Inside the design of American Fiction

The Oscar-nominated movie satirises the publishing world and its biases, and features a series of book covers created by real-life book designer Catherine Casalino. She talks to us about the process of working on the film

When graphic designer Catherine Casalino read the script for American Fiction, it was a world she immediately recognised. Having spent the last two decades designing book covers for high end publishing houses, first in-house and then as head of her own studio, the cutting satire from writer/director Cord Jefferson spoke to her experience of an insular industry where a book succeeds based on how easily it slots into its readers’ preconceived notions of authenticity.

The film charts the success of a satirical ‘Black’ novel by a frustrated writer, Thelonious ‘Monk’ Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), who submits a manuscript full of African-American stereotypes to his agent as a joke; a mirror image of his perverse demands for work that panders to the tastes of white, middle-class readers. Its title, My Pafology, mimics the Black American canon’s penchant for ‘street’ vernacular.

Once celebrated for giving voice to marginalised communities, the device has in more recent times been criticised for peddling the cliché of urban illiteracy. The flaw in Monk’s practical joke is that he has overestimated his targets’ editorial standards. Publishers take it at face value and offer him the greatest advance of his literary career. Cash-strapped, he is forced to publish it, albeit under a pseudonym: Stagg R Leigh.

Top: Still from American Fiction; Above: Cover for Fuck, the character’s new title for his book My Pafology