Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Synecdoche is All the Rage

Don't lose your heads, ladies.

"Synecdoche is all the rage." I said that, a couple of years ago on this blog. And it's still true! Maybe I'm a jackass for quoting myself, but it's all I could think when I visited a Borders bookstore the other night.

When it comes to new fiction, I judge a book by its cover. Since the covers are mostly terrible, I don't read a lot of new fiction. I don't know how it got to this point, but I've skimmed enough new novels to know that I don't like the general direction popular American literature has taken in the past ten years or so. That coupled with a total aversion to the cover images and reviews has made the two things (bad novels, stupid covers) a package deal for me.

I don't think the association is totally unfounded. These books (mostly by women) are usually poorly, emotionally written tales about very womanly (or feminine) trials and relationships, and the covers recycle a few hackneyed images: dresses, dress shoes, out of focus women, the backs of women, parts of women, little girls running in a blur. The worst part about all this, for me, (despite all the obvious feminist issues going on here) is the overuse and subsequent cheapening of a really great device -- synecdoche!

Synecdoche uses a part of something to represent a whole. This makes for various levels of interpretation. The shoulder on the book cover could be part of the heroine's body (and what goes on in the background of the image might actually tell us about the book), but the shoulder-only view could also serve to make the heroine more of an "Everywoman," so we can relate to her better even before we begin to read about her. (At some point this turns around and becomes metonymy* instead, a closely related device where a bigger thing represents a part -- a faceless Everywoman girl makes us think of all girls, but then again she could be you.)

The dresses and shoes, now those are just super cheap ways to get us to think of little girls or evenings out. Substitute your own little girl (or your imagined one -- because the marketers assume every woman longs for a little girl), or your own memory of a romantic evening, and the cover has you. Blurry images (often one woman in focus, another blurred, or someone running) create synecdoche and metonymy as well. The blur allows for substitution, where the characters might be plugged into the image, and then of course a subsequent "that could be me."

Synecdoche can be used gracefully and effectively in the visual arts and in literature. But its strengths have been so exploited by advertising that it's no longer very moving. Publishers and their marketing teams have latched onto it now, and novels, things that should be better able to resist commercialization than other types of "products," get churned out all blurry and lace-covered every day.

*I know I gave a very brief and confusing description of what synecdoche and metonymy do, but definitions don't help much with those devices. They do flow back and forth, sometimes trying to happen simultaneously, and it's hard to pinpoint where one becomes the other. Once this play begins the devices are no longer really "devices" but phenomena, as they're out of our control. I brought this up in my lit crit class last Spring, telling my professor Richard Westphal "I don't know if I'm describing this right -- sometimes I don't think I fully understand the difference between synecdoche and metonymy." The wise old feller replied, "No one does." Now he wasn't saying we don't know our "definitions." But he was saying that literary folk still discuss this pair of metaphoric creatures, that there are still papers being written on them somewhere.

(If I seem like I'm being defensive in that last asterisked paragraph, it's because at the end of my undergraduate career I have uncovered that basic foundation of "knowledge" that Socrates wanted us all to see -- that we don't really know much of anything. And in literature, I'm seeing not only how much I don't know but how much can't be known and how much is out of anyone's control -- but always worth a good discussion! I recently commented to a professor at another university that I didn't know how to use a certain part of speech even though I have a degree in English. I was trying to be funny, but it's the truth! She said, "Doubt it." As if no one grants degrees to people who don't know everything. Damn the grammarians.)

In addition to turning books into advertisements for themselves, another reason these covers bother me is the lack of commitment in the images. I like things to commit to looking like something or saying something. Only suggest things if you have something very clever or surprising to suggest! Literature suggests wonderfully all the time, but the best of it is also balanced by some very committed writing. Some abstract art suggests wonderfully as well, yet the brushstrokes are certain of themselves. These women's books, however, look like they're not really sure what's inside them. If that is the case, maybe a simple graphic design or a solid colored cover would do them good. (They reserve those for manly men I think -- Palahniuk, Vonnegut...) Instead, the women's covers just point to the thousand other books with girly crap on them and say "um, this book is kinda like...thaaat?"

Finally, I hate the reviews on these book covers. They are completely incestuous. Every popular woman writer of the last decade reviews every other popular woman writer of the last decade. Check one section of the shelves and you can see them all refer back to one another. Sometimes the better proven ones, the ones who may have written something that isn't a total sob-fest, encourage the new ones. They use their New York Times stars to endorse the new gal who hasn't earned any stars (a dubious honor) yet. Maybe I'm being a backward sexist now, like a woman customer in an auto parts store who makes a beeline for the boy help, but I'd like to see a man endorse one of these

I wrote a little on contemporary women's fiction back when I coined the title phrase, in the post "A Novel." I wondered if any woman could avoid having that gratuitous label slapped on her books. Now I wonder if any woman writer has the pull (or even the desire) to keep the naked shoulders and blurry eyeballs off her book covers. They can't possibly all want this book look! In genre especially, new writers can't do much about what ends up on the covers of their books (a naked buxom blonde with a sword on the cover of a story about a wrinkly nine-eyed Mars woman, etc.). But I thought maybe the literary women would try to do something about it. If publisher cover-domination is the case, maybe I have prematurely judged a whole lot of books.


  1. So what would your book cover look like?

  2. I might commission some folky art. Or maybe just slap on a naked blond chick with a sword.

  3. God, I hate to think what my cover art will look like.

    By the way, I read your follow up on the Levity post. I'm so happy you enjoyed Gaiman. He really is quite the amazing writer. I'm going to check out the Mars Trilogy, mark my words! :)

    I just wrote a blog about the direction novels have taken, focusing on one author in particular. I'm afraid it turned into a bit of a rant.

    I couldn't agree with you more about the novels geared toward women. It's incredibly offensive how women are viewed as incredibly shallow beings.

    Wasn't there a movie out a couple years ago called "Synecdoche"? But the word was spelled kind of in a peculiar manner? Thanks for teaching me a new word. No doubt I'll be throwing it into conversation left and right :)

    Your comment about marketers assuming every woman longs for a little girl made me think of a behavior I've recently noticed. Any product geared toward women, be it books or clothing or whatever else, seems to have this assumption. Yet whenever I hear women talking about kids, all they seem to want are little boys. It's a very peculiar disconnect that I can't explain.

    Mass consumerism seems to ruin everything. It's a shame too, because as you pointed out, blurred images can be remarkably beautiful and meaningful if used correctly.

    I'd like my book covers to look like Vonnegut's: a huge J on the cover and the title, that's it. Maybe a funky little drawing towards the top. Plain and simple, no lace or girly crap ;)

    Oh! You know an excellent modern woman writer who has really great covers? Margaret Atwood. Her paper backs have the books title and an illustration of something actually from the book and that's it. She's one of my favorites and I think you'd enjoy her too. Your writing kind of reminds me of hers sometimes.


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