The cover of this week’s Time Magazine features writer Jonathan Franzen, whose new novel, Freedom, publishes at the end of August. As the New York Times points out, he’ll be the first living writer on the cover in ten years. To get there, an author must brew the perfect combination of sales, publicity, and cultural impact. (Only a small fraction of the authors on Time’s 100 Novels list ever made the cut for a spot on the cover.) After the jump, we’ll take you through the last 15 Time covers featuring a living writer, and explain what landed them there.
There was once a time when a writer — of novels, non-fiction, short stories, or poetry — regularly appeared within the red border of the weekly. In the 1950s and ’60s it happened every few months, or even weeks. This new cover is both an obvious mark of the digital age and a great honor for Franzen. As we look back at this celebrated list we hope this cover is the start of a new trend for Time.
Note: Click any of the covers to proceed to the associated Time article.
Stephen King – March 27, 2000 The only author to grace Time‘s cover twice in recent years (he also appeared on the October 6, 1986 edition), King’s appearance followed the release of his story, “Riding the Bullet.” The story was essentially the first e-book, showing up on Softlock.com for a slim $2.50. The experiment nearly crashed the servers of its online publisher, but it proved that consumers would pursue a writer’s work off the page and onto the web.
Tom Wolfe – November 2, 1998 As one of the founders of New Journalism, it’s no surprise that Wolfe pushed the boundaries of acceptable narrative into books as well. His debut, Bonfire of the Vanities, was a smashing success, so the bar was high for his follow up. The article herein traces Wolfe’s journalistic writing process behind A Man in Full, gives an overview of the book’s plot, and finishes with a review that glows like the author’s wardrobe. (We love the stark contrast of this cover with the Frazen cover. Have the past 12 years really been that bad?)
Toni Morrison – January 19, 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award, check. American Book Award, check. Pulitzer Prize, check. Nobel prize, check. It’s a wonder Time waited til ’98 to put her on the cover, considering she’s won every major writing award. It’s almost a shame to say that Toni Morrison doesn’t have anywhere else to go from here. She is easily the most successful African-American author out there and her books Song of Solomon, Beloved, and The Bluest Eye are benchmarks of American and world literature.
September 25, 1995
Michael Crichton – September 25, 1995 Ahhhhhhh, Crichton: writer of the most heart-pounding works in the last 30 years. From his early novels through his forays into screenwriting, directing, and producing, this author earned the name “Hit Man.” His ability to make advanced scientific ideas not only believable but real earned him this spot (and several hundred million dollars). He reached out to his audience through every medium possible, but never gave the press much access to his personal life — this is a rare glimpse into how he engaged us so fully.
Scott Turow – June 11, 1990 Turow was one of the first to take his real-life courtroom experience and build the high tension courtroom dramas we’ve come to know an love. This issue of Time followed the release of Burden of Proof, only Turow’s second book. That’s right. Second. What can we say? The America of the 1990’s loved intrigue and subterfuge. Not much has changed — Innocent, the sequel to Turow’s very first work, was an instant bestseller this spring.
Neil Simon – December 15, 1986 One of our most cherished and prolific playwrights, this article celebrates the debut of Simon’s new play, Broadway Bound, which marked a transition from brilliantly orchestrated comedies to more poignant and reflective work. Simon’s cover appearance demonstrates how much influence a previously successful writer growing into new territory can have on his audience.
Garrison Keillor – November 4, 1985 We hate to mention Keillor’s notably obscured face, but even “America’s Tallest Radio Humorist” has admitted his … ahem… homely appearance. No matter. He remains one of America’s most beloved authors and strongest storytellers. This man, his 10+ books in print, and his Prairie Home Companion are still celebrated today for their retro-styled yet innovative music and comedy.
Erma Bombeck – July 2, 1984 What a great story: Bombeck started out as a copy girl at the Dayton paper and grew into a syndicated columnist represented in 900 papers. Her transition to books was an easy one, and many of her works landed top spots on bestseller lists. Her first book, titled At Wit’s End after her column, was a refreshingly honest look at her everyday life. The humor she found there appealed to millions and landed her on the cover of Time.
John Updike – October 18, 1982 Another “needs-no-explanation” cover appearance, John Updike celebrated his 50th birthday in 1982 while Time celebrated him. The author has spent more time at the top of literary culture than most writers spend as a part of it. Frequently drawing from his own life and seeding his novels with recognizable characters, Updike gave Americans several someones to grow up with, someone whom, if you could not relate, would at least entertain and intrigue you.
John Irving – August 31, 1981 Still writing today, John Irving only reached the cover of Time while working on the movie set of The World According to Garp, where he instructed Robin Williams on the character. Whereas most of these magazine covers are playful or informative, Irving’s seems confrontational. We’re sure the author doesn’t mind as the article inside discusses his athleticism, a subject that not only appears in his work but seems to permeate it.
Mario Puzo – August 28, 1978 After he was the father of The Godfather, the sale of Puzo’s follow-up caused quite a stir in the publishing world. Paperback rights to Fools Die sold for a record setting $2.2 million in an era of stagnating sales. We can’t say that he alone reignited a book’s mass-market appeal (Coppola took care of a lot of this), but Puzo’s knack for action and excitement laid the ground work for millions of thrillers to come.
John Le Carre – October 3, 1977 Having just finished The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, this writer can see why Le Carre ended up on this cover. His espionage novels carried the weight of experience and shed light on the early days of spying during the of the Cold War.The way Le Carre blurs lines between right and wrong force the reader to question which side is winning the physical and moral battles.
Marabel Morgan – March 14, 1977 Easily the most ridiculous person on this (and any) list of Time-cover writers. The cover article is, predictably, not about her but about the furor her work stirred. Morgan’s Total Woman and Total Joy advocate some of the most antiquated female roles in relationships — the words “worship” and “submit” appear numerous times. You can skip these books, but the discussion of the feminist movement within is interesting enough to merit her cover shot.
Alex Haley – February 14, 1977 This appearance marks a defining event for a generation. Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family localized the history of slavery, and reminded readers that each of us has hundreds of years to our history. ABC’s miniseries based on the books, which shut down everything while it was on, starred the era’s great black actors and drew even more attention to slavery’s impact on contemporary American culture.