Clichés, such as saying that something ‘gets a bad press’, often get a bad press. They can indicate lazy, unimaginative writing, a limited vocabulary, a lack of commitment to a subject. Some make the situation worse by trying to excuse themselves. The feebleness of ‘The rest is history’, for example, is increased by adding ‘as they say’ after ‘rest’. By saying that, the speaker is effectively showing he’s aware of the cliché, seeming to excuse it, but actually admitting ‘I am saying something boring which I know is boring because so many people have said it before, but I don't have the skill or imagination to find an alternative so I've decided make matters worse by calling attention to my use of it’.
The problem is that clichés come into being because they do articulate a specific 'truth', usually in a direct, simple way. Sometimes, in an attempt to avoid using them, writers invent convoluted formulations which are so self-evidently contrived that it would have been better to stick with the dull but accurate original.
OK, we all know this already, so why bother to revisit it? Well, it’s to introduce a specific expression associated with the twelve year old’s remark and question the nature of the ‘truths’ that clichés carry.
First let’s take ‘A picture paints a thousand words’ (or ‘is worth a thousand words’). It’s easy to understand. An image can imply many different things to different people, tell several stories simultaneously, hint at outcomes, relationships, abstractions, none of which are directly articulated (in a thousand or a million or even a hundred words). Pictures can tell stories but, normally, they have no words at all.
So how about ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’? It seems to confront the same duality – the picture and the words. But it’s very different because the book and its words predate the cover. On its own, the cover might well tell (or suggest) more stories than the book, but it doesn’t exist on its own. It’s supposed to hint at what’s contained in the 80,000 or whatever words between the covers.
If it were on its own, it might also tell or imply many more stories at greater or lesser length, but that’s irrelevant. The fact is that you can’t judge a book by its cover because written words, too, have their resonances, motives, possibilities, undercurrents, sub-textual and inter-textual allusions, etc., etc. and any images that tried to convey all of them would be impossibly complex and incomprehensible.
And yet, my own recent experience of reissuing my Jack Carston series in updated editions with new covers designed by the highly talented Cathy Helms of Avalon Graphics has shown me just how considerable the impact of a cover can be and persuaded me that there is one particular area in which I think it does help you to judge a book. The way our collaboration has worked is that I send Cathy the main themes of the story, my own thoughts about them, and details of any particular scenes or images which condense them, make them more easily accessible. Then she sifts and combines them in a visual medium and sends me three or four designs mixing and matching several different images, font colours and layouts.
The process then loops back on itself because her interpretation of what I’ve said makes me see the book in a different light. In fact, she gives selected elements of the story a sharper focus and thereby implies that there are aspects of the tale that could be given greater or lesser prominence. In other words, she offers me, the writer, a different perspective on the book and I have to re-evaluate what I thought it was about in order to convey specifically what I do and don’t like about the visuals.
That's certainly the case with the most recent example, Shadow Selves. The eye of the man in the surgeon's mask is compelling. Its menace, however, also suggests that he's not a nice man; he's maybe even the guilty party. If he is, though, putting such a spoiler on the cover seems perverse, counter-productive. On the other hand...
(See what I did there?)
We may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but a good one does evoke a mood, a specific type of anticipation, and gives us a pretty good idea of what to expect when we open it. It also, as I’ve discovered, gives the writer new insights into his/her own work. It’s a strange but very rewarding collaboration.