Friday, June 25, 2010

Synergizing the Backward Overflow...

I don’t know about you, but I spent Wednesday evening lying on my sofa, stuffing my face and indulging in a television mini-marathon. Admitting this on a book blog may appear to be the ultimate act of blasphemy, but redemption presented itself towards the end of the night in a most unlikely form: ladies and gentleman, I give you Work of Art's third episode, "Judging A Book By Its Cover."

Work of Art is Bravo’s new Project Runway-esque show that features aspiring artists. As in PR, they face a series of challenges that demand results under pressure. Each week, a panel of judges evaluates the contestants’ work, selecting a winner – and one poor soul who has to pack up their brushes and go home.

In a quantum leap from last week’s “task” – to create a work of art out of trash – Wednesday’s gauntlet was laid by none other than Kathryn Court, the venerated publisher of Penguin. The assignment? Create a new cover for one of six Penguin Classics titles: Frankenstein, The Time Machine, Pride and Prejudice, Dracula, Alice in Wonderland, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The prize? Their art on the jacket of a special edition of the book, to be published by Penguin.

Watching television collide with literature made me apprehensive, and to a certain extent that anxiety was not unfounded. Most of the artists seemed not to have ever read the titles they were assigned. One woman, when confronted with Pride and Prejudice, said after a pause, “well, I’ve seen the movie.” (She also spelled Austen with an “i”). Only one contestant, Miles, actually bothered to investigate the text in question; after timing how long it took him to read a page of Frankenstein, he figured out he could finish the whole thing in four hours and so sequestered himself in a closet to do just that.

Miles's preparation showed, as his was one of the few projects that actually demonstrated an understanding of the task. It was strongly related to the book, and although I see why the judges thought it would not work terribly well as a cover, I thought Miles “got it” – he realized that the challenge was to synergize art and literature, to allow two different aesthetic mediums to work in concert and support/strengthen each other. This symbiosis was even more clearly manifested in the winner’s work: his piece was bold and cohesive, and I agree that it will translate well from the gallery to the bookstore.

There is also another synergy at work here: that between the publishing and television industries. What were Penguin’s motives for appearing on Work of Art? Product placement is one thing, but participating ("endorsing") a reality show is a much bigger leap. I'm also intrigued by the fact that there were no Penguin representatives on the judging panel.

Pondering this reminded of an article that appeared a couple of days ago in The New York Times about Elle magazine’s history of collaboration with television, which actually began with Project Runway; one of the show’s judges, Nina Garcia, used to be the publication’s Fashion Director. “Elle has certainly met its fair share of criticism for welcoming the crude medium of reality television into an orbit occupied by Anna Wintour and Giorgio Armani,” it states, which certainly is applicable here; I’m sure plenty of people will be judging Penguin for affiliating itself so firmly with television like this. But, as the editor of Elle Robbie Myers explains, “ 'I thought it was a good idea for us to do Project Runway. That was not necessarily the popular view around here. But my feeling was that we should be in as many mediums as we could be as a brand when appropriate,” she said. “We want exposure.” ’

Myers's forthrightness is producing results; Elle's sales figures are benefiting from these multi-media collaborations. In a shrinking market, is it wrong for publishers to adopt the same approach? Though many may mutter about the integrity of literature, Penguin leaping into bed with Bravo is just the latest in a series of acts demonstrating increasing intimacy between publishers and more "modern" media. Take book "trailers," for instance, or the promise of a publishing-related TV show debuting in the fall.

My argument for synergy, though, is not just financial (although every little helps). It speaks more to the fact that reading has been pushed to the fringes of mainstream culture -- a statement clearly supported by much of the Work of Art episode. If collaboration gets more people to take another look at books and the experience of reading, then I'm all for it; perhaps then everyone will at some point have the desire to read Dracula instead of just watching the film, or remember how to spell Jane Austen. To borrow a phrase from Derek Bok: "if you think education is expensive, try ignorance."

1 comment:

  1. SO glad you covered this, Hannah--people should really check out all the jackets that resulted from this.