Canberra Writers Festival 2018, Day 2, Pt 1: Art, Books and Politics

For my last day of the Canberra Writers Festival I chose two quite different sessions, as you will see! This post is on the first one …

(Note: these two posts will be in lieu of this week’s Monday Musings.)

The Art of Books

Chong, Bowers, Katsoukas

Chong, Bowers, Katauskas

I chose this session primarily because one of the participants was the multi-award-winning book designer, WH Chong (from Text Publishing) and, woo hoo, he was there, even though, once again, one of the advertised panelists, cartoonist-illustrator Jules Faber, was not. The other panelist was political cartoonist Fiona Katauskas, and the session was moderated by The Guardian Australia photographer and Talking Pictures presenter, Mike Bowers. It was, I must say, a hoot of a session – and it was held in the old Senate Chamber in Old Parliament House. I was keen to attend an event in one of the parliamentary chambers there and so that was an added plus.

Bowers was an lively moderator, sharing the questions, back and forth, between the two panelists, which was a bit of a challenge given they work in somewhat different fields. Still, Chong had started in journalism – working in The Age’s newsroom – and maintains an interest in political cartoonists, and Katauskas has illustrated books, so the disjunction wasn’t too great. For this post, I’m going to organise my discussion by person, though the actual session see-sawed between the two.

WH Chong

Jonathan Galassi, MuseBowers, who had also known Chong in earlier days, focused most of his questions, and examples, on Chong’s covers that feature typewriters and typewriter-style fonts. This gave Chong a chance to share his love of typewriters, and the fact that for most of those covers he used typewriters for the font, not digital fonts. One of the covers discussed was for Jonathan Galassi’s Muse, a novel about a poet. The letters of the word Muse are created with the letters for the word Poet (ie the M is made using “p”s, the U “o”s, etc). A concrete poem, in a way. A clever, striking design.

Janet Frame, In the memorial roomBowers asked Chong whether he thought the online world is causing the death of good design, but Chong felt not, arguing that the ratio of good to bad design, remains the same. There’s some great design online he said. Bowers also asked him whether the rules of design changed for online books versus print. Chong wanted to know what those “rules” were! But then said that they were basically the same, regardless of form: you make author’s name and the title as big as possible, and use as much colour as possible!

Another question concerned fonts, and whether Chong had favourite and disliked fonts. Chong admitted to having changing favourite fonts, but quoted someone (whose name I didn’t catch) as saying that there is “no such thing as a bad type, just type badly used”. Chong added, with a straight fact, that typeface (or font) is a serious matter and he ”won’t be typecast.” Haha.

D'Ambrosio, The dead fish museumSome process issues were discussed, such as who approves covers. Chong said, basically everyone, including the author’s hairdresser, dog, etc etc! Haha, again. But, he did say that Text works collegially, which was lovely to hear. Bowers then asked how important is the cover. Chong seemed to think that it’s not that important, but that marketing and publishers believe “it is important in our noisy world” so  “who is he to complain?”

Bowers, you can see, did well at asking all those questions we’d like to ask. Another one was whether he looks back – perhaps in horror – at old work. Again Chong quoted someone else, this time I did get the name, Bob Dylan, who said “Never look back, you might catch up.”

Finally, before we leave Chong, Bowers asked him whether he reads the book first. He prevaricated a bit here saying “y-e-e-s” which meant, I gathered, “mostly but not always.” He’s a slow reader he says, and he only sees the draft.

This was a terrible session because almost every book cover shown introduced me to a book I want to read.

Fiona Katauskas

Fiona Katauskas, The amazing true story of how babies are madeNow, Katauskas. Bowers started by asked her about her book The amazing true story of how babies are made. She wrote it, she said, because when needing to answer her 5-year-old son’s questions she discovered the only book around was the now old Where do I come from? The book has been very successful, shortlisted for both the CBC and ABIA awards, and is now being animated. It was a different project she said from her more usual work of political cartooning. For one thing, it was not cynical! Bowers then asked her to share the shock! horror! furore that developed in the UK and USA after someone posted some images from the book on Facebook. Katauskas has written about the story in July’s The Monthly article. The ridiculous thing is that the book hadn’t even been published in those countries. It was a good lesson in clickbait, she said, but the result is that a US book deal now looks likely!

John Birmingham, PopelandBowers then asked Katauskas about her cover for John Birmingham’s Popeland. She loves doing book illustrations, even though it’s one of the worst-paid jobs, but unfortunately, she said, this sort of work is drying up these days. Anyhow, her illustrations – cover and inside – were inspired by books like Captain Goodvibes, boys’ own adventure books and The Beano. She described researching the fun of 1930/40s Beano books in the State Library. These commissions tend not to come with briefs. She receives the manuscript, and a statement that, say, there’s a budget for 10 illustrations. She talked about the process of ensuring there’s a “visual cadence” underpinning the illustrations through a book.

The conversation then turned to political cartooning which forms the bulk of her work. You really had to be there and I’m afraid I’m going to say that, to some degree, what happened in the room – such as stories about (very) contemporary (if you know what I mean) Australian political figures – will stay in the room.

I will however share some of the discussion about modern political satire. Katauskas admitted that the “best of times for satire is worst of time for everyone else.” Ouch! Chong asked whether we were beyond parody and satire, to which Katauskas replied (not perhaps answering Chong’s question) that “it’s hard to take the piss when they’re giving it away.” (You can guess who some of “they” were!) Bowers shared that satirist comedian Bryan Dawe is so concerned about politicians moving into the satirists’ domain that he’s considering bringing a class action against them. You can see what fun we had.

Fiona Katauskas, Obama and Rudd

Fiona Katauskas cartoon

Katauskas commented on the importance of publisher Scribe’s annual Best Australian political cartoons publications because they recognise that political cartoons are historical documents. She also talked about her job of researching cartoons for the annual exhibition of political cartoons, Behind the lines, and how she sees some recurring themes over the last fifteen years, the two major ones being asylum seekers and climate change.

Chong then asked whether we are beyond (or past) hope – but that question just hung.

Q & A

There were several questions, but I’ll just share the one about what media or technology Chong and Katauskas use. Both, interestingly, prefer to work in an analog way. Katauskas said she’s “old school”, and loves working with her pen dipped in ink. Chong said he was “very analog.”

Moderator, and photographer, Mike Bowers talked about the joy of working with good journalists, and named some of those he loves working with –  Paul Daley (with whom he has produced the book Armageddon), Katherine Murphy, Gabrielle Chan, and Lenore Taylor. With the breakup of the media and more people working alone, these important relationships are being lost.

He ended with the plea to us to “pay for your journalism.” I do, I wanted to say.

Monday musings on Australian literature: ABDA 2017 Shortlist

Five years ago, I wrote a Monday Musings on book design, in which I featured three book designers. I’ve mentioned book design occasionally since then but, having just seen the shortlist for this year’s ABDA (Australian Book Design Awards) which are sponsored by the ABDA (the Australian Book Designers Association), I’ve decided to write another post on this aspect of the thing we love – books!

ABDA describes the awards as celebrating “the bravest and brightest, the most original and beautiful books published in Australia each year”. This year’s awards are the 65th! 65 years of celebrating book design! That’s wonderful, really. They make awards in sixteen categories, including four awards in Children’s and YA categories, and awards for specialist areas like Cookbooks, Fully-illustrated books, and Educational books.

I couldn’t possibly list all these, but if you are interested you can find them at the link I gave in the first paragraph. I will just focus on two categories, Literary Fiction and Non-fiction:

Heather Rose, The museum of modern loveLiterary Fiction

  • George Orwell’s 1984 (Text): WH Chong
  • Ellen van Neerven’s Comfort food (University of Queensland Press): Josh Durham (Design by Committee)
  • Melissa Ashley’s The birdman’s wife (Affirm Press): Christa Moffit
  • Heather Rose’s The museum of modern love (Allen & Unwin): Sandy Cull (GoGo Gingko)

Maxine Beneba Clarke, The hate raceNon-fiction

  • Ashleigh Wilson’s Brett Whiteley: Art, life and the other thing (Text): WH Chong
  • Damon Young’s The art of reading (Melbourne University Press): Mary Callahan
  • Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The hate race (Hachette Australia) (my review): Allison Colpoys
  • Andrew Hankinson’s You could do something amazing with your life (Scribe): Jenny Grigg

I’m impressed by the number of smaller publishers here. Seems they support good design too, and carefully “curate” the whole work. Certainly Melissa Ashley seems to think so …

Melissa Ashley,The birdman's lifeMelissa Ashley, author of the shortlisted The birdman’s wife, has posted on her blog about the shortlisting of her book’s cover. The novel, historical fiction, is about Elizabeth Gould the wife and accomplice of the famous ornithologist and artist, John Gould. Ashley writes:

It was my secret hope that Elizabeth Gould’s iconic, hand-coloured lithograph of the superb fairy wren featured in the cover design for The Birdman’s Wife. You can imagine how chuffed I felt when my editor, publisher, and book-designer felt the same way.

Authors don’t always have a say in their covers, but clearly Ashley did, and she was thrilled with the result. She praises “the visionary generosity of Affirm Press”. She loves not just the cover but the book’s whole design because, of course, book design is not just about the cover.

Back in 2012, I named three book designers – Dean Gorissen (who was one of the designers used by Affirm Press), WH Chong (who worked for Text Publishing – and still does, as their Design Director) and Sandy Cull (who has her own company, GoGoGingko). You’ve probably noticed in the lists above that Affirm Press is still employing great designers, and that Chong and Cull are still producing quality, award-attracting designs.

As well as sponsoring these design awards, ABDA also maintains a hall of fame, whose eight members include:

  • Alec Bolton (an independent publisher whom I’ve mentioned here before)
  • W.H. Chong (link above)
  • Patrick Coyle (the first nominee to the Hall of Fame, in 1994)
  • Sandy Cull (link above)
  • Arthur Stokes (a book designer and previous judge of the awards. A report on the 1978/9 awards, commented on the “lively” two days of judging, and that “Arthur Stokes kept remarkably calm but did complain that the other judges ‘kept sitting down and reading the books'”.)

Interestingly, while I was researching the hall-of-famers, I found a report on the 1972/73 design awards. Apparently the judges that year were disappointed in the quality, and they named some of the issues. For example, they said that “there was little awareness of contemporary design” and a lack of imagination. “Typography,” they said, “lacked detailed decisions” particularly regarding “sans serif and serif type faces – sans serif was often used inappropriately”. I was once told to use serif type for text, and sans serif for headings. I wonder if that’s what they were referring to, and whether this is still recommended practice?

They talked about the jackets, and the type used being either “out of character with the book” or comprising “a multitude of different faces”. Yes! I remember, years ago, reading an article titled “Font shock”. It was when word processing first became a tool used by all of us and the temptation was to throw every font available in the one document, but it reminded me once again that “less is more” or to “kiss“.

They also commented on poor cropping and sizing of photographs. Hmm, I hope they never look at my blog!

I found all this fascinating.

I briefly mentioned (or inferred) what I like in a book design in my 2012 Monday Musings post so won’t repeat it here. Instead, I’ll say what I don’t like! I don’t like:

  • small print (because my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be)
  • low contrast between paper and print so that the print is not easy to read
  • cheap paper that feels nasty
  • binding that stops the book falling open easily
  • tiny margins (which prevent easy marginalia writing)
  • no index (in non-fiction books)
  • covers that stereotype
  • covers that mislead regarding their content

I’d love to know what you like or don’t like in book design, and if you want to name a recent favourite or two, do go ahead and share it with us.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Judging a book by its cover

“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is one of those mantras that we’ve all heard. It’s a pretty valid one too – literally and metaphorically – but that doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy looking at bookcovers and handling beautifully produced books, does it? At least that’s how I see it as a reader. For sellers, it’s a different matter. For them, there is everything to be gained and nothing to be lost in having beautiful looking and feeling books on their shelves. They know that even a nerdy reader like me will be attracted by a gorgeously produced book, will want to pick it up and fondle it and, if content matches the form, will then go ahead and buy it.

I am not going to go into the art and economics of book design here, but there is some new thinking afoot with the rise of the ebook. Publishers are starting to think again about form (and content, of course!). If you are interested in the topic, read this Guardian article by Kathryn Hughes.

Monday Musings though is about Australian literature and so I’m just going to talk about a few Australian book designers. This will be completely serendipitous because, while I do love to handle a beautiful book, I’m one of those readers who tends to be oblivious to the hard work of those behind its production. So, here goes, with apologies to all those wonderful designers I’ve overlooked.

Dean Gorissen

Michael Sala The last thread bookcover

The last thread (Courtesy: Affirm Press)

I discovered Gorissen only recently through the books he has designed for Affirm Press. I’ve reviewed three books in the Long Story Short Series and Michael Sala’s The last thread, all of which were designed by Gorissen. On his blog he has announced that he received a Bronze award in New York’s 3×3 Illustration Annual for the Long Story Short series and that the last three books in this series – the three I reviewed – won Gold in the Illustrators Australia Awards for 2012. What can I say? These are beautiful books – just a little smaller than the usual paperback which makes them nice to hold and tote around, and with intriguing cover designs that make you think.

On his blog Dean says this about designing his cover for The last thread:

It’s an inspiring often disturbing book and its challenge to me was to try and bring out the qualities of loneliness, sorrow, hope and ultimate strength of Michael’s story

Sandy Cull (gogoGinkgo)

Valley of Grace book cover (Courtesy: Allen & Unwin)

One of my favourite recent(ish) paperbacks – to read and hold – is Marion Halligan‘s Valley of Grace. It’s one of those books that falls open beautifully, making it easy to read. Its font type and size is – yes – easy to read. It has a rich, yellow cover that almost glitters, and yet is subtle at the same time. And, it has flaps, like a hardback. In other words, lovely to hold and read.

Cull, who has twice won the APA Best Designed Book of the Year award, worked for Penguin for many years, before setting up her own company, gogoGinkgo, in 2005. In 2010 she started a blog, aboutbookdesign, to “chinwag about designing for the publishing industry in Australia”. It’s worth a peek. Oh, and she judged the Illustrators Australia Awards in 2011, for which Dean Gorissen designed the “call for entries”.

WH Chong

Murray Bail, The pages

The pages (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

My third example of a book I like is a hardback.  I tend to prefer paperbacks, mainly because they are smaller and lighter to carry. You won’t be surprised to hear, then, that my favourite hardbacks, from a design point of view, tend to be short books. Murray Bail‘s The pages is such a book. The cover was designed by WH Chong, who apparently works regularly with Susan Miller, an “internal designer”. Chong is a long time designer with Text Publishing, and he too, like Cull, writes a blog, called Culture Mulcher. And, like Gorissen and Cull, he has won awards for his covers. One of his awards was for John Marsden’s Hamlet. You might like to read his comments about it on this Book Design blog.

Anyhow, back to The pages. I like it because the cover is subtle and understated, which works well for this spare book about a man’s attempt to write a new philosophy. It has rough cut pages. At least some of the pages are, which works well because they give the book a lovely tactility without making it too tricky to open and turn the pages …

… which brings me to my reader’s manifesto about book design. A book must function well as a book. I do wish more publishers would think about that when they choose binding, paper edges, paper type, and font type and size.

There’s so much more to explore about book design – and particularly about how designers are meeting current challenges, not only those presented by the e-book phenomenon but also by the demand for sustainability. Meanwhile, though, you know what I’m going to ask! How important is book design to you, and what are your favourite books from a design perspective?