover) came in number five on the paperback list of best-sellers. Wifey was enjoying a printing of two million, eight hundred and thirty-five thousand copies. As a book, Wifey is hardly worth mentioning. As a book “concept,” Wifey was a kind of masterpiece.
“The average paperback book has a shelf life of two weeks,” Klein says. If it is going to live longer than that, a book must have something going for it. It must have merit. Not literary merit, of course. Marketing merit.
Some years ago, the folks at Bantam decided to try printing a book with different-colored covers. The book, a good one for a change, chosen for this experiment was, rather aptly, Future Shock. The “concept” was that copies of Future Shock could be displayed broadly on several book racks — red copies next to green copies next to yellow copies. The desired effect was to scream loudly for attention. The gambit worked and has been used to good effect ever since, most recently with John Irving’s The World According to Garp, an overrated, over-huckstered, multicolored concept “masterpiece” which has, to date, enjoyed a printing of 2,605,000 copies. And this without a naked lady.
The paperback publishing world is a world where no idea is too crazy to deserve a hearing and perhaps a try. Some time back, Bantam books printed an oversized copy of a book called Gnomes. On the cover was a gnome — fully clothed. Inside were more gnomes. Between the gnomes were stories about gnomes, printed in large type. This fascinating amalgamation began to sell. It is selling yet. Even in Cleveland. Nobody is sure why. One reason given is that the book is a kind of comic book. Another reason is that the book, with its large pictures and simple words, reminds people of a television program. For whatever reason. Gnomes was a concept masterpiece. Bantam is currently and confidently preparing a sequel called Fairies.
Hemingway, Wolfe, Steinbeck, O’Hara, Salinger. I promised I’d mention them in this column. But it is hard to shoehorn them in here. Years ago, these men struggled to produce art. As best they could, they tried to tell the truth about the human condition. This was considered a noble enterprise.
There are few noble enterprises left. There are few Hemingways, Wolfes, Steinbecks, 0’Haras or Salingers left either. Especially in paperback. The art these days is the art of huckster-ism. That art is admirable perhaps, but it is not noble. The heroine of The Rich and the Beautiful is Jai Jai Valerian, “the most desirable woman in the world, greedy for pleasure, in love with the only man in the universe rich enough to afford her.”
Jai Jai Valerian can neither teach us nor comfort us. All she can do is relieve us of $1.79. She can tell us nothing about the human condition. It is possible that the human condition has deteriorated to the extent that it should not be discussed. It is possible that the best book about the human condition in print these days is Gnomes. Hell, as they say in the world of paperback publishing, anything is possible.
This story originally appeared in Cleveland Magazine's November 1979 issue.