Literary Fiction: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

By choosing this book I have deviated from the books that I have picked so far. Yes literary fiction can be described as a genre, however when I use the word genre I usually have in mind such genres as fantasy or science fiction, genres that are outside of what is considered “good” literature. No one would argue that Love in the Time of Cholera is not a great, literary work. There are, sadly, plenty of people who think little of such genres as chick lit and self-help literature. It is my, very small, hope, that we will start respecting how different we are, and therefore respecting that our taste in literature (and music, come to think of it) is valid, and our own, and not for anyone to judge. But that is a matter for another post, and, indeed, another blog entirely.

Literary fiction, as you will see, will continue to stand out from the genres I have covered so far. To begin with, it is not only its merit but the issue of “genre” which sets it apart from the others. As a quick Google search with tell you, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what literary fiction is, and whether it is even a genre at all. To quote this last link, literary fiction is “experimental”, “unprecedented”, “nontraditional”, “original” – which means that the works belonging to this “genre” or this “not-genre” if you will, can have absolutely nothing in common between them. So how do you even begin to design a cover for something that has never existed before?

I believe Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, originally published in Spanish in 1985, proves just how difficult that can be. Here is the original cover:


What I feel when looking at this is lost for words – and not in a good way. What on earth is this cover supposed to tell us? I honestly think it looks like a manual for a tractor or something (I’m not even sure what the image is, is it a boat, a house, a houseboat?). Now I have to confess that I don’t know anything about Columbian cover art, so it is difficult for me to image the factors at play behind the decisions made here but I have to say I am greatly confused by this. All I know for sure is that by the time of the publication García Márquez was already an internationally acclaimed author, a Nobel Prize winner, which might mean that there was no need to make a big deal out of the cover as it was expected to sell anyway?

I think it is best to move on (but if anyone knows more about this cover please hit the comments!). The first US edition was published in 1988 by Alfred A. Knopf and tells a different story:


Love in the Time of Cholera is, as the title suggests, a love story, although some will disagree on how great the love that is depicted in the novel really is (a blogger argues that García Márquez “hypothesized that lovesickness is a literal disease, comparable to cholera. His characters suffer from love just as they would from any malady”). It is true that there is great suffering in this tumultuous love story and I think that is where this cover is coming from. The background colour alone suggests that the story takes place in a hot, exotic climate, and is indicative of the passion the characters feel. Then you have the woman at the center, a woman who is not from our time, a woman who is mysterious and difficult to decipher. As you will see in other covers the focus is very much on the love aspect, which could confuse readers looking for a simple love story that ends happily.

This next cover, published a year later in the UK by Penguin, is interestingly enough wildly different:


This just goes to show how difficult it is to design a cover for literary fiction, where the sky seems to be the limit. There is no genre to look to that can provide some guidelines. García Márquez’s works are known for being some of the greatest examples of magical realism, but it is difficult to say how that subgenre should look. How can a reader know what he is getting with a cover like this? It seems to be out of this world, as magical realism is, and the image corresponds to the event of the book, but that would not be known to those who haven’t yet read it. So what is it telling us? Maybe to be intrigued? To be curious? To prepare for something completely different? I am not saying I don’t like this cover, but I do think that it shows us how challenging it is to market literary fiction to the right audience (because who belongs to that audience, can a publisher even know that?). Also, as you can see, this cover would not work today as the text is illegible (although the focus is correctly on the author, which is perhaps the only thing that the publisher knows can sell the book for sure).
Penguin seem to have published another cover simultaneously in 1989, trying perhaps to understand what could appeal to their readers:


Again there are similar aspects, an otherworldly sense to it, the difference being that the former is out in space while this one is connected to nature, with bold colours, and quite sensual. The focus is on the author, the whole design would not work digitally, and there is yet again the question; would a customer know what he or she is getting? They might be intrigued but the only thing they could know for sure is that this is a novel by Gabriel García Márquez. As you can see I could really go on forever, with the multitudes of covers Love in the Time of Cholera has seen over the years:

1989, again from Penguin:








And the more recent ones, this one from 2007:


These two last ones, and other covers, choose to put the focus on the woman. That makes sense as the novel tells the story of a man obsessed with the love he has for a woman, and it also creates a sexy cover (and as we have all heard, sex sells). The same ideas are used for this Vintage Books cover, also from 2007:


This is quite erotic with the woman, the rose and the bold, red colour (looks like Twilight and all it’s copycats, actually). It also, just so you know, now a major motion picture. Speaking of, this cover from 2008 is for the film viewers so that they know that this is also a book (and for those who want Javier Bardem on their bookshelf):


Now this copy is one of many from 2007:


I think this one is my favorite. It is simple but contains many of the elements that have been used to market the book, without being too overt. What I believe the range of these covers tell us is that there are certain themes that are used to represent the book; there is of course love, passion, the female body, erotica but also nature, which can be wild, mysticism (whether on earth or in space), magic, and a mysterious aspect, often connected to the latin world, which for Western readers would be quite foreign to them. In the last few covers you start to see a development towards a clearer look, and Penguin has of course published the book in their Penguin Books, simplified series:


All in all I believe these covers prove my point; literary fiction is not as easy to market as other, more formulaic, genres. That is not necessarily a bad thing, for one there is more room for interpretation and play in the design of these covers. On the other hand it makes matters difficult when there are no rules to follow. Who is the audience for this book? How should they know what they are getting when they buy this book (since the genres are never written on a cover, the design is supposed to do that for the book)? The only available route seems to be to make as many contrasting covers as is financially viable and see what works best, which makes for a more fascinating experience for designers and readers alike (although a costly one for publishers, too bad for them).