‘Morrissey’s autobiography is a classic’. Or not. Either way, this reviewer argues that the be-quiffed behemoth of blue-collar blues has played a masterstroke in selecting the Penguin Classics imprint to publish his deliciously moody volume. This is not the act of incomprehensible egotism or marketing nous that the literary world seems to have unanimously accepted it as, but a subtle and brilliantly self-referential act of intra-textual design – although the novelty value can’t have hurt the sales figures either…
Look at your bookshelf. Even your highest-of-the highbrowed top-shelf hardbacks are likely to conform to the basic publishing principle of ‘put an appropriate picture and maybe some nice font on it’. Some of these covers are indisputably exquisitely designed, with oh-so clever depictions of ‘stuff’ in the book, but they still essentially function merely as elaborate packaging for the real deal – the words inside.
Morrissey’s Autobiography, however, is different. By selecting an imprint with a rigid and fixed ‘house style’ that totally dictates the design, the book’s appearance becomes intrinsic to its very physical existence. The design is no longer just ‘packaging’, it is the very fabric of the object in your hands. So why is this important to the writing, you ask? Think about The Penguin Classic: the raggedy, spinally ravaged, bookbag-rattling memento of every single English lesson since time began. So what could be a more appropriate printed manifestation for a memoir that persistently lingers on the brutality and hypocrisy of the Mancunian education system of the seventies? For a memoir that also finds its protagonist seeking solace in Auden, Wilde and Betjamen from the concrete and school dinner dystopia of moving mince?
Thus as a physical object, Autobiography is united as a wittily coherent artistic whole. In an age when printed books are facing tougher and tougher questions as to their futurity and practicality in the wake of eBook ascendancy, The Smiths star’s eponymous volume makes a compelling argument for the extra dimension offered by reading for real. When reading Autobiography, the complete connection between the intangible words in your head and the physical object in your hands is a real source of pleasure. People often talk about ‘the pleasure’ of reading printed books, which amounts to an appreciation for their sensual and aesthetic value as objects, but this is something more.
However, the hallowed ‘Classics’ badge on the cover isn’t merely a vituperative ironic swipe at the intellectual establishment. The polysemic associations of canonical literature in Morrissey’s life story (as a tool of intellectual belittlement as much as a liberating breath of poetry) allow the book to strike a tone of semi-playful, dialectical belligerence entirely commensurate with the lyrical pinnacles of The Smiths’ oeuvre. Morrissey’s blue tinted face, bizarrely offset by the famous black box, white band and minimal orange typography is the subtler, quintessentially Smiths-y equivalent of the artwork for The Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’.
Furthermore, the book, in its jarring juxtaposition and subversion of expectations, continues the legacy of the legendary Smiths album covers. The reduction of movie stills, famous faces and photographs to vague and subversive suggestion is echoed in and by Autobiography. Finally, in high contrast cerulean wash, Morrissey himself joins the illustrious cast (Candy Darling, Elvis Presley and Truman Capote among others) who feature on the famous colourised album covers and posters.
So, maybe you don’t think that the Pope of Mope’s Autobiography is a suitable addition to the Penguin Classics marque. But as an addition to Autobiography, the Penguin Classics marque fits Hand in Glove.