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Silly Covers for Lady Novelists

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Then and Now

The first edition of The Bell Jar to appear under Sylvia Plath’s name was published by Faber in 1967, with a cover designed by Shirley Tucker. This month Faber have brought out a 50th anniversary edition of the novel (it was first published by Heinemann in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas), with a cover about as far from Tucker’s Bridget Rileyish concentric circles as you can get: a stock photo from the 1950s of a woman with a powder compact. As Dustin Kurtz, a marketing manager at Melville House, tweeted, ‘How is this cover anything but a “fuck you” to women everywhere?’ Andy Pressman, a graphic designer, called it ‘Awesomelycomicallyhistorically inapprop’, adding: ‘And by “historically” I mean “incorrect on a scale of which we have few historical precedents”, not “That typeface didn’t exist in that era”.’ You don’t need to have read the novel to see what the problem is; the blurb on the back of the offending cover makes it clear enough: the narrator, we are told, ‘grapples with difficult relationships and a society which refuses to take women’s aspirations seriously’.

I was lucky with the way I came to Plath, reading her work before I knew anything about her life or reputation, or had access to the internet. The edition of Ariel in my school library (one of the last books of ‘modern’ poetry on the shelves) had no biographical note or, if it did, it wasn’t memorable. I read it the same way I read Donne’s Songs and Sonnets, my other ‘discovery’ of the time. Then the other collections of poems, then the The Bell Jar, which sent me to Anne Stevenson’s biography – not what I wanted at all, though I should have suspected something was up from its title, Bitter Fame. Once I realised that there were very many other people interested and invested in Plath and her writing (and that some of them – dear god! – were other teenage girls) it was one more thing to avoid. But I haven’t forgotten Esther imagining herself sitting in a fig tree, watching the fruit ripen, fall and rot because she can’t choose one. As she says later, ‘If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m as neurotic as hell.’
 
It should be possible to see The Bell Jar as a deadpan younger cousin of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, or even William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. But that’s not the way Faber are marketing it. The anniversary edition fits into the depressing trend for treating fiction by women as a genre, which no man could be expected to read and which women will only know is meant for them if they can see a woman on the cover. (Things are slightly better for lady authors in the US.)
 
I can imagine complaining along these lines in an editorial meeting at a British publishing house, and being sighed at: ‘Yes, of course the 1960s cover is beautiful – I love it – but Waterstones and Tesco won’t stock it.’ It sounds like a reasonable point. And it may be true that paperbacks with photographs of people on them shift more copies in supermarkets. But it isn’t as if The Bell Jar has to earn out its advance. And for some reason the rule doesn’t apply to recent anniversary redesigns of Orwell (by David Pearson for Penguin) or B.S. Johnson (by La Boca for Picador). Lucky them.

Comments on “Silly Covers for Lady Novelists”

  1. bluecat says:

    All the new cover needs is some sparkles and perhaps a high-heeled shoe lying on its side.

    Personally I see The Bell Jar as the ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman.’

  2. semitone says:

    A charitable explanation for that (I agree) ghastly cover is that a 50th anniversary edition is not an artistic exercise designed to appeal to people who already know and love (or know of) the book; nor is it a literary exercise designed to encourage a reappraisal of the book from a historical perspective (though I think Orwell’s Down and Out got something a bit like that recently). It’s clearly a marketing exercise designed to find the book a new readership: in this case, people who buy books with pictures of lipstick, handbags and shoes on their covers.

    Pitching The Bell Jar to readers of chicklit (if you’ll forgive the expression) is so crazy, it just might work.

  3. romney says:

    Interesting. I look at that cover and see what appears to be a typical 60s woman looking at herself and papering over the cracks with makeup. Of course, you could also assume it is chick-lit from the cover if you didn’t know the book, but considering the sort of self-examining faction memoirs that are out there now it isn’t such an unusual book as it was at the time. It was always an ideal book for self-pitying teenage girls. I don’t believe that men as whole would find it much of a read, so why not label it as such? Is there anything wrong with books for women/girls? Anything substandard? Thats the mindset I have a problem with. The idea of someone picking this up in Tescos and reading it by mistake then waiting for a Shopaholic-style happy ending is pretty funny.

  4. sukebind says:

    Has everyone forgotten what Sylvia Plath was like? She was very feminine and into her appearance, and wrote about young women like herself. Yes, she is known for writing about depression, but a cover depicting a woman applying make-up is in no way contrary to the characters she routinely depicted. In fact it actually fits with the type of collegiate anti-heroine she wrote about. I agree it looks like any other ‘chick lit’ book cover, but maybe that’s what’s required to get the current generation of young women, who aren’t at university and being directed to this book, to read it.

  5. This post definitely raises a lot of interesting points about the way books by women writers are marketed in general. And certainly, Plath’s book covers are worthy of serious discussion. Tracy Brain writes about this in her landmark book “The Other Sylvia Plath.” Why do we often see pictures of Plath on her book covers, and why not Yeats? Or T.S. Eliot?

    I agree with this post in general, but I think that with Plath studies, the waters get muddied quite quickly when we consider how her biography impacts on the way we read the work. Frankly, I was happy to see F&F choose this covering image because it does look “user friendly” and while it wouldn’t look out of place beside a Marian Keyes book on a Tesco shelf – it’s refreshing to see the novel marketed in a way that doesn’t reinforce the reader’s perception that this is a “suicide book” or writing it drove Plath over the edge.

    Someone may pick up this book thinking it will be a nice glossy read – and parts of TBJ are glossy and glamorous! It is a vastly complex novel that engaged with lots of subjects, but the cover image does fit with Esther Greenwood’s experiences in New York – the expression on the female’s face alludes to something darker going on… It may not be a “serious” cover but it does encourage readers to think of the novel differently, and for new readers – it may influence a completely different perception of the novel.

    Plath criticism is so riddled dark analysis… “Is this why she completed suicide?”… It strangles the work. So while I do agree that there are larger concerns about how female writers and readers are pandered to – I think in Plath’s case, it was quite brave of F&F to put out such a user-friendly cover.

    • zbs says:

      Why do we often see pictures of Plath on her book covers, and why not Yeats? Or T.S. Eliot?

      Er… Like these? Or these? (Not very flattering, that last one.)

      Regardless of whether Plath was or wasn’t interested in her appearance, this is, in terms of the design itself, a poor representation of the book. And the typeface probably should not have existed in any era, frankly. It says frivolous, yes, but it says frivolous in a way that is awkward and not suitable to any literary frivolity that occurs to me very readily. (Would you want that font on your Wodehouse?)

      It’s true that almost any comparison between the cover of the first edition and a reissue these days is going to be unfavorable, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t bear pointing out.

  6. bluecat says:

    When I see someone depicted in film or pictures putting on lipstick before the mirror it’s almost always a man in a dress.

  7. ocm says:

    if this cover solicits interest from people who’d otherwise not read ‘the bell jar’ if it looked like ‘literature’, then it’s the most brilliant cover ever.

  8. Phil Edwards says:

    So it’s appropriate to the more cheerful parts of the book, it’s appropriate to parts of Plath’s own character, it’s actually quite a dark image and hence appropriate to the darker parts of the book, and it’s a wildly inappropriate image but a good thing, because it’ll help the book appeal to younger women.

    I give up, you can keep the kettle already.

  9. johnt says:

    I would hazard a guess the the 50th Anniversary marker might elict some interest, on the notion that time suggests quality to those unfamiliar. The cover and then the text do, will, jar a bit.
    But there’s always Ogden Nash for a quick recovery.

  10. deMan says:

    The new covers for B.S. Johnson’s wonderful novels are far more hideous than the Plath cover. What are we supposed to imagine we’re getting by seeing those covers?

    The Plath cover is not a special case, it is just one of many unpleasant covers presented by Faber. Worse again is the quality of the books they produce. At a time when the physical book is under attack, they should think about the need to appeal to several senses.

  11. ashedavenport says:

    The argument is kind of lost on me given that the 50th anniversary addition cover looks perfectly suited to a ‘lady novelist’.

    Perhaps it would help if we just referred to Plath as a ‘novelist’ or ‘author’.

    Thanks so much –
    Esther Greenwood

  12. blork says:

    Well, it does make it look a bit frivolous if you already know the book and have strong opinions on it. On the other hand, it looks “retro,” which is (arguably) suitable for a book that was first published 50 years ago. Whereas the “then” cover depicted above just looks weird now, the new “retro” cover could — possibly — bring new readers to the novel by presenting it as “of a period,” as opposed to just old and dated.

    Another thing; one of Plath’s working titles for the novel was “The Girl in the Mirror.”

  13. Mat Snow says:

    In a blind test, I would say that this is the perfect cover for a reissue of Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and were I in the mood for more of that kind of period lightheartedness and knew nothing in advance about The Bell Jar, I would feel somewhat misdirected.

    As for needing a fluffy cover to be stocked by Waterstones or any other major book sales outlet, the grim and gruelling covers for the bestselling likes of Kathy Reichs, Karin Slaughter and Tess Gerritsen say otherwise.

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