Marketing or Orientalization? The Cover of Kyung-Sook Shin’s “The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness: A Novel”

In at least two previous posts I mentioned a post at The Society Pages  which parses the orientalist cliches used in many “Asian” book-covers. I also noted this hadn’t seemed to take hold in Korean translations just yet (or at least the ones I have). Now, though… well.. let’s take a look.

The Society Pages suggests the cliches are (purple text is mine):
Element 1: Blossoms
Element 2: Fans (or something to cover or split the face)
Element 3: Dragons (for use only on crime novels, or other exciting tales)
(so, not so relevant here)
Element 4: Female Necks (preferably that of a geisha, but any female neck will do in a pinch)

Here is Kyung-sook Shin’s Please Look after Mom, the story of a family which loses its mother and searches desperately for her.

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Good job – three cliches in play with the flowers, “fanned” face cut in half, and hint of a neck. At the time I thought this was a good marketing approach as Shin was unknown and needed any market purchase she could get. As an ex PR/Marketing guy I know the use of a sensible amount of pandering to your audience.

Then came I’ll Be Right There, a book about love, friendship, solitude and politics. Surely all serious topics and thus obviously requiring a more specific cover.

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Ooops! Well, at least this time the superfluous flowers are gone, right? So we’re moving in a more literary direction, which can’t be bad?

Well, now Shin is on her third full-length novel, The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness, a story of a girl trying to become a writer while working in one of the sweatshops that helped fuel the Miracle on the Han. This is serious business, calling for a serious cover.

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Holy Whatchamacallit!  They actually went and used the previous cliches and added some explicit neck.

Now, I understand the marketing thing here – they want to get that audience that gets all palpitated when it sees Asian cliches, but at some point wouldn’t it be nice to have the covers become a little less cliched?  I don’t have Photoshop on my computer, pursuant to the big system collapse of last month, but if I did I would have cobbled together a few covers of books like Animal Farm, The Shining, Hamlet in this form… a Hamlet cover with Ophelia’s face half-hidden by the curtain which her father stood behind before his murder, her neck submissively exposed, and floral “weedy trophies” in the background.

But that.. that would be ludicrous, right?

5 thoughts on “Marketing or Orientalization? The Cover of Kyung-Sook Shin’s “The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness: A Novel”

  1. I have to say that this cover is, well, bloody awful. The point is, though, that it will appeal to the Oprah followers – which is probably the readership they’re going for…

  2. Tony… that’s pretty much where I am on it. While it makes perfect sense for marketing? At some point I think playing it straight now and then is also worth it..

  3. +1 for playing it straight

    Why not market serious literature like… serious literature? Perhaps Shin is not that well known, but then isn’t there all the more reason to prime the reader for what they are buying? I’m not familiar with marketing or publishing, but between (a) many casual readers think the book is casual reading based on the cover and are disappointed and probably fail to finish it; and (b) fewer but more serious readers actually read the book and like it enough to tell other avid readers; wouldn’t (b) pay off better in the long run?

  4. Kieran… I’m 80% with you.. which is why I posted this. As an ex-marketing director I understand the initial impulse to go with this kind of cover. However, as I am just about to post, covers can be done in marketing-friendly and artistically representative manner..

  5. Pingback: When covers of translation are done 100% right. Han Kang’s “Vegetarian” |

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