Shin Kyung-Sook’s “Please Look After ??”: Covering the genre bases

Korean Cover of "Please Look After Mom"

The Korean Cover: Chock full of Korean Cliches!

The invaluable London Korea Links reminded me that there are actually two titles for Shin Kyung-Sook’s new book:

  • Please Look After Mom (USA)
  • Please Look After Mother (UK)

And LKL also provided a link to see that book cover.  The covers are entirely different, as we’ll see in a minute.

As a fellow who constantly bemoans the  multiple Romanizations of Korean names, it might seem that I would be opposed to this splintering of Shin’s work, but in fact I think it is probably a brilliant way of dealing with genres, because both the altered language and the altered art on the covers is in fact a way to make the book more instantly understandable in the target country.

Mom Tattoo

It Goes With Apple Pie and Baseball!

The difference between “mom” and “mother” is the difference between  informal (US) and a hierarchy-structured (UK) cultures. Neither word would work as well in the other culture, with “mother” sounding hopelessly stiff in the US, and “mom” sounding foreign in the UK (I imagine, even if a more informal word had been desired, that it likely would have been, “mum?”).

So, a potential reader from each location takes a look at the title, and immediately feels that they understand it.

Cover of "Please Look After Mom"

Three out of Four Ain't Bad!

Even better, the art works are genre appropriate, even if the genres might be slightly different! And that’s brilliant, because a foolish consistency here might have damaged sales.  The good folks over at The Society Pages have theorized, a bit sarcastically, that the recognizable cover should have four elements:

  • Blossoms (preferably cherry, but anything red or pink will do)
  • A fan-obscured face (I’d argue any obscuration or cut-off)
  • Dragons (for mysteries only)
  • Female neck

Lo and behold, the US version has two of those elements, and three if you want to call the blossom like clusters of lights(?) as fulfilling the first criteria.

While these cliches may be stereotypical and in some cases insulting, they are nonetheless the tools of genre and marketing.

Also, with respect to the US cover, it only has the one character on it, a clever demurral to the cultural individualism that the United States is so well known for. This cover allows a browser to put herself (primarily) into the picture.

UK Cover of "Please Look After Mother"

UK Cover of "Please Look After Mother"

The fact is that I am unqualified to speak about the UK cover in detail, as I’m not an expert in the cliches attendant to UK genres. Instead, I hope one of my UK readers can chime in with comment.

One thing that is immediately apparent is that there are two characters, the mother and a child, apparently, so a bit less of that US radical individualism. The other thing I would note by way of my reaction, is that for some reason this cover makes me think of a cover to a classic modern novel – something that might have gone on an Orwell book, for instance.

I have no idea what to make of that, I just note that it is what I thought.

In terms of cliches, we have a plethora of pink blossoms, and the mother obscured by the shadow of the sun, so we seem pretty solid there.^^

In any case, as I look at this I see it as a good thing – a publisher recognizing that genres have different signifiers in different countries, and paying due diligence to them.


4 thoughts on “Shin Kyung-Sook’s “Please Look After ??”: Covering the genre bases

  1. replied to your post on our site, but here it is for your readers… ^^
    (text below)

    Hm…I couldn’t find the mention of the covers on LKL, but there is certainly plenty to be said about both versions. I’ve got to say, though, that I don’t really agree with your analysis of the images solely based on the reference to Sociological Images b/c it doesn’t really apply to the American version, at least. If anything, even though it doesn’t really appeal to my tastes, I think the American cover avoids a lot of those cliches by having a very modern image (although the weird hand gesture is, well, weird). I just don’t usually like book covers with photographic images as opposed to drawings/graphic representations.

    The UK cover, even though I liked it better for it’s deco-ish aesthetic, has more of the basic “oriental” cliches: flower blossoms, check; “oriental” brush-stroke typeface and graphic detailing, check. Other than that, though, the image of the mother and child aren’t racially or culturally marked by obvious costumes or anything, and, truth be told, a lot of deco aesthetic was influenced by that period’s fascination with “oriental” art.

    The Korean cover, which I added for reference, is the Salvador Dali painting Dawn, Noon, Sunset, and Twilight, which was a study of the female figure in Jean-François Millet’s The Angelus of Millet and apparently the object of some obsession on Dali’s part. Not sure what the cliches you saw there, but I’m curious.

    When it comes down to it, I would say that the American cover, with its more modern representation and conspicuous lack of Asian markers besides the Asian woman in the image was deliberately chosen in part to appeal to the Korean-American/Asian-American audience — it suggests a more inclusive modern identity that happens to be Asian. The UK cover is clearly marking the novel as Oriental (hey, they still call SOAS SOAS), and telling the prospective reader “this is a book from a different place, but hey, they have a big modern city too!”

  2. The Korean cover is pretty stereotypical for a Korean book of “serious” fiction though . . . they really do like to slap random pieces of art on the cover, regardless of whether they have anything to do with the subject matter. Also, I think Charles was being sarcastic.
    I agree that the US cover actually avoids the much mocked cliches, and I like that they’ve gone for a nice modern image. In fact, I very much approve.
    Unfortunately, my appreciation for the UK cover has gone downhill for a number of reasons. First, why is the mother figure carrying a briefcase? We’re talking about a long-suffering Korean housewife and mother, not a supermom or working mom or any other kind of mother. She is not going to carry a briefcase. Also, cherry blossoms are about the most cliche blossoms they could possibly have fixed. Finally, it drives me absolutely batty that the shadow of the figures is pointing the wrong direction. Have you ever seen a human shadow point towards the sun? So while it’s pretty at first glance, it gets annoying the more you look at it.

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