Lolita: A Cover Girl Misunderstood

Posted inDesign Books
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Vladimir Nabokov did not want Lolita, his “poor little girl,” to become a cover girl for Lolita, his most celebrated and controversial novel.

Instead, he asked that the cover of his book — a novel whose plot revolves around a grown man’s sexual desire for young girls — showcase an American landscape. In a letter to the book’s first American publisher, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, he requested the following for the jacket’s design:

“I want pure colors, melting clouds, accurately drawn details, a sunburst above a receding road with the light reflected in furrows and ruts, after rain. And no girls.”

“And no girls.”

His request was explicit, and yet, 55 years later, the name Lolita does not bring melting clouds, or sunbursts, or receding roads to mind. No, it calls up the image of a girl — a teenage seductress with red lips wearing heart-shaped glasses. (The proof is in the Google image search results.)

But Nabokov’s “poor little girl” wasn’t a seductress. She was a victim, an innocent child at the mercy of her stepfather, Humbert Humbert’s, sexual appetite. How then did Lolita become a synonym for a young temptress?

According to Duncan White, the co-editor of Transitional Nabokov, misread book covers displaying a girl played a role.

In the introduction to the book Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl, co-editors John Bertram and Yuri Leving quote White saying:

“Lolita has been repeatedly misread on the cover of Lolita, and frequently in a way to make her seem a more palatable subject of sexual desire.”

These cover designs (and their movie poster counterparts) are part of the reason popular culture views Lolita as a sex symbol, and not the vulnerable, damaged girl Nabokov wrote. This reality suggests that book cover design influences how audiences enter a novel’s world and encounter its characters, and raises the larger question: What is the role and responsibility of a book designer?

Is it their job to interpret and then represent a text?

In his TED talk posted April 2012, “Designing books is no laughing matter. OK, it is,” Chip Kidd, a book designer at Alfred A. Knopf known for his work on classic covers like Jurassic Park and 1Q84, argues yes.

“…Once the book designer has read the text, then he has to be an interpreter and a translator,” Kidd says.

John Bertram, co-editor of Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl, agrees with Kidd, a belief that may have inspired him to commission a project to recover Lolita. Bertram charged eighty renowned graphic designers and illustrators (including Paula Scher, Jessica Hische, Jessica Helfand and Peter Mendelsund) to offer their own takes on the book’s jacket without instructions or demands from a marketing team. The result was 80 newly commissioned Lolita covers that span 82 glossy pages in Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl, and offer fresh takes on the novel.

Take a look at three of the new covers. What do you think? Did the designer interpret and translate the text? Would Nabokov have approved? What about Lolita?

lolita nabokov, cover design by Matt Dorfman

Cover Design of Nabokov’s Lolita by Matt Dorfman

nabokov lolita, cover design by Jen Wang

Cover Design of Nabokov’s Lolita by Jen Wang

lolita vladimir nabokov, cover design by Margot Harrington

Cover Design of Nabokov’s Lolita by Margot Harrington

To see more of the extensive Lolita gallery and delve deeper into the controversial novel that frustrates and entices designers, be sure to order a copy of Lolita: The Story of a Cover Girl.

For those interested in book design and the role of book designers in relation to authors and content, it may also be worth your while to check out Faceout Books, a blog that explores the process of book design for recent titles like Steve Martin’s, An Object of Beauty, and Ransom Rigg’s, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As the blog’s “About” page states it is a venue that, “…has been created to appreciate the practice of book cover design.”