IRIS: Live at Blackwell’s

In the run up to the launch of IRIS III, HSP hosted IRIS: Live on Tuesday 21st February, an evening of readings taken from the first two editions of IRIS. The audience heard Lili Hamlyn reading from ‘Coney Island’, Joe Dodd, Dom Leonard reading ‘Sunrise,’, Harry Long, Ryan Bradley reading from ‘The Lilac Fever’ and an exclusive piece from, HSP poet, Arabella Currie’s latest translation work.

We’d like to take this chance to thank Blackwell’s bookshop, all our contributors for taking part and to every one who came to watch this event.


What does it actually mean to judge a book by its cover?

Is there anything to gain by looking at the contents of a book in the context of its aesthetic elements?

In 1997, literary theorist Gérard Genette published ‘Paratexts. Thresholds of interpretation,’ in it Genette reminds us that works of art do not exist in-corporeally, and that we, as readers, do not receive them as such. Criticism has a habit of focusing upon the finer details of a text or painting, consequently losing sight of its tangible existence. Although structuralism, psychoanalytic theory, historicism, formalism, aestheticism, postcolonial readings all – to varying extents – pay attention to the socio-historic influences at work within a particular piece of writing or art they often risk overlooking the complex cycle of transmission that begins only once the author has written their closing line.[i]

What turns a work of art into a book? Literally, it is a multitude of specialists – editors, illustrators, publishers and printers: individuals that leave their mark within, what Genette refers to as, the ‘paratextual elements’ of the book. Para-text because these elements extend, surround and augment the contents, they are the marginalia of production. Title page, dust jacket, blurb, font, contents page, acknowledgements: each element is the result of a choice made by someone, which in turn acts as ‘a threshold’ to the text. We must remember that it is not simply the author who is a product of their environment, but also these other creators of the book. We are subject to the layers of signification added by the ‘book producers’ long before we (the readers) even reach the opening line.

The printed book cover is a relatively recent addition, dating from the early 19th Century. Books weren’t readily available objects in the 1800s, but, as literacy rates rose, paper prices fell, and printing techniques improved in efficiency, books proliferated into affordability and became commercial objects. The traditional leather bindings which spoke of wealth and longevity fell away into novelty as publishers and booksellers began to exploit the possibilities of the cover. Today, its obvious function is to attract attention. [ii],[iii] Title, author’s name, publisher’s logo, blurb, awards, recommendations (The Times, ‘A 21st Century Classic’, Vogue, ‘A truly authentic portrayal of a modern woman!’), the spine (now a publisher’s signature, in the case of Penguin’s black background, orange title and white band, or Vintage’s scarlet colour and rounded non-seraph type), and of course the cover design itself. 

It is possible to infer a multitude of things from a book’s covering – ironically not usually about the contents, but about what various people have decided about the contents. For example, Penguin’s cloth-bound luxury classics don’t reveal much about the cutting social satire and sophisticated narrative techniques of Jane Austen’s works, but they do draw Austen into an alternative market – the YA/chic lit. Similarly, a simple cover redesign and Frankenstein and Dracula can be romanticised to sit beside Twilight. And while there’s nothing inherently bad about this – the ability to rebrand a classic by changing its clothing is part of what keeps these books alive to new generations – these efforts can superficially diminish the complexity of these novels. 


An article featured by Quartz entitled ‘Acacia Fatigue’ elucidates the detrimental effects of a lazy book design. Focusing upon books which have some link to Africa – whether they were written by an African author, or are set in the continent. << Quartz posted this collage – taken from the blog Africa is a Country – of 36 book covers.

To quote Peter Medelsund (art director at Knopf) we are ‘in the age of the tree […] that vast continent, in all its diversity, [is reduced to] that one fucking tree.’ The fiery colours and ‘that one fucking tree’ would suggest that these books were perhaps cheap spin-offs of the Lion King. Alas, they are not, some are written by Nobel-Prize-winning authors, some, such as Haggard and Conrad, present questionable depictions of Africa, while others actively react against this. These books are examples of a lazy approach to both aesthetics and marketing, with designers resorting to visual clichés. Clichés that are both damaging to the works themselves and perpetuate a stereotype that, often, the works are attempting to complicate or erase. As Ishaan Tharoor puts it, ‘A decade and a half into the 21st Century, it seems that the spectre of ‘Orientalism’ still hovers over the Western publishing world’. Irrespective of plot, characterisation, narrative style or tone, these covers say ‘you like books set in an exotic setting, you’ll like this one.’ This kind of marketing expects (and encourages) readers to be stupid. Just as Amazon’s algorithms stop you having to think about what you want because ‘other people who bought this also bought…’

Bad book design can reduce heterogeneous works of art and their creators down to a clumsy glomeration of ‘woman’, ‘African’, ‘Orient’, and consequently encourage a simplistic approach to literature in general.


[i] When students study the poetry of World War One at school there are hours spent researching ‘background information’: jingoism, trench warfare and Craig Lockhart. But it’s rare that they consider the importance of textual transmission, of how Owen and Sassoon originally wrote down their poetry in the war-torn trenches, (with a stub of lead and scrap of paper?), and of how they were then transferred into the legible format we read them in today. How often do students consider the manner in which the textbooks they read them in at school present these poems? (As something worthy of analysis, hinted at by supplementary footnotes, standardised fonts, and large margins to house naïve scribblings.) Or how we would read these poems differently if we read them within a badly edited anthology, or via a blogpost adorned with clipart poppies concerning the centenary of the war? There must have been thousands of young soldiers writing poetry in order to deal with the torments and boredom of warfare, so what was it that enabled Owen’s poetry to end up on the A-Level curriculum?

These are the kind of questions that cannot be answered by textual analysis, by looking at metrical feet or etymological evolution. Furthermore, these are questions that look into the very perpetuation of literature and those who study it. They are not questions we should ignore because we think it distasteful to consider books as part of a drab commercial world, to consider that, in order to survive, art and literature must be disseminated and given monetary value.

[ii] This is something which becomes more and more difficult in both the physical and digital book-buying realms. While bookshops are so crammed full of books of every colour and size – you go in wanting Dickens and come out with Delia Smith – online vendors (Amazon & Abe) are not suited to slow browsing – to buy a book via Amazon is, to my mind, to know exactly what you want and to know you want it tomorrow. However, short of producing A1-sized books with pre-recorded sales pitches which start on opening the front page like an expensive child’s birthday card, there is little a publisher can do to make a book the first to catch the musing purchaser’s eyes.

[iii] Pedants would suggest that actually, the first manifestation of the book offered to the reader’s perception is the cover’s clothing: the dust jacket (or wrapper). Detachable and therefore constitutively ephemeral, their original purpose was to keep a book clean and undamaged (or to stop browsers reading books pre-purchase), they have however become a valuable addition to the collector’s item, to find a Hogarth Press first edition with its dust jacket intact is near impossible. However, for now, let’s amalgamate the two, let’s consider the jacket and cover as one Both are a marketing dream – a mini billboard of incentives.





The Divers ft. IRIS @ Burley Fisher

On Monday 28th we decided to keep the momentum going (using the last remnants of SK’s energy/adrenaline) in order to bring The Divers and IRIS to London, specifically to Haggerston-based bookshop Burley Fisher. The event featured more wine, and a series of readings, neatly picked from across each of our last three publications. From IRIS I & II we had Lili Hamlyn reading from her experimental prose work, ‘Coney Island,’ Joe Dodd reading a fictional prose piece, and a recital of her poem ‘Bells’ by Lauren Collee. To top off the evening, Arabella Currie, (having recently jumped off a plane from the US), read several poems from her recent collection The Divers.

We would like to thank everyone who attended the event, Burley Fisher for hosting us, and most importantly, our wonderful authors for their readings.


IRIS II: Launch & Exhibition

On 26th & 27th November we held a launch party and temporary exhibition for IRIS II at OVADA in Oxford. We’d like to thank the large number of people that made the trip (in sub-zero temperatures) to support and celebrate with us.

The event included free flowing wine of two varieties, miniature(!) French beers, a moderate number of balloons, and most importantly, some fantastic readings from Camille Ralphs (‘Pillow Cases’, IRIS I), Harry Long (‘Frédéric de l’Éducation sentimentale’ IRIS II) and a sneak preview into the third and final edition with Dom Leonard reading from his poem, ‘Sunrise, A Translation.’

The exhibition featured the work of Ros Ford, Lauren Baldwin, Lucy Jonas and Josefin Meijer, as well this edition’s two comix creators Dom Davies and Bruno Schillinger. Not only did this enable our readers to encounter these contributions in the flesh, but also to see them within a wider context of other work.

We would like to say a special thank you everybody who was involved in reading or exhibiting. While photos will follow, for now you will have to put up with our (manically) happy faces.


KLICK Oxford-Leiden Talk

On Saturday 29th October, HSP did a talk as part of KLICK Oxford-Leiden’s exhibition, Blue Fades into the Invisible, which is on display at OVADA Gallery until 13th November. Our talk touched upon various subjects, from the inspiration behind the press, a (very) brief history of British publishing as well as a discussion of our aims and intentions. We explored how letterpress printing worked and explained some of the thought processes behind the design of IRIS and THE DIVERS. It was a pretty awesome afternoon, and enriching to hear Tommy Watkins discussing his development as an artist and broader comments on the contemporary state of art.

KLICK is an international art project offering a platform for young artists from Leiden and Oxford. In 2016, the two cities will have been twinned for 70 years. Inspired by this friendship, KLICK brings together young artists from both cities to honour our shared history and forge new links through exchanges and exhibitions. 

We were honored to be asked and recommend going to check out the exhibition! For more information:



IRIS II: Call for Submissions


We’re beginning work on the second edition of IRIS, and are opening the call for submissions.

The second edition will follow on from the first: a collection of art and writing exploring the theme ‘Sense of Place’. As before, this subject is purposefully broad.

As a small book, IRIS has certain limitations that result from its construction. A single gathering only allows for around forty pages so space is restricted. For the first edition we placed a limit on the essays, poetry and prose – we now want to lift that constraint. Instead we are seeking interesting and experimental pieces that play with space.

We are looking for contributions in the following genres:

The interview
Prose (fiction or non fiction)
Printing (lino, screen, wood)
The essay (short or long form)
Drawn or painted work
The review

In particular, we want to encourage collaboration and response – whether in terms of critical work, illustration or joint-authorship. As before, our aim is to foster artistic encounter and discourse, both between the pieces and between our contributors and their readers.

Important Dates

The deadline for expressions of interest and/or abstracts is Friday 8th July and the final deadline for contributions is Monday 25th July. (Although we do not require abstracts before submission, it is helpful for us to know the form your contribution will take.)
The second edition is anticipated for release at the end of September 2016.
Further Information:

If you have any queries, please don’t hesitate to contact us at

If you intend on submitting visual art please contact us at the above address to discuss arrangements and accepted formats.

IRIS I: An Exhibition

One of the core tenets behind our original conception of IRIS was to encourage an encounter with the physical page and its contents. With that in mind, IRIS: An Exhibition was meant as a celebration of the visual works included in the first edition: a showcase of the sculptures, photography and comix.

The idea behind the exhibition was to enable those who hadn’t yet had a chance to purchase a copy the opportunity to encounter the works in an immediate sett1ing, while for those who had read it, a new experience to see the works in their pre-print state. Thank you to all those who came to the exhibition, it was an excellent evening.

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