The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Describing the Indescribable: Jeff VanderMeer and Peter Mendelsund in Conversation


If you only bookmark one long(ish) thing to read today, make sure it’s the slightly bonkers conversation between Jeff VanderMeer, author of the Southern Reach Trilogy, and book designer Peter Mendelsund at Boing Boing:

JV: I very much like how you draw out in ‘What We See When We Read’ this idea of creation of character by the constraints around them. Which helps to create an outline of the character. It’s more or less how I thought of Control in ‘Authority’. Taking this even farther, I think that writers like Karen Joy Fowler do something even weirder where sometimes the absence of text or the cutting of text creates a ghost or resonance that allows the reader to fill in the space. Is there an equivalent effect in art/design? Perhaps it’s something you’ve played around with in your own work. An absence that denotes presence.

PM: “An absence that denotes presence” could be the definition of a good book cover. Good book covers are hard to make, I think, specifically because a designer is asked to deploy the facts of a narrative without showing anything explicit about the setting or characters. It’s a tricky balancing act. Everything is done by implication, proxy, metaphor or analogy.

So what is left off of a jacket is crucial. (I’ve often said that most of my day in the office is spent either suggesting things or hiding things.) I’m not an anti-intentionalist or anything, but I do believe that the reader deserves, to some extent, the right to co-create a fictional world alongside the author. So when you make the author’s world explicit on a cover, you’ve taken something from the reader.

The Southern Reach Trilogy — Annihilation, Acceptance and Authority — have now been collected into a single volume called Area X. While the original (American) covers were designed by Charlotte Strick with illustrations by Eric Nyquist, the new cover is by Rodrigo Corral:


VanderMeer also talks to his editor Sean MacDonald about the process of writing the books at the FSG Work in Progress blog. The post includes an amazing cover for the Polish edition of Acceptance. If anyone can tell me who the designer/illustrator is, I would be much obliged…


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