Behemoth is the original Salem

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Via @shy.witch.yk

According to Ernest Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast, [which I haven’t read – so maybe this isn’t a fact at all. Maybe someone’s just told me this to make me look like a dickhead – like in Seinfeld when Elaine thought the original title for War and Peace was War? What is it Good For?] Hemingway would regularly let his cat, F. Puss, babysit his firstborn infant son. As in, he’d leave the baby alone in his French apartment with F. Puss in the playpen as company. His faith in the cat to be a reliable guardian was touching. But the kid lived, so maybe Hemingway should’ve written a parenting book all along!

Anyway hearing this little fun fact got me thinking about Salem from Sabrina the Teenage Witch (the 1990s, cleary-a-puppet, cheeky little trash-talking Salem; not the crappy reboot one that doesn’t talk and is definitely a real cat). Because if I had to choose a trustful cat to keep an eye on a human baby for a few hours, I’d pick Salem – even though he would likely make a few cutting quips refusing to do it.

For those who’ve forgotten, Salem (aka the reason every girl round about my age, wanted a black cat growing up) was a 500 year old warlock, trapped in the body of a cat for 100 years – as punishment for his failed attempt at world domination.

He was pure evil, but we’re all willing to forgive him (and accept him as a prospective babysitter), because he’s sarcastic and clever. Plus all cats naturally give off a slightly evil and snooty vibe; so an imagined reality where a cat can talk and has a human personality feels more realistic with that cat being a bit of a loveable shithead.

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Via @salemthecatfanpage

Salem’s literature equivalent would be Behemoth from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita – a fellow talking black cat, who struts around the Russian streets, as part of the Devil’s posse, wearing an adorable bow-tie and bowler hat.

Written in the 1930s, and published 26 years after Bulgakov’s death, The Master and Margarita (which I’ve talked about previously in The Name Game post) is a dark comedy about the devil (who goes by the name Woland) taking over an apartment in Moscow with his buddies, and wreaking havoc across the atheist city.

Like Salem, mischievous Behemoth is known on occasion to take human form* and to drop witticisms into the conversation, such as, “I’d rather be a tram conductor and there’s no worse job than that” (where he’s clearly still holding a grudge about being kicked off a tram at the book’s beginning).

Behemoth is the size of a pig, and tends to be in the background with a vodka in hand, sunbathing at the windows of the apartment and being told to shut-up by the rest of the gang.

His hobbies include chess and arson, and without giving too much away (because you really should read it, it’s pretty wicked), my personal favourite Behemoth moment is that he can make a showdown between himself and a group of armed Moscow police, look effortless – and even make the time to be a wise-ass and pretend they’ve successfully shot him.

While Salem may not share Behemoth’s impressive size, they definitely have enough in common that if their paths did ever cross they would make tight drinking buddies. And on reflection, I’d only trust Salem to babysit if he swore not to invite Behemoth over (cause that little shit would raid your liquor cabinet no question).

[*and like Salem, the reader later learns Behemoth was a human whose cat form is a punishment.]

The Penguin

Do you know what there needs to be more of in contemporary publishing? Publishing houses that share their names with batman villains!

I’ve checked and, as expected, Penguin Random House is the only one that can boast that honour; and what an unforgivable waste that is when you think about the pool of possible stellar names just sitting there, utterly neglected, and not being tapped into for publishing houses or imprints. Think about it publishing bigwigs that’s all I ask! 

I would trust Deathstroke or Riddler Publishing to accumulate a decent list. Plus I love the thought that, Danny Devito à la Batman Returns, is secretly the head honcho of Penguin, and all of their revenue goes to keeping his nightclub, Iceclub Lounge in business (there’s an ice bar in Melbourne!?! Holy shit I’m on to something).

He does resemble your classic bibliophile when someone’s getting too rough with their immaculate collection

It’s surprising though actually, Penguin and Penguin do share a little bit in common, beyond their love for adorable flightless birds. The biggest thing being that just like Penguin Classics, the Penguin has an established look attached to his reputation that’s uniform across his Penguin Commandos (to be fair though the members of his army are literally penguins sent to do his evil bidding – kind of like the flying monkeys in Wizard of Oz). 

Penguin Classic’s universally recognisable imprint and cover design personifies the power of visual cues to cultivate and establish brand identity. The cover uniformity expressed through ‘a basic horizontal tripartite division of the colours’ as well as the illustrated penguin logo, not only immediately signals to readers which books are Penguin texts, they are also symbolic references to the publication’s background story and historical context – a narrative that is pivotal to the reverence that the Penguin brand has earned.

Sustained public awareness that these visual symbols are relics representing the company’s origins and historical significance is further reiterated through each book’s back cover, where prior to the text’s blurb, a summary appears recounting Sir Allan Lane’s struggle to find reading material at Exeter train station and stating that the original price was extraordinarily cheap ‘the same price as a packet of cigarettes’.

Thus while the Penguin Random House mission statement, to ‘We celebrate writers, stories and ideas that entertain, educate and inspire.’, would not be automatic knowledge to the general consumer, visual and literal reminders to readers of Penguin’s established position within the publishing industry, grants the text the cover is packaging a legitimacy – by extension – for being a work that the Penguin brand feels has merit and is worth celebrating. Massively similar I’m sure to when residents of Gotham see a penguin wearing a mind-control helmet and a rocket – they would automatically associate that branding to that suss millionaire fellow always donning a monocle, top hat, and tuxedo.

How important is the cover though?

The classic idiom ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover’ is both a general caution against placing too much importance on appearance, yet equally a literal warning to prospective readers of the deceptive power a great cover design can hold.

By suggesting that the front cover can influence a choice in reading material that would not otherwise have been made, this saying assigns a pivotal role to the cover and rests on the assumption that this is the first point of contact a reader will have with a text.

However to what extent does this expression reflect the true reality of the publishing industry’s current reliance on strong cover designs to communicate with potential consumers?

While image is focal to a book’s marketability; the front cover in itself is just one of several potential touch-points of varying significance which can determine how a book is discovered by the target demographic and whether they choose to buy it.

The aesthetic appeal of a book, and especially its cover, is undeniably important. Yet whether the book’s external qualities are the primary influence directing readers to select certain titles over others is a contentious assertion; particularly when one considers the heightened significance of brand identity in a culture that is becoming progressively orientated towards online and social media platforms.

The traditional retail practice of impulsively buying a book in a bricks and mortar bookshop – based on the book’s front cover and the plot summary written on the back cover – is just one means of discovery, and a marketing strategy for any title must be more nuanced than sole dependence on this single book purchasing pattern.

One can even contend that in the current literary landscape, the ‘cover’ that this popular axiom is referring to has expanded and now refers to the whole image carefully cultivated by a title’s unique promotional strategy prior to its release – which includes both the author’s personal brand as well as that of the publishing house.

As each book’s identity is a formation of multiple components – such as genre, author/s, unique selling points (USP), target demographic and purpose – how a title is marketed, and what marking strategies are more likely to be successful, will fluctuate depending on each of these elements.

Furthermore, while a front cover has multiple roles, its ultimate objective is to market the book it is packaging to a specified audience. Thus, the front cover’s significance – as with every marketing device – will also invariably be subject to variation rather than holding an identical level of automatic importance for every book.

Another vital consideration is that a prospective reader’s first impression is arguably more likely to be influenced by promotional efforts prior to the book’s launch rather than the title’s front cover. This is due to the importance that generating awareness of the book prior to its launch has as part of the publishing cycle, with the majority of newly released titles immediately facing heavy competition on top of a short ‘shelf-life’ in bookshops (approximately six to eight weeks).

According to data collated by reader analytics company, Jellybooks, there are eight major motivations for ‘buying a specific book’. Listed below, these include:

  1. ‘Entertain me now’
  2. ‘Entertain me in the future’
  3. ‘Inform me’ – A book which educates/helps fulfil an aspiration.
  4. ‘Obligation’ – Referring to a book one is assigned to read such as for book-clubs, study or alternatively books which are unanimously considered literary classics.
  5. ‘Social Pressure’ – A book one feels compelled to read as ‘everyone else’ is currently reading it.
  6. ‘Make me look smart’ – owning/reading a book for the symbolic status attached to that particular title.
  7. ‘Gift’
  8. ‘Impulse’ – Being in a particular state of mind, or being stimulated by environmental factors such as being inspired to buy a book at a literary event or in a Museum gift shop.

These motivations highlight how diverse and subjective the rationale driving each book purchase decision can be. But while the front and back cover can also act as further attributes bolstering any one of these justifications, the fact that the book’s appearance is not listed as a separate motivation suggests that – at least consciously – the front cover is a secondary interest compared to what the consumer plans to get out of this purchase/reading experience.

Another study examining reading patterns which also indicates the front cover’s general secondary status, is a comparative analysis conducted by book review site, Goodreads, of two similar novels – Gillian Fylnn’s Gone Girl and Erin Morgenstern’s Night Circus.

This extensive survey involved collecting responses from readers who had read one of these titles, and its responses showed that while factors relating to trusted recommendations such as ‘reviews’ or ‘word of mouth’ were the highest ranking motivations amongst readers of both novels, the front cover and blurb ranked last – and only for Night Circus – as a direct motivation for readers.

Parallels shared between these separate studies, offer invaluable insight into what inspires a reader to choose a certain book when faced with an abundance of choice. Furthermore, the affirmed value held by ‘word of mouth’ in both cases is testament to how vital developing an initial awareness is to inspiring subsequent sales of the book.

Interpreting these studies however, as evidence that the book’s appearance is irrelevant would be far too simplistic. Rather, the marginal influence the front cover holds as a motivational tool, reveals that broadly readers are understandably more prompted by content and what a trusted opinion promises the text will deliver.

Developing positive word of mouth is imperative, yet the front cover also plays a meaningful role in this as an extension/representation of established brands – particularly that of the author and publishing house.

Although this function is less obvious than the front cover’s equally crucial role of introducing the book’s plot, tone and own identity; the cover’s ability to immediately visually connect a book to – often a multitude of – recognised brand identities in the mind of the consumer reveals how deeply interconnected motivational touch-points are, and how difficult it is to analyse the effectiveness of one as a wholly separate entity.

As pointed out by David Pearson in Books as History, a ‘successful design is most effective when the user of the object does not stop to think about what makes it work; it just does’. A reader may not have full awareness of the extent to which the front and back cover’s contents influenced their final decision to buy a book, yet that doesn’t necessarily mean the book’s packaging was not a factor.

A marketing strategy for any title must be nuanced, particularly due to the entrenched presence of online and social media platforms, yet while a book’s cover design is not the focal means of discovery, the various brand identities the cover will embody are pivotal to reaching and connecting with prospective readers.

Australian Reads

I only found out recently that my home town’s Mill Market (which might I add was already pretty wicked to begin with) inexplicably has a bunch of Wolf Creek props round the back – -WHAT? There’s just so many follow-up questions! Who was the weirdo/hero who bequeathed that shit to the city of Ballarat of all places? And why am I just hearing this news now? (and no, none of it was filmed in Ballarat obviously. Ballarat is in Victoria, Wolf Creek was filmed in South Australia)

We’ll talk about something else now, I’m just still reeling from that discovery.

Anyway speaking of Australian films, there’s one out at the moment called Ladies in Black (and sadly no, the guy from Packed to the Rafters doesn’t get tortured in this one too – what a bitter let down. I SAT THROUGH THAT SHIT FOR NOTHING!!!!!!!!!*), which is based on the first novel of Madeleine St John – the first Australian woman to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction.

Now I’ve not read The Women in Black – it looks a bit too heart-warming for my taste (plus a whole book of Sydney people making snooty remarks about how shit Melbourne is? Yeah nah), but it has got me thinking about other great Australian reads which I devoured and that are definitely worth a gander, they’re in no particular order.

Heat and Light (Ellen van Neerven, 2014)

Normally short story collections aren’t really my cup of tea, but each of these felt equally enthralling and left me wanting to know more: wishing they were longer but also a fan of an abrupt, not-quite, ending (which feels realistic given life’s stories are more fleeting chapters than endings).

Split into three sections – ‘Heat’, ‘Water’ and ‘Light’; the stories, regardless of section they belong to, explore sexuality, contemporary aboriginal culture, family, heritage and identity, in a subtle, day-to-day voice which transports you into a fictional (yet very human) moment.

Even, the longest story in the collection, ‘Water’: which is set in the near future (in 2022, jesus that really isn’t far off) utilises fantasy/sci-fi to explore heritage and roots in a way way that’s surprisingly striking and poetic in how it explores love and heritage – as it is thought provoking on the current state of things [in the future there will be an Australia2 island inhibited by ‘sandplants’ – an intelligent race of plant-people] 

Axiomatic (Maria Tumarkin, 2018)

This is a confession, but embarrassingly prior to reading this I wasn’t actually familiar with Maria Tumarkin’s writing (and she teaches at my uni). The whole reason I bought Axiomatic was that it happens to have a really gorgeous cover – so yeah I’m that shallow.

Segmented into five popular axioms related to time, such as ‘Time Heals all Wounds‘ and ‘Those Who Forget the Past are Condemned to Repeat It’ – each saying acts as a springboard into its own distinct rumination of an important – and often overlooked – issue within Australian society.

Told from a deeply intimate perspective; Tumarkin interviews and gets into the nitty-gritty and everyday existence of individuals who are personally affected by the darker complexities of life – such as teen suicide, the Holocaust, navigating through a flawed child custody system, addiction ect. These essays then tie back into how popular understandings of time we tell ourselves, fit within these realities.

Eggshell Skull (Bri Lee, 2018)

If I ever have a son I’m making sure he reads this. No exaggeration, calling it powerful just seems like a huge understatement, and everyone I know who’s read this, pulled an all-nighter and finished it in two days tops.

Eggshell Skull is the debut memoir of Bri Lee, which details her time working as a judge’s associate for the Queensland District Court – an experience which gradually forces Lee to fully recognise and confront her own long-repressed memory of the sexual abuse that she herself had survived as a child.

It’s exhausting and heartbreaking reading the extent of sexual abuse cases Lee is faced with during – what was only a year – of her time working for the District Court.

And reading it, I was just in complete awe of the strength it must have taken to be witnessing on a daily-basis, what the process looks like for victims who are brave enough to make an official complaint, and how frequently the legal system fails to achieve justice, and yet in spite of that still being prepared to seek accountability.

(Again embarrassingly, I also solely bought this book for the cover, having no idea what it was on – it’s a pretty great cover to be fair)

Oscar and Lucinda (Peter Carey, 1988)

Basically, the main reason I connected with this book when I read it five years ago was that the character Oscar Hopkins reminds me a touch of myself – in that he’s a fidgety, painfully socially awkward type who get’s too easily fixated on things (Oscar has a strict and conservative upbringing raised by a Plymouth Brethren minister though, so I don’t know what my excuse is).

Set in the mid-nineteenth century, Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier are two misfits who find each other on a ship heading from England to Sydney. Oscar is a trainee Anglican minister and Lucinda is the owner of a lucrative glass factory in Sydney, and their friendship essentially revolves around their mutual obsession with risk and gambling.

Without giving spoilers, the two things I particularly loved about this book were,

  1. the underlying influence of timing, and how the two characters lived such parallel lives and could have been perfect for each other, yet they are ultimately victims of both circumstance and their own inherent shyness (shit sorry that is a big spoiler – I suck)
  2. that whole idea of a church made of glass seems pretty cool – you could work on your tan and do some praising!!!

[*how shit was Packed to the Rafters though?]

The Reader of Novels

There’s a generic image of what an avid reader looks like (in Hollywood anyway): it’s someone who’s a bit dorky, socially awkward, maybe is fashioning some glasses and is introverted – and it’s built on the assumption that the act of reading is far from edgy or dangerous.

Now I know sitting in bed with a cup of tea and a book on a Friday night doesn’t exactly scream huge rebel. Yet throughout history, access to literature and books so often induced mass societal fear, that when you think about it, current attitudes towards reading don’t do justice to its long held rebellious reputation.

The past is scattered with instances where people feared the consequences of reading, and one particularly fascinating example of this is the Victorian era’s deep concern over the reading habits of women.

There is a 19th century painting by Antoine Wiertz’s called The Reader of Novels (1853), where a mysterious demon-like creature tempts a young naked reader with another book. This portrayal of a female reader, is a reflection of a prevalent Victorian anxiety – what increased female literacy would mean for their ‘purity’ and for larger society.

During this period in Europe, particularly in Britain, the female reader was the topic of public moral debate because she was a new reader.

Major shifts meant formerly untouched demographics, including women, now had much higher literacy levels and greater access to reading material. These changes included the rise of public libraries, and primary school education becoming compulsory.

Warnings to fathers and husbands, of the corruptible power novel reading had over women, was not a new thing; with humanist philosopher Juan Luis Vives cautioning in 1540,

‘A woman should beware of all these books, like as of serpents or snakes’

However this quantitative level of females regularly reading was unknown up until this point.

Embedded preconceptions of the intelligence capacity of women, meant that their ability to handle this new freedom (to logically interpret fiction) was under constant scrutiny.

By nature women were considered more fragile and impressionable, and thus many people opposed women reading without some level of guardianship, on both moral and medical grounds.

As a cautionary tale to parents, novelist Charlotte Elizabeth Browne wrote in 1841 of her experience reading The Merchant of Venice at aged seven,

‘Reality became insipid almost hateful to me’

This was a common argument: that girls and women were more prone to hysteria and more likely to get themselves lost in fiction rather than focus on reality.

Physicians like Dr John Harvey Kellogg, believed women were more susceptible to both escapism and addiction and thus reading as a habit had the potential to become ‘as inveterate as the use of liquor or opium’.

Many revered medical professionals of the time shared this view that exposure to novels could have a negative effect on women’s health. For instance, female physician Dr Mary-Ann Wood, stated in her book What Young Women Ought to Know (1899) that,

‘Romance-reading by young girls will, by this excitement of the bodily organs, tend to create their premature development, and the child becomes physically a woman months, or even years, before she should.’

The popularity of romance novels was also a subject of moral concern because it was feared they were corrupting influences on purity, and that they set unrealistic expectations.

A woman’s chastity was deemed immensely important during this time, and novel reading was seen as both a distraction to their domestic obligations, and a threat to the gender expectation to be a faithful and docile wife and mother.

Reflecting on an historical period where the notion that a woman can have independence over what she reads was still an emerging and highly contested, makes me further appreciate how incredible it is to be able to read and have access to knowledge, and creative works. It’s so easy to take for granted this freedom, so let some people  associate bookish types with being massive dorks, we know that they’re bad-asses! (at least by 19th century standards)

 

Sontag, Proust and Social Media Presence

I only got to about page 100 of French novelist Marcel Proust’s whopping seven volume love story, Remembrance of Things Past, before admitting defeat. Yet there were still snippets of it that inspired deeper thought on my part. One quote in particular, contemplating whether it’s possible to truly know somebody as a whole person, successfully sparked a small existential crisis in me over the intricacies that make up individual personalities,

‘If some misfortune comes to him, it is only in one small section of the complete idea we have of him that we are capable of feeling any emotion, indeed it is only one small section of the complete idea he has of himself that he is capable of feeling any emotion.’

This idea, that our knowledge of those we feel we know well, and even knowledge of ourselves, is incomplete and pieced together by representations, impressions and shared moments is powerful and poetic. But it’s also particularly daunting when read in a time shrouded by public performances of the self. After all, so much of social media’s charm is the control it gives us to present a perfectly curated version of our existence to the rest of the world.

The quote reminds me of Susan Sontag’s extensive writing on photography and its power to define who you are and ‘determine our demands upon reality’. Like Proust’s contemplation, Sontag’s theory that we build an understanding of ourselves and others through photography in the modern era, can be interpreted as a poignant insight into how we use social media to represent our personality and lived experiences, despite both being written in times where online platforms were non-existent.

The work of revered American academic, Susan Sontag, critically analyses multiple parts of modern life and the human experience. In 1977, she published On Photography, a collection of essays that had originally appeared in The New York Review of Books.

Reading On Photography now, its belief that photography has created an ‘aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted’ seems almost prophetic, and perhaps more apt to our current culture than to the time of its original release. Just like Proust’s suggestion that we are only ever granted a glimpse of the whole individual, Sontag’s claim that a photograph is a ‘pseudo-presence’ (an appropriation of ‘the thing being photographed’), is an incitement to look deeper for meaning.

Now, as somebody who needs to keep away from social media whenever I’m going through a period of fragile mental health, these insights are particularly moving. It’s too easy to scroll through social media posts and feel as though your own life or personality is somehow lacking.

Sontag and Proust are reminders that it’s futile to draw conclusions about yourself and other people’s existence based purely on what they are allowing you to see.
As Sontag argues, the ‘unlimited authority’ photography possesses in contemporary society is not actually warranted. We presume a photograph is an impartial ‘experience captured’, and we use them as a means of confirming our reality. Yet it shouldn’t possess that level of power because it’s only a representation and it does not automatically equate with truth.

Our social media platforms, and the endless web of beautiful images it surrounds us with, are only fragments of much more complex realities. We are more interconnected than ever, yet when we fail to recognise that all online presences are only representations, we risk feeling fuelling a harmful mindset that we’re the only ones who sometimes feel broken or unfulfilled.

Basing ideas about who a person is or what one’s own life ought to look like on any representation is flawed. As Proust and Sontag point out – our existence remains too layered and intricate to be adequately portrayed by one channel. Maybe I’ll always find social media a little triggering during bouts of loneliness and intense vulnerability, but at least I can attempt to put it into a rational perspective thanks to Proust and Sontag.

[This piece later appeared in Discord zine’s final edition]

Book Fate

Look, I don’t believe things happen for a predetermined cosmic reason. What’s the point in trying and living in this moment if it’s all already planned? But I do believe in book fate – I know it sounds strange, but let me explain.

I used to have a to-read list; but its length was getting more and more intimating, until it dawned on me that even if I ran away from all of my commitments and started living in a cave and drinking my own piss, there’s no way known I’d be done with that list in no less than thirty years.

So now I just let whatever I’m going to read next find me instead, and scarily what I’m reading tends to find me at exactly the right time and when I’m able to take the most out of it.

There are certain quotes and snippets of narrative, that I still love partly because of the solace they were able to give me at a certain point in my life when I first read them.

I needed to read Stephen Fry’s first two autobiographies – Moab is my Washpot and The Fry Chronicles, as an anxiety-ridden eighteen year old. This one line in particular made me feel like I wasn’t alone,

“I would always be the same maddening, monstrous, mixture of pedantry, egoism, politeness, selfishness, kindliness, sneakiness, larkiness, sociability, loneliness, ambition, ordered calmness & hidden intensity”

There’s the Fig Tree Analogy from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which at the time I remember thinking, it perfectly summed up that underlying fear of inadequacy when you’re surrounded by endless choice.

“I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and one by one they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

And then there are certain books which I probably would’ve quit if I had started reading them at any other time. For instance, Confederacy of Dunces: if I hadn’t have gone into reading it knowing that it was on Bowie’s list of top 100 books I would’ve quit it at the start (IF IT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR DAVID IT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU ELLEN YOU SCUM).

I just love letting some scungy looking second-hand book walk into my life and suddenly it’s changed me a little, for the better. It also gets bonus points if it has one of those old library stamp cards taped on the inside.