I have just become a part of the publicity campaign for Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History. The book has been demanding my attention—not because of its content, of which I am safely ignorant, but its cover. I had to make a second trip to the bookstore to confirm that the cover was actually the way I remembered it. I picked up a copy of the novel and ran my hand over it as if it were a Gianni Versace suit. The book looks damn good in its jacket. It may, in fact, have the perfect jacket, a cover which symbolically represents not only the work but the promotional campaign behind it.
The dust jacket of The Secret History is transparent. The title, borders, and blurbs are printed onto clear plastic that hovers over a gold-tinted photo of a Greek statue’s head. Slip the dust jacket off, and only the photo remains. It is, in effect, a disposable title. While clear covers can of course have a certain aesthetic potential, I see no artistic principles being upheld in the cover of The Secret History. Perhaps everything contained on the dust jacket—the logrolling blurbs, the Donna-Tartt-aged-28 photo—is meant to be ephemeral. Remove them and you have only the cover design and the book’s “permanent” title printed on the spine, the way one would encounter it on a library shelf. I doubt, however, that this is the case.
I may be judging the cover without ever getting to the book. It doesn’t matter. The dust jacket of The Secret History is transparent and the marketing campaign behind it is equally transparent. With the allied forces of agents (ICM), publisher (Knopf), and Hollywood (Pakula Productions) supporting it, this book can never be judged solely for its content. It becomes product, a disposable title, conceivably overrun and condemned to the bargain bin. Donna Tartt has been strategically placed in most of the fashion and literary magazines during the past month; she has been inescapable. She looks different in every photograph, mutating between periodicals, as if she were enrolled in the Cindy Sherman Witness Protection Program. The photos suggest a formidable, mysterious glamour, like the weird women on “Twin Peaks” (I should state categorically that Donna Tartt is the thinking man’s Sherilyn Fenn). I don’t know whether or not it is important that she can drink most men under the table. It makes me imagine the promoters playing “Mississippi Queen” in the background at her readings and book signings. The amount that Knopf paid for the rights, $450,000, although arguably a payment for quality, still contributes to the hype and is more significant than any review or recommendation. “If Knopf’s willing to put down nearly a half million on this woman, she must be something,” or so the conventional wisdom goes.
The Secret History is, like the novels of Douglas Coupland, something I might like to read; but I am not sure I want to support the marketing end of it with my cash (it costs $23). The novel remains to me a pop tart: something that tastes great, comes in an ingenious package, and is assuredly fortified with vitamins and iron.