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Truman Capote's sexy gaze and other book ads: A Q&A with Dwight Garner

November 3, 2009 |  9:00 am
Trumancapotead

In "Read Me," Dwight Garner compiles a century of print ads for books, funny and formal, subtle and sensational. Garner is a longtime book critic at the New York Times, where he also has blogged at Paper Cuts. For his book, he went deep into the archives -- of his own paper and other venues. Isolated, in "Read Me," on pages with white or black backgrounds, the ads bear the markings of having been physical artifacts -- they reveal uneven printing, the wear of ink rubbing off paper, shadows of what was printed on the reverse, even the shadow of a fold. As Garner explains in his decade-by-decade introductions, the ads are simultaneously commerce, art and a reflection of what's buzzing in the literary culture.

Jacket Copy: You write that the first print advertisement for anything was for a book.

Dwight Garner:
Yes. It was for a very odd-sounding book, called “Perfect Occurrences of Every Daie journall in Parliament, and Other Moderate Intelligence.” The book was printed in London, and it’s a very convoluted ad, but it’s the first one. It includes the world “applauded” -- it’s a very dense ad, but I think if someone were to reprint that ad today, the world “applauded” would be at the top in 18-point type, with exclamation points.

JC: What was the genesis of your book?

DG:
I was doing various research over time, looking for old reviews, old articles, old pieces of criticism, to write pieces I was writing or to edit pieces. I would come across, in magazines or newspapers, these fantastic old ads for books. Some of these ads were so striking, so rich with historical information about not only the books, but how books were sold at certain periods in our culture. I started collecting them. I began to go into  more archives, some of them paper archives, some electronic, grabbing these things. I just sort of fell in love with them.

JC: I imagine you have more than made it into the book.

DG:
Oh yeah, we cut hundreds out, and it was a brutal process. I think there’s 300 or 400 in there now, which is quite a lot, but the book could have been twice as big. I think there are more out there for people to find. It’s funny that a project like this hasn’t been done before; they’re fascinating documents. I think we’ve boiled it down to a pretty great selection just from this century.

JC: It’s interesting to me that they’ve been removed from their contexts.

DG:
They were from newspaper pages, and we singled them out as individual works of art.

JC: As you were flipping through those pages, how did these particular ads jump out at you?

DG:
I looked for books that I love. I was particularly interested in the way literary fiction and literary books were marketed in America during this past century. I focused on well-known books, I focused on literary books, I focused on ads that were particularly striking, that had a distinctive look and really jumped off the page in some way.

JC: Like the Truman Capote ad [pictured]?

DG:
That’s one of the most famous author photographs of all time. When that book was first published, I don’t think people had seen author photographs like that. That come-hither look that Capote is giving, lying in that chair the way he is, that stare is just so gripping and so strangely sexy. I think it caught people off guard in 1948, people just weren’t ready for that kind of direct sexual gaze. I think in the end it really helped to sell the book. 

JC: As a book critic, it's your job to read new books. Did you find yourself wanting to read any of these books after reading the ads?

DG:
There were a lot of books that really appealed to me. I had never read Lillian Smith's "Strange Fruit," for example -- that's a book that I now plan to read. There's this very strange travel book called "Letter of Credit" by Jerome Weidman, published in 1940, which has one of the most hilarious ads in the book. The headline on the ad is "Not from the marijuana department." The ad is all about how the reviews for this book have been so great that it sounds like the in-house publicity department had been smoking marijuana while putting the ad together. It's just hilarious. But actually you look at the reviews, and they are fairly terrific, and it does make me want to know who Jerome Weidman is, because I don't know who he is. I've never read any Jerome Weidman. There were a number of books like that.

After the jump: How not to sell Cormac McCarthy.

JC: Were there any ads that you included that struck you as doing a particularly fantastic or terrible job of representing the book?

Cormacmccarthyad DG:
It's one of my favorite ads the book, but I think it does a pretty bad job of representing the book – a 1968 ad for Cormac McCarthy's novel "Outer Dark." There's Cormac McCarthy in the ad; he looks as studly as a major-league third baseman. The blurbs from the critics are very bland – "competent, brilliant, responsible," "rich with life's substance" – what the ad doesn't tell you is this book is, at least in part, about a woman who abandons her baby out in the woods. It's an extremely, extremely dark book. This ad, as charming as it is, is not letting readers know exactly what they're in for when they pick up this book by Cormac McCarthy.

JC: Up until the 1950s, design seems to take a back seat to text. Do you think that’s because books are about words?

DG:
There’s a trick to writing a good advertisement. You want to pull readers in, you want to give them just enough information to make them want to read a book. Boiling a book down to a sentence or two is a very fine art. In the earliest part of the century, the earliest ads in the 1910s in particular, didn’t even feature photographs. They were largely text until the '40s and '50s, when they used more photographs and more art to grip the reader. Readers and publishers got more visually sophisticated as the century went on.

JC: One of the ads that really struck me was for “Nausea” by Sartre, because it creates such white space.

DG:
It’s very simple, very direct. It’s a quality of understatement. Another ad that I really love is from 1913, for D.H. Lawrence’s  “Sons and Lovers.” It’s just a simple box, signed by the publisher, It says, “I do not ask you to buy it, but I do tell you that ‘Sons and Lovers’ by D.H. Lawrence is one of the great novels of the age.” It’s this elegant soft sell.

JC: There’s been some buzz over the last couple of years about whether or not a publisher is or can be a brand. It seems like there was a period, represented through these ads, when publishers were really integral to how books were sold – signed ads, as you point out, by Doubleday and Knopf.

DG:
  Knopf had the most elegant, distinctive ads of the past century, beginning in 1915. Alfred A. Knopf had this personal touch in a lot of his early ads; he signed them, they were simple, they refrained from shouting. Willa Cather changed publishers from Houghton-Mifflin to Knopf just because she liked the look of his books better, and I assume his ads, because he always paid close attention to aesthetics and he understood them.

JC: Do you have a favorite single ad?

DG:
I think I do. It's very early on in the book, a 1907 ad for "Sister Carrie" by Theodore Dreiser. It's a very patriotic ad and very touching in its way. The ad says, "Is there a novelist in this country to rank with Zola and Balzac?" And the big answer is, "YES: Theodore Dreiser, author of 'Sister Carrie.' " Then you read down in the ad and it says, "The tone of Theodore Dreiser's story is better than anything written by the great French realists because our country is better." It just makes me laugh. Take that, Zola and Balzac – Theodore Dresier is here, and he's an American.

JC: I think this becomes clear in the book, but I wonder if you could talk about the decade or two of advertising you found the most exciting.

DG:
I think the '50s, '60s and '70s, particularly the '60s and '70s. The culture just felt incredibly alive, it was a time of real ferment in the culture. Particularly the '60s and '70s, you had these real personalities pop up, like Hunter S. Thompson and Susan Sontag and James Baldwin and Ken Kesey. These people were larger-than-life personalities in addition to being very serious artists. The ads for these people pop off the page in a way that they didn’t later on in the '80s and '90s.

JC: Now, publishers can spend marketing money on many things in addition to print ads. Do you have any thoughts on one of the newest of these, the book trailer?

DG:
I enjoy a good book trailer. Some of them have been truly terrific. A lot of them are a little bit twee and a little bit coy, and rub me the wrong way and send me away from the book. I think we’re approaching a time, with things like the Kindle, I think those kind of promotional trailers will be included with books, I think they’ll come right along with them. For a lot of people, things like that are the end of the world and the death of the book. I don’t think so, it’s nothing that will take away from my reading experience. I don’t have to watch it if I don’t want to. I find myself occasionally -- normally it’s a friend or someone in the business -- and often it’s a spur, a real spur for me to go buy the book.

I will say that I have some sad, "Auld Lang Syne"-ish feelings about what I feel is the slow death of the print ad. There aren't as many book ads as there used to be. Book sections are getting smaller, they're closing, they're folding into the bodies of newspapers. I'm sad to watch them go; I hope they still have some life in them. One of the problems is that they're very expensive. Another problem is that no one really knows for sure how well they work. It's hard to tell. They're certainly a wonderful ego boost – they're very ego-friendly documents for writers. Writers love them – they might tell you that they don't love them, but they do love them – many writers have ad budgets written into their contracts.

I have no problem with online, YouTube trailers, whatsoever. Am I going to miss the kind of old-school ads you see in this book? Yes. Yes I am.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Images: Harper Collins

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