Why are publishers patronising female readers with soppy covers?
Never judge a book by its cover, or so the saying goes. But going by the recent furore that has arisen in response to Faber and Faber’s repackaging of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar to commemorate the book’s 50th anniversary, the cover can sometimes be too controversial to ignore.
Against a bold, glossy, pinky-red background, an immaculate young woman in pink lipstick and painted nails applies make-up to her face in a compact mirror. Think 1950s retro Mad Men glamour and you’ll get the gist.
It is, of course, incongruous to the content beneath the cover; the book is a semi-autobiographical exploration into a young woman’s struggle with mental illness. It portrays Esther Greenwood as a disorientated and frightened young woman, trapped, stifled and unsure of herself, who eventually attempts to commit suicide. Plath committed suicide a month after its first UK publication.
The book has already generated a plethora of vitriolic responses, with Dustin Kurtz, a marketing manager at Melville House tweeting: “How is this cover anything but a “f*** you” to women everywhere?” Feminist website Jezebel sardonically commented: “If Sylvia Plath hadn’t already killed herself, she probably would’ve if she saw the new cover of her only novel The Bell Jar.” The London Review of Books described it simply as “silly.”
It’s not only silly – it’s worrying. The problem with the cover is that it seems to suggest that because this is a book about a woman written by a woman, it deserves to have a lady on the front cover applying make-up – as if that’s the only thing likely to get us silly females ever reading challenging literature.
If a man or woman saw the cover, knowing little about Plath, they may assume that the book is just another sentimental and superficial chick-lit read, and choose to ignore it altogether. It seems fair to say that the cover could just as easily put off readers than turn them on, and therefore shows a disturbing disregard by Faber for anyone looking for a challenging, robust read.
I like to think that women today would be just as intrigued by Plath and her novel if they got their hands on the beautiful, if slightly menacing, concentric circles displayed on Shirley Tucker’s original 1967 cover. If it intrigued readers enough then, and has stood the test of time as a modern literary classic, it’s nothing short of alarming to know that Faber assume the readers of 2013 will not touch it with a barge-pole unless it’s got lashings of lipstick all over it.
Indeed, the blurb on the cover tells us that the narrator “grapples with difficult relationships” as if this is the latest novelisation of a Sex and the City episode. It’s anything but, which is why it is so courageous and brilliant. The Bell Jar deserves a cover that reflects the depth of story and emotion contained within.
Despite evidence out this week suggesting that chick-lit can be damaging to a women’s self-esteem, it seems that this lucrative market is just too tempting for publishers to resist, meaning that even books that are distinctly non-chick-lit in content, are getting a make-over. There’s something conniving and disingenuous on the part of the publishers to treat female readers so condescendingly by putting us all in the same category.
HarperCollins recently released a new edition of Wuthering Heights, inspired by the phenomenally popular series Twilight, complete with the simplistic tagline ‘Love Never Dies’.
Before long, all the classics that are in anyway related to women, or love, will succumb to these soppy, commercialised covers, relegating a hugely diverse and complex array of literature to one, shiny glamorous and very generic category that does a disservice to writers and readers everywhere.