Legendary American author Philip Roth died this week at age 84. Obituaries have heralded his impact on 20th-century literature as he explored themes of sexuality and Jewish identity, but Roth also helped advance a different field: book cover design.
The cover of Roth’s 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint was designed by Paul Bacon, a prolific cover designer who pioneered a style called the “Big Book Look,” a minimal, type-driven aesthetic. The style has become synonymous with literary genius and often connotes Great Man Fiction–of which Roth was the textbook definition.
Along with Roth’s book, Bacon also designed the original iconic covers for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Catch 22, and Slaughterhouse Five, all of which had big bold lettering in their titles and smaller conceptual images, rather than the previous tendency to fill a cover with a large, photo-realistic illustration.
While Bacon is credited with Portnoy’s Complaint alone, the same style and typography dominates the mass market covers for Portnoy’s Complaint; Goodbye, Columbus; When She Was Good; and more volumes between 1969 and 1975, even when they were released by other publishers.
The core feature of the cover is a serif font, identified as a variation of Caslon, that has become part of Roth’s brand as a writer and is instantly recognizable. (It was even used as the font for Alex Ross Perry’s film Listen Up Philip, in which the main character shares his first name and status as an “Asshole Author” with Roth.) Bacon was able to create a brand for Roth–and Roth’s popularity helped bring his style of cover design to the world. “Sometimes with a jacket, what you’re trying to do is essentially brand the book, as you would a corporation,” cover designer Peter Mendelsund told Think Progress after Bacon died in 2015. “You find some method, typographic or some emblematic image that will represent that thing. The brands that have survived in corporate culture are simple: They’re easy to remember, they’re eye-catching. So I think he sort of took that manner of thinking –I don’t know that he thought that overtly– but when I look at his jackets, I see that beautiful simplicity.”
That beautiful simplicity also cleverly masked the provocative story inside. In a 2002 interview with design writer Steve Heller, Bacon said that the reason he focused purely on typography for Portnoy’s Complaint was partially because the book was primarily about masturbation–a difficult topic to illustrate.
The font was also meant to aesthetically declare the book important. “There is a ‘serious man’ jacket, and it is definitely one that I think Paul [Bacon] originated,” Mendelsund, who’s the the associate art director at Alfred A. Knopf Books, told Think Progress. “This was such a boys’ club generation of fiction publishing. A lot of these writers we’re talking about, it’s Mailer, Vidal, Roth.”
It’s a sign of the times that the style is now just as common on books of women authors. Lena Dunham’s book cover for Not That Kind of Girl is composed almost entirely of a font that’s vaguely reminiscent of the one Bacon used for Roth. And the current FSG Classics reprinting of Roth’s books all use that same, familiar typeface–ensuring his brand will continue for the next generation of Roth readers.