The Brightest Thing in the World: 3 Lectures from The Institute of Failure

1) Pick it up. Put it down. Cross out the parts you don’t like. I kind of think that’s what the author wants you to do. His name is Matthew Goulish, and his main argument in this series of lectures is that rupture, transgression, and failure lead to innovation. In the author’s words, “To understand a system, study its failure.”

2) My own failures with respect to this book revolve around two axes. The first is my ignorance of some of the figures Goulish mentions throughout the text. Martin Heidegger, for example. I fancy myself a well-read individual, but I couldn’t name anything by Heidegger. So when I read about him, even oblique references to the man, I feel like I’ve missed out on something. Could I rectify the situation? Yes. Do I? No. The same could be said for my second failing: my inability to grasp even the most basic mathematical concepts. This failure impeded my understanding of a brief lecture titled “The Butterfly Catastrophe.”  Together these failures, according to the logic of this book, give me a unique perspective on Goulish’s argument. More accurately, I suppose, the unique dimension of my failures gives me a unique perspective on this point. It probably also says something about me an my character. I’m a kind of creature who’d like to think of myself as learned but who won’t take steps to address the gaps in my learning.

3) In addition to studying failure, Goulish also attempts to examine the meaning of a life. There’s a distinction to made her between the meaning of life and the meaning of a life. As in one life. As in someone’s life. As in What is the meaning of your life or my life or Goulish’s life. To investigate this problem, he looks at an early twentieth-century naturalist named W.N.P. Barbellion, among whose works is an essay titled “Curious Facts in the Geographical Distribution of British Newts.” It sounds funny, like a Monty Python sketch. And maybe Goulish’s lip was curling into a subtle smile as he gave this lecture. Maybe. Probably. I’m guessing it was. There’s something funny about all of this.

4) “Funny” in the academic sense of the word. Dry humor. Academic humor. I probably missed half of the jokes, and that’s being generous to myself. I wouldn’t be surprised if knowing more about Heidegger would have made this book a scream. I’d have laughed out loud, wiping tears from my eyes as I turned each page. Heidegger was a Nazi sympathizer, by the way. I only know this because Goulish mentions it.

5) The closest comparison I can make is to the writing of Jean Baudrillard or Jacques Derrida. Dropping these names is as much a ploy to make up for not knowing anything about Heidegger as it is to give you a sense of what this book is like. What I mean to say is the he writes like a philosopher. A French philosopher.

6) The Institute of Failure is real.

7) For the most part, I really enjoyed this book.

Designing for a Small Press. Big Rewards. (smaller fees) – Essay by Lon Kirschner

In the Fall of 1991, I received a phone call in response to a promotional mailing I had sent to publishers advertising my studio’s book jacket designs. The promotion was unique in that it was quite small, only 3 ½ by 5 inches and arrived in a hand-addressed envelope. This gave it the look and feel of a personal invitation, not another mailer from an art studio.

As I write this in 2012, printed mailings and telephone inquiries seem quaint but were a very human way to make contact with a prospective client. Someone had to take the time to open the envelope, hold something in their hand, read some copy and then, if you did it right, make a phone call and have a conversation. Aside from the conversation, this is much the same way a well-designed book jacket should work. Something sparks your interest, you pick it up, read some back or flap copy and, if the package is right, you’re hooked.

That phone call was from Martin Shepard, who along with his wife and co-publisher Judith, run
The Permanent Press, a small independent publisher of quality fiction.

Marty and I spoke for several minutes, long enough for us to feel each other out. During that first
conversation I learned several things:

1. Marty was a sincere and honest man who published because he believed in his authors and
their work. He published what he and Judy would want to read.

2. He had an artist’s sensibility and knew the importance of a good cover and its impact on how a
book would be perceived.

3. Independent publishers do not have deep pockets.

For some designers, point 3 could have been a problem, but we agreed to give it a try due to the fact that the print schedule of the press would allow me to work on several covers at a time, but the most exciting part of this venture would be the working relationship I would have with The Permanent Press.

There was Marty, and there was me. No account guy, no marketing guy, no focus group guy. It was just us two guys. This could be a dream client.

My first assignment was Postcards from Pinsk by Larry Duberstein. I read the manuscript, got to work and turned in my cover concept. Marty loved it. All was right with the world.

Then the phone rang.

It was Larry, “The character on the cover is too fat. Can we slim him down”?

Dream client?

It must be said that Larry Duberstein is a wonderful person and author and meant no harm in his comments. He genuinely loved the cover and even more so when an eraser (pre-computer) solved the cover’s slightly “weighty” appearance. We went on to produce another half dozen covers together (without ever once again
needing an eraser).

The point of this is that although my ultimate approvals come from the publisher, I as a cover designer have become very aware of the author and their feelings of wanting to be involved. Marty and I have developed a policy that works like this: “We welcome your suggestions and will always listen to them but we make no promises.” This sometimes proves difficult for an author. They have worked tirelessly on a book and have a unique and emotional relationship with it, they feel they know exactly how the cover should look.

Is it a good or a bad thing to let an author be involved in the development of a cover? After more than
20 years and well over 120 covers, I still haven’t fully decided. I can’t say that I have ever taken an author’s suggestion and created a cover based solely upon it. What I can say is that if you stop and listen, you may get a better understanding of the author’s intent even if the graphic representation presented may not be quite right.

This brings to mind a wonderful book, The Chester Chronicles by Kermit Moyer. The story of Chester’s life is told by stringing together a series of short stories. Individually, each story can stand on its own, but together they become a life. A life that is dominated by the relationship between a boy and his father.

Kermit did not make any initial suggestions for a cover design. The original concepts I created were not quite right. They just didn’t do the book justice. After several emails with the author I began to get a better understanding of where we should be going. The final cover, an image of a vintage car heading down the road has a nostalgic overall feeling. The cover reflects the power of the father figure and also serves as a subliminal reminder that life is a road that must be travelled. Combined with some retouching, a typographic treatment and color scheme, it became the complete package. When I found this image, I knew it was going to be the cover due to my contact with Kermit. When Kermit saw the final design he was thrilled, it was everything he wanted the cover to be.

Many times an author will make one little suggestion that in fact helps elevate the cover and gives it an extra push. A suggestion by the brilliant Leonard Rosen to include a figure of his protagonist on the cover of All Cry Chaos was something that both Marty and I resisted. We felt it would confuse the bizarre cover image but in the end, the addition of that figure in such a strange landscape set the stage beautifully for the first Henri Poincaré mystery thriller.

There is nothing more satisfying than having an author tell me that the cover is perfect. It is what I strive for. As a cover designer, I get one chance to state my case as opposed to an author who gets to build his case page after page.

Most of the covers I produce do not have the input of the author. I read each manuscript as I find it very hard to grasp a book wholly by reading several pages of a synopsis (unless that is all that is available). I have been asked many times if it is worth the time and effort. My answer to this question is that more than once the idea for the cover has come on page 209 of a 211 page manuscript.

This is not to say that I choose to illustrate a particular moment in the story, it is more likely that something in the text sets off an idea that in the end becomes the basis for the cover.

My hope is that when someone reads a book, they will look back at the cover and say to themselves “yes, that is what this book is about.”

The world of publishing is constantly changing. Internet shopping and digital delivery present new challenges to authors, designers and publishers, but in the end, no matter what the form, a book is still a book—an idea pieced together with words from an author’s unique idea. In much the same way a cover is still a cover—a package to present that unique idea whether it be printed on paper or illuminated on an e-reader.

Many years ago, the Creative Director at Bantam Publishing said to me, “If I can get them to pick up the book, then I have done my job.” In this day of internet book selling and online browsing the rules may have changed slightly but the basic concept hasn’t: “If I can get them to click on it, then I have done my job.”

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Lon Kirschner is a graphic designer who has designed logos, packaging, film posters and of course book jackets. You can see more of his work at

To Befriend a Fox

Recently, PS Books asked me to edit a collection of poetry by Richard William Pearce and also to provide a foreword for that collection. Since a review would likely be somewhat biased, I will, instead, post the foreword that I wrote. Apologies in advance for the length of this post. The book is called To Befriend a Fox, and the foreword is titled “To Befriend a Poet.”

To Befriend A Poet

Richard Pearce hid his depression in plain view. On good days, his dreams and ambitions had no bounds. He’d dive headfirst into whatever captured his imagination: painting, boxing, strong man competitions, and, of course, poetry. His ambition with respect to the latter was to be anthologized, to have his work discussed and debated among poets and scholars, yet it was his interest in other fields that turned his public readings into events not to be missed.

In bookstores and art galleries throughout the Philadelphia area, a Richard Pearce reading meant a gathering of the most disparate elements of the poet’s life: his mother (a nursery school teacher) seated next to a body-builder seated next to the editor of Weird Tales, one of many journals that published his wide range of work. At these events, Rich would make us laugh not only with the content of his poetry (“The Frog” and “Repo Man,” reproduced in this volume, are shining examples of how whimsical he could be at the best of times) but also with his ebullient presence. That the man could work an audience with the ease of a standup comic concealed, or at least mitigated, the pain inherent in much of his work. He was a performer, but, more than that, he was a poet—one who loved his audience and wanted nothing more than to connect on the most human of levels.

One thing that always mystified Rich was the publishing industry. The decisions of editors to accept or reject his work never made sense to him. The first of his poems ever to reach a wide audience was the aforementioned “Repo Man,” and it was published in what was, at the time, a pretty big journal. Yet while “Repo Man” was a favorite for both Rich and his loyal coterie of fans, the poet in him knew that it wasn’t his “best” work. When he submitted subsequent, “better” poems to the journal in question, however, they were rejected outright. Pressed for an explanation, the editor simply replied that Rich’s later work didn’t rise to the quality of “Repo Man.” This, in Rich’s opinion, was idiotic, and he was quick to let the editor know it—and, over time, antagonizing those who held his poetic fate in their hands became one of his lesser hobbies.

In a letter dated June 2, 2003, Rich writes, Speaking of f—ing with people, another editor TOTALLY trashed some poems I sent her. She sent them back with red pen marks all over them, telling me how this was no good and that was no good… She also went to the trouble of schooling me on grammar and generally how to get the “meaning” of the poem across to the reader without the reader having to struggle to discern it for herself. I took the letter, wrote, “Jean, are you retarded?” then sent it back to her… Shortly thereafter, I sent her six absolutely RIDICULOUS poems (which I’ve included herein). Among the poems was one that opened with the couplet Stevie Wonder cannot see/Cannot see, oh me, oh me! Another consisted only of the word tuna centered on the page. And when Rich returned his attention to the editor who published “Repo Man,” he went so far as to tell her that he was dying, and sent along a somber poem, “Green Hillsides in Winter.” Again, Rich’s words say it best: All an attempt to make her feel like shit for writing what she wrote, but I think I actually managed to produce a halfway decent poem as a result.

As an editor, I can appreciate how aggravating Rich’s shenanigans may have been to his victims, but as a writer, I sympathize with his impulse to antagonize. He said the things I always wanted to say when, through gritted teeth and a forced smile, I would thank editors for taking the time to consider my work. But although Rich was a mercurial trickster, he was also plagued with second thoughts. At one point, he went so far as to wonder whether a harsh rejection from one editor was a form of cosmic payback for the hard time he’d given to another. I probably wouldn’t have given the letter I sent a second thought, wouldn’t have bothered wondering how badly I (possibly) hurt [the first editor’s] feelings, if my own feelings hadn’t been hurt by the [second editor], he writes in one of the last letters I received from him, underscoring the fact that beneath his devil-may-care attitude, Rich was, at heart, a sensitive soul.

Shortly before he took his own life, Rich called me to talk about—of all things—Son of Godzilla. What bothered him about the movie wasn’t so much that Godzilla had a son or even that the son knew how to speak, but that when the tropical island where Godzilla lived froze over at the end of the movie, the radioactive lizard went into hibernation. Lizards don’t hibernate, Rich insisted. If the weather gets too cold, they die.

In some ways, it was just like all of the other conversations we’d had over the years—part humorous, part serious, largely inconsequential. But when I learned some days later that he had died, the whole conversation, like everything else I knew about Rich, took on a whole new meaning: his jokes, his poetry, his love the first line of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground—“I am a sick man.”  All of these things suddenly and in hindsight revealed my friend to be far more sensitive, far more delicate than I ever imagined. Yet it’s Rich’s very sensitivity that makes the poems that follow so meaningful, so moving. Throughout this collection, my friend, the poet, bares his soul in ways that are sometimes playful, sometimes painful, and frequently both at once. He was a rare talent, a dedicated artist, and a caring friend. I only wish I’d known him better.

Why I Love Small Presses

Just a quick note on one of the many reasons why I love small presses.

A few days ago, my friend and publisher Martin Shepard of the Permanent Press sent me a few books he thought I might like. One of them was a novel that was published in 2007 and sold about 400 copies. A subsequent novel by the same author, Marty explained, only sold 140 copies. Yet Marty and his wife, Judith, decided to go ahead and publish a third novel by the same author. In Marty’s words, “Hey, if you like a writer, no reason to give him or her up just because sales are almost non-existent.”

As someone who’s spoken to a good number of editors and agents (and who reads extensively about the publishing industry), I can say with complete certainty that I’ve never heard anyone associated with a major publishing conglomerate say anything even close to what Marty said in his brief note. He publishes books because he loves them — and loves sharing their work with the world — not because they might make a buck or two.

To me, this is what the small press movement is all about.