BOOKS

Rejected Cover Designs For 'Can't And Won't' By Lydia Davis

08/05/2014 08:17 am ET | Updated Aug 05, 2014
Charlotte Strick

Rejected Covers is an ongoing series for which artists reveal their inspirations and unused design ideas for popular titles.

Below, former Faber & Faber Art Director Charlotte Strick describes her design process for Lydia Davis's latest short story collection, Can't and Won't. Strick now co-directs Strick&Williams, a design firm focused on the arts, education and publishing.

Lydia Davis is a noted translator of Proust and Foucault. Her fiction writing, which is mostly composed in the medium of very short stories, has also earned her a Man Booker International Prize and MacArthur Fellowship.

Can't and Won't is the fourth book by Lydia Davis that I've had the privilege of working on. I’ve become a bigger fan with each new title, not just because of Davis’s original way of telling a very short story (sometimes just one sentence) but also because her particular use of language offers up so many little gifts for her readers -- and for this devoted book jacket designer.

"The Cows” is the longest story in this collection, and cows by nature "can’t and won’t." They typically require a lot of waiting around. This sparked an idea early on in my design process.

Davis describes three cows in the field opposite her house with keen interest and respect, in lines like this:

When they all three stand bunched together in a far corner of the field by the woods, they form one dark irregular mass, with twelve legs.

As well as musings about their emotional lives:

They are not disappointed in us, or do not remember being disappointed. If, one day, when we have nothing to offer them, they lose interest and turn away, they will have forgotten their disappointment by the next day. We know, because they look up when we first appear, and don't look away.

These observations struck a chord with me, and I asked illustrator Ariana Nehmad Ross to paint some cows worthy of grazing around Lydia’s title type. In an early sketch I tried an all-over wallpaper pattern of tiny cows that I imagined as a pre-printed case, but that looked purely decorative and wrong for the title Can’t and Won’t. Next, I took a more minimal approach with a white background, a single cow and large, stately green typography that sprouted grass -- transforming the jacket into a pasture.

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Ariana and I went through several rounds of cows. At first they all felt too disengaged and then "not gestural and painterly enough." Lydia hoped they would be "slightly threatening" while also "curious." We changed to a 3/4-view and facial expressions that made it clear these cows weren’t willing to move from their positions on the page, but it started to feel to everyone like the whole cow idea was too cute and Lydia’s work is not cute. She had warned me by email that she "might simply feel in the end that any image of a cow over-determines the way the book is approached..." Clearly it was time to move on.

These early sketches look so fussy to me now, though Ariana’s painting style is simple and sophisticated and the color would be just as limited in the final jacket design. That "final" design was actually one of my very first ideas, scribbled in a notepad, but instead of working it out I’d been seduced by Davis’s bovine neighbors and lost my way. Often you need to build a jacket design till it’s dense with ideas – then find the time, will and clarity to strip, strip, strip away. Lydia’s writing is that stripped down too, and to get a design right for her work I need to remind myself of this.

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At first I was sorry to see these cows amble off my jacket design, but when I looked back at my computer screen, I saw that what was left was a blank space and these words:

...because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t.

I had to laugh -- it turns out I’d been pretty stubborn too! Davis’s sentences hadn’t needed embellishment; they’d just needed me to stop thinking beyond their simple statement... and for me to find an equally straightforward way to set them on a page.

Finally, I choose to deboss all these words to give them another layer of strength. Like the cows, this book (and its jacket) now quietly stands its ground, daring you to look away.

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