08 February 2010

About Those Ugly NCL Covers

A comment left last week had me thinking – obsessing, really – about those horrible old New Canadian Library covers of my youth. That McClelland and Stewart used the series design for ten years begs the obvious question: Why?

It seems no one much liked them. In New Canadian Library: The Ross-McClelland Years, 1952-1978 (University of Toronto, 2008), Janet Friskney writes that from the start "booksellers, consumers, instructors, and students found the new cover art decidedly unappealing." I think the longevity is explained, at least in part, by those "instructors and students". Ms Friskney places them last, but they were very much at the front of NCL's sales. Captive readers, where else were they going to get The Tin Flute or The Double Hook?

That said, I wonder whether there wasn't something else going on. Ms Friskney tells us that in reacting to the design's poor reception Jack McClelland "balked at the kind of financial outlay another new cover would represent." I may be reading too much into Ms Finskey's use of "cover" as opposed to "design", but it occurs to me that each new cover must have been very cheap to produce. One simply positioned the text in the centre – more or less – of the appropriate box. No need to worry over images, never mind permissions, just choose from the abstracts provided by series designer Don Fernby. It seems any old one would do; the image used for Down the Long Table (above) is also featured on the covers of Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush, Ralph Connor's Glengarry School Days and no less than two Stephen Leacock titles (My Remarkable Uncle and Last Leaves).

The production values were extremely poor. With the new design, printing shifted from England's Hazell, Watson and Viney to our own T.H. Best. Not only did they use inferior paper, the new covers were invariably skewed. Worse still, even the gentlest touch appeared to cause injury. Though younger, some by as much as two decades, they usually show more wear than their earlier counterparts.

I do go on... perhaps because semester after semester, year after year, I was obliged to spend my meagre earnings on these ugly looking things. Yet, for all my complaints, I miss the content of the old NCL books. Offerings were diverse and often surprising. Germaine Guèvrement's The Outlander, Philip Child's God's Sparrows and Percy Janes' House of Hate have no place in the series' current safe and commercially-driven incarnation.

Right again, Joni Mitchell.


  1. IFrom the Cohen, I hadn't realised this series was so extensive in its ugliness. That Earle Birney features extensive use of what can only be described as 'shit brown'.

    The idea of them as Rorschach tests isn't bad. In fact, before knowing that they were apparently random abstracts, I thought the image on the Cohen cover you showed (and also on the Callaghan above) was two naked women at 180 degress to eachh other (there's sort of hair, breasts and legs visible).

    These are just AWFUL!

  2. Wow. I didn't see it before, but I sure see it now. And get this: Such is My Beloved is about a priest who befriends two prostitutes!

    Of course, the image also figures on the cover of The Fire-Dwellers by Margaret Laurence, which... well, the protagonist is a woman. And it's also on Brian Moore's The Luck of Ginger Coffey... let's not forget that Ginger is married to a woman (albeit only one). Then there are Matt Cohen's The Disinherited and Wooden Hunters, both of which feature female characters.

    It's all becoming clear.

  3. I keep thinking of the original edition of Alan Coren's "Golfing For Cats." Blood red with a large white circle, and in the circle's center a huge black swastika. He claimed it was because his publisher told him the three thinks people liked to buy books about were golfing, cats and the Third Reich. The awful New Canadian Library editions in this picture (dill pickle, pepto-bismol and blue on brown) really do look like some kind of exercise in how to supress sales. Why not red, white and swastika? It would work for Leonard Cohen, Richler, The Tin Flute, The Watch that Ends the Night and (close enough) John Buchan and The Handmaid's Tale. Okay, maybe not. But it would be at least as good as a purple and brown swirl that looks like the spin cycle.

  4. Spin cycle seems about right. I was reminded of the rings left by bottles of paint in my high school art classes. Then it occurred to me that all of the images look like stains and scratches left on the tables we used. I'm not so sure this is a coincidence.

  5. Do you think there's any chance of Friskney (or another author) writing a follow-up work about the NCL with a focus on the last three decades?

  6. Brad, I've wondered that myself. It would seem that the history of NCL becomes much less interesting after the Ross-McClelland Years. The list is much smaller, less imaginative and, as I've argued, more safe. True, today's NCL "has ensured that major books have remained in print and readily accessible to the reading public" (to quote the M&S site), but I maintain that the vast majority of current titles would be in print, whether the NCL existed or not.