Friday, 1 February 2013

The Bell Jar book cover discussion...

"[Discussing the original packaging of The Bell Jar (second picture in row below), and the time period between its publication and Plath's authorship becoming public knowledge] Here, The Bell Jar was not regarded as a depressing autobiography about a death wish. At this point in time, again a moment of innocence, reviewers and readers looked at the book without presumptions and found laughter." (p.7, Tracy Brain, The Other Sylvia Plath).


There has been quite the furore in the Plath world today, starting with the Silly Covers for Lady Novelists blog post and followed up by The Guardian's summary of the growing twitter and blog comments on this topic. Faber & Faber's book covering for the 50th Anniversary edition of The Bell Jar (first picture in row above) has been viewed by some as demeaning to Plath - negligent of her literary prowess and an easy way to discredit and package a female novelist. 

I write this blog post by firstly stating that I do believe the marketing of novels for women and subsequent discrediting of women readers is a serious concern within our contemporary world. I think that women writers are often brushed aside, their books wrapped up in pretty pink covers and often displayed in a 3 for 2 Waterstones deal. No such treatment for Phillip Roth or David Foster Wallace!

The Guardian quotes many opinions on this Plath matter, including a disgustingly flippant comment from Jezebel (which I won't even link because I find it so offensive) stating, "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. For a book all about a woman's clinical depression that's exacerbated by the suffocating gender stereotypes of which she's expected to adhere and the limited life choices she has as a woman, it's pretty … stupid to feature a low-rent retro wannabe pinup applying makeup. (Also, it's ugly and the colours suck)." As insulting and offensive this quote is, I believe it is a good starting point for my argument as to why I believe Faber & Faber's cover should be applauded, rather than scorned. Here's a close-up of the offending image:

That quote from Jezebel just sums up the complete problem the dominates Plath studies. Let's read that ugly sentence again: "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." So, it's perfectly ok to make flippant jokes about Plath's death, but woe betide F&F for presuming to have a book cover that doesn't reflect the more serious aspects of the novel. Really? This comment from Jezebel shows the public ownership that we feel over Plath - it is perfectly ok to make these statements. This strange "critical" environment shows just how difficult Plath studies can be. We have ownership over this writer because we know her life story so well. How dare F&F not take her seriously. This book is a serious work. After all, it's "all about a woman's clinical depression that's exacerbated by the suffocating gender stereotypes of which she's expected to adhere and the limited life choices she has as a woman."

I do not dispute the seriousness of The Bell Jar. I've read it thousands of times, beginning as a curious 15 year old who liked listening to Nirvana and stupidly reading up on the "27 club." I pored over the pages of Esther's electro-shock therapy, felt my naivete pulse through me as I read about Marco's sexual assault and Esther's awful experience with Irwin. Voyeurism, plain and simple. When I first came to The Bell Jar I thought Esther was so odd and troubled and then of course, I thought about poor Sylvia.. because the book was clearly all about her life and experiences. I read it now and value the insight to the prehistoric attitudes to psychological difficulties, I place Esther's concerns in parallel with Betty Friedan, Edna O'Brien, Salinger. The prose of the text continues to amaze me after multiple readings.

This Harper & Row cover of The Bell Jar makes it easy to see how my younger self could come to such conclusions. The famous photograph of Plath at the Mademoiselle offices together with "mirrored" text from the novel are displayed on the back. The wilting rose features prominently on the cover. What does this say to us? This book is heavy. Poor Sylvia. Look at the other book covers towards the top of my post. Sylvia Plath featuring on the front of the novel! No matter how hard we scream, "this is a work of fiction" - the presence of Plath's face on the cover of the book will ensure that no reader will read it without "Poor Sylvia" in mind.

Tracy Brain writes about the 1996 F&F edition of The Bell Jar: "Though restrained and dignified in its simple grey parchment paper, the cover quotes a confident declaration by Joyce Carol Oates: 'It is proper to say that Sylvia Plath represents for us a tragic figure involved in a tragic action, and that her tragedy is offered to us as a near-perfect work of art in her books'. Before the reader even begins to read, they are informed that what they hold in their hands is Plath's own story - her tragedy." (Brain, 9). Reading Tracy Brain was a complete revelation to me. Could it be that The Bell Jar isn't about Sylvia Plath? Could it be that the book is actually more than a depressive dirge represented on book covers by wilted flowers or gothic handwriting? Is it possible that the novel is more than just Plath's personal tragedy?

"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," writes Fatema Ahmed. And I admit, she has a real point here. This 50th Anniversary edition does give the illusion that Plath's work is suited to the airport books section at Tesco, and definitely - we would never see Joyce or T.S. Eliot or Yeats sitting along those shelves. In fact, "books by men" are simply not marketed in this way.

However, I believe strongly that with Sylvia Plath, the rules are not the same. Her face - her legacy permeates the entire canon. Consider The Colossus featuring Plath on the cover. How does that motivate us to interpret her poems? It isn't as simple as saying that F&F's new Bell Jar looks too "feminine" and "girly" and it's an insult to her talent. Because Plath studies are so riddled with people trying piece together the who/what/where/why of her death - we so often lose sight of all the other elements that fill her work. That's why I believe that this new cover is important, because it gives readers a different perception of what the book will be about. And how wonderful to have new readers! Sylvia Plath is a Pulitzer-winning poet. Her reputation is cemented. Her interpretation has not yet been.

In The Bell Jar, the first ten chapters are concerned with Esther Greenwood's experiences in New York. We slowly begin to see the disintegration of her stable mental health, the too many choices and options in life begin to weigh her down. Modern life, the life in a city do not sit well with her. That does not mean to say she doesn't go out - she attends parties, wears clothes, drinks (‘I’ll have a vodka,’ I said. The man looked at me more closely. ‘With anything?’ ‘Just plain,’ I said. ‘I always have it plain.’), experiences male brutality, and general youthful endeavours ("I noticed, in the routine way you notice the colour of somebody’s eyes, that Doreen’s breasts had popped out of her dress and were swinging out slightly like full brown melons as she circled belly-down on Lenny’s shoulder, thrashing her legs in the air and screeching, and then they both started to laugh and slow up, and Lenny was trying to bite Doreen’s hip through her skirt when I let myself out of the door before anything more could happen and managed to get downstairs by leaning with both hands on the banister and half sliding the whole way."). These are important fabrics of the book, and I feel that the F&F cover tells an interested potential reader that this novel is going to feature make-up, nights out, beauty... and the rest of the novel will speak for itself.

I think the F&F cover is important because it draws our attention to this very important facet of the novel - and of Plath's work in general: her humour, her social commentaries, and the fact that she lived, laughed and experienced her life. We cannot simply discard that Plath wryly wrote about her experiences as a party girl in New York. Also, to look at the cover a little more thoroughly: it is deeper than people may first imagine: 
  • They could simply have put an image of Plath on the cover and sales would have increased tenfold!
  • The reflected image of the woman also demonstrates Esther's inability to unify her Self, and the splitting of her selves, which provide the main impetus for her admittance to the mental institution.
  • The novel cover also suggests that yes, even a "normal" looking woman, putting on make-up and trying to look good can experience mental health issues.
Finally (and I appreciate I might get hounded for writing this), but I have to say it. Everyone is so up in arms about The Bell Jar being misrepresented, being packaged incorrectly - but I think some may be guilty of citing Plath as their "icon." I love the novel, but I'm well aware that Plath considered it her "pot-boiler" ("Forget about the novel [The Bell Jar] and tell no one of it. It’s a pot-boiler and just practice") and I fear she would grimace to read others calling it the "female Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" when she held Joyce in such high repute herself. It is a wonderful debut novel and I wish Plath had written many more. But to say that the book deserves a different, more serious cover smacks of ownership, to me. In a world where we can "own" Plath's death - I think the really rebellious thing to do is to try and interpret The Bell Jar in all the many ways that make it such a stunning novel. Give it the respect it deserves, but also loosen up and realise that Plath wanted to amuse us. That she was an amusing person and this filters through into her work.

Again I do want to reiterate the point that I think on the whole, the way women's texts are marketed is problematic. But because of Plath's more complicated critical heritage, what Faber have done is really adventurous. For one of the world's most renowned publishing houses to pioneer a new way of reading a writer - fifty years after her death - doesn't show that Plath is being swept aside or disparaged. I think it shows a great respect for the flexibility of her work.

***This blog post and my opinions are principally inspired by Tracy Brain and Janet Badia whose careful studies of Plath, her readers and her publishers are worth serious time for anyone interested.


Anonymous said...

Apologies, but I still think the cover's not pleasing to the eye. Not to my eye anyway, and certainly not to the eyes of many, many, other vocal people. Regardless of what it MEANS. In other words, it doesn't have to mean that I as a reader am taking ownership of Plath. I think it means that I have some sense of design and I have opinions about what sorts of images appear to be cheesy. The cover is garish compared to the other covers, it is not modern. It is contrived, fake, cheesy. The font, which is perhaps the most offensive to the eyes; is practically comical. Although, I can see a bit of Plath's scrawl in it...if I'm 100% honest.

Also, where in the Bell Jar does it say that the book is about a woman's "clinical depression?" It doesn't say that. It depicts a situation, but I'm not sure you know what "clinical depression" means. Semantics. Just saying.

The Plath Diaries said...

Hi! Thanks for your comment. I agree, I don't think it is the prettiest cover in the world, but I am focused more on what it ~means than what it looks like. Personally I don't think it's great but I do appreciate the meaning!

Re: your "clinical depression" comment. I was actually quoting that from the Jezebel comment cited. Don't know if you can detect my sarcasm when you re-read that part but it is intended.

Peter K Steinberg said...

A very solid and well thought out post for being written kind of spontaneously. You have a gift and I am envious. It's easy to go easy on you because it is so well stated.

As you say, there is a great flexibility to Plath's work, and this must be extended to the way Plath's work is packaged. In that light, the cover works. As a collector, I had no choice but to buy it. As a consumer, the cover for me is just outrageous. The colors are all wrong. I would have preferred something that ties more in with the text of the book, perhaps "Bile green with black, bile green with white, bile green with nile green, its kissing cousin."

As regards the flexibility that is needed, I have one question about something that you wrote. You said, "Her reputation is cemented. Her interpretation has not yet been." Do you think there should be a fixed interpretation? I think that's part of the marvel of criticism and scholarship: that there is flexibility to the way in which a text can be interpreted. Perhaps I misread the point, though I naturally agree her reputation is solid. Often used to ill purpose, but solid nonetheless as a canonical writer.


The Plath Diaries said...

Thanks for the comment Peter! I was scared! ;)

Agree that it isn't very attractive but I think that it's a good step away from dark covers and silly blurbs. Not that Plath is sweetness and light, but there are other elements just as important to her that must be considered.

Sorry, that bit about interpretations and reputations is a little confusing. I definitely don't believe there is one fixed way that a text can be interpreted. But I do think that within Plath studies, the biography still looms so large! I pretty much meant that while her reputation is solid, there's still a need for much further exploration. Which I know is going on (thanks to Indiana!) but this book cover signals a different way of looking at the novel, than starting with biography and having to work away from it. And I think that's really important. :)

Anonymous said...

Ah! I did not notice that during the first reading, or the second, but now I see. Got it! RE: clinical depression.

Also, RE: PKS' comment. I too was struck by that line regarding interpretation. I actually really liked it. And I think that only in comparison to other authors does it become apparent that this is true with Plath more so than almost anybody. An interesting question to ask is : Why is that? I have my own feelings about that...

Anonymous said...

It was brave of you to come in on something so contentious - so more credit to you since many academics have a tenancy to stick their heads in the sand.

For my part, I understand your arguments. It is clear from your post and from my own awareness that the way Plath is marketed has some bearing on the ways in which she is so often read (badly).

I do find the new cover unsettling because I think it does align The Bell Jar with the somewhat demeaning marketing of all women's writing.

Whatever your stance, Faber are probably wishing they'd chosen something less polarizing (or are they?...)


Peter K Steinberg said...

@morebooksplease: Like Oscar Wilde said, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."

Maeve! I'm now worried about my reputation that you were scared!!!

I know what you mean about the biography looming large - especially since I am a gigantic offender of this way of reading. However, I'm also open to other ways of interpretation and appreciate reading a good argument for or against whatever that interpretation is. Symposia and the like - even Plath Profiles are wonderful ways to see how varied interpretations of Plath can be: and often two or more people can approach specific texts using the same theory or what have you and still come out with different readings.

Here in the US, the original Bell Jar cover, coupled with the image of Plath & the rose on the back, with the excerpt from the novel, really did nothing but seal the biographical reading of the novel. But as you know, they have in the last decade finally moved away from employing Plath's own image on the cover.


The Plath Diaries said...

Thanks for the comment Alex. I wrote the blog post quite quickly, but there is a lot more I have to say on how women writers are marketed today. The comments I made about Phillip Roth and DFW for example are something I feel very strongly about and as a feminist, I do care very deeply for women's equality in literature and across the board.

I can see why some people are in uproar about this but I really do believe that Plath's unique position within criticism means that the rules are slightly different for her. This is the writer who appeared in the first edition of Ms. Magazine; the High Priestess of second-wave feminist literature... The depressing suicide fantasy-girl... For me, I'm glad to see something a little different and lighter provide the cover for The Bell Jar. And of course F&F have been dragged through editorial disputes, arguments, the whole nine yards.. So I'm proud of them, as Plath's long-time publishers to adopt a cover that I feel is more fitting to current scholarship.

I'm sure F&F are delighted at the uproar though! 100+ comments on The Guardian? You couldn't buy this publicity!

The Plath Diaries said...

Peter - Only joking!! My real fear is when you come to review my book (if that ever happens!!) ;)

The reason I include snippets from my youthful experiences with Plath is to show that I was one of the types of readers who invested hugely in the biography. And of course, I still am. It has been a struggle for me to find my critical place within Plath scholarship. I do believe that the life and the work are intertwined, most definitely. I think some people can go so far over the top that they forget that Plath was an artist, and that's what I don't like and try to stay away from.

Looking through her college essays at Indiana was so amazing - to see all her highly intellectual thoughts and arguments: you read that she was smart in biographies, but until you read an essay, you don't know just how wow she was! So I try to think about that when something like this book cover issue pops up. I suppose really I'm trying to think of Plath as a whole person, and therefore her books as "whole" documents - with a variety of different elements and themes.

That's why I do feel strongly that people who decry this covering are not thinking about how long it's taken Plath studies to get this far! As you rightly point out, it's only been the last decade that the US has moved away from putting Plath's own image on the cover. So ugly as it may be (lol), I'm falling on the side of optimism and supporting F&F. :)

And it goes without saying that Plath Profiles and your website are just so integral to this whole progression, Peter. Your reviews and "take" on Plath, her life and work is an inspiration!

Zoƫ said...

I love this Maeve, so glad you wrote a blog post articulating your feelings - where better! I have to admit I was initially dubious about the cover - along with the other voices of dissent that you mentioned, but your enthusiasm for the redesign rubbed off on me and I'm quite looking forward to getting my hands on a copy. We do let an author's biography cloud our reading of a novel, the same goes for art, you mentioned the Pre-Raphaelites in a previous blog post, and it certainly is the guiding methodology for interpretations of their artistic output. That comment from the Jezebel article that i won't even bother to read is truly awful, its such an off the cuff reading - no thought behind it what so ever, jezebel likes to dish out controversy because its what it was initially for, and now its just tiresome whining.

Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Nice job, Maeve. You've made so many important points, many addressed or expanded upon above.

RE: the art--I personally think that the best cover for The Bell Jar was the one of the circles. It is sexless, and adequately conveys a feeling of increasing insanity, or at least paranoia. It is a cover the most masculine of men would be fine to hold, as well as any woman. I do not think that the Victoria Lucas cover was bad, either. The crystal ball picture I love, but that feels to me to be more about Plath than the story, and The Bell Jar addresses no aspects of Plath's mysticism. Yeah, the new cover is atrocious; it is not only keeping Plath back in her time, but back in sexism and inequality...and it is showing that sexism and inequality are alive and well fifty years later.

Annecdotist said...

To be honest, I'm surprised at all the fuss given the complacency about sexism etc in society in general, but I liked your comments on the Guardian webpage and wanted to let you know I've copied your quote about the mirror reflecting multiple selves onto my own writing blog. All the best with your Ph.D.

Claire Hennessy said...

SO glad you've posted about this, Maeve - I was so intrigued to see what you had to say about it briefly and I think this is a nice response to the over-solemnising of Plath. As you say, women's fiction and its marketing is a problematic area, but I think it is beneficial to look a little closer at certain texts. (I do maintain that having copies of 'classics' with 'Bella and Edward's favourite book!' on the cover is a step too far, though.) ;)

suki said...

Thanks Maeve for this.
I like the possibilities that you suggest with this cover.
I've been interested in why people read Plath. I remember quite clearly at school in1982, having to choose a 20 centuary woman author, from a list of names, and I picked Plath because I knew nothing about her.
Since then, I've thought she's fabulous!
Hopefully other people will pick up this new version of the bell jar, needing a new book to read and they might well pick the pretty red one, as opposed to another blue book or the one with too much curly writing on the shelf, and find the fabulous writer that many of us know as "Plath".

suki said...

So glad you published this Maeve. I like that you offer hope for this cover which so many people have decried.
I have been interested in why people begin reading Plath. I remember having to choose a twentieth century female author at school, and choosing Plath because I didn't know her at all.
Since then I've thought she's fabulous!
Perhaps readers will choose the bright red book over a blue one, or one with too curly writing but when they open the book they will discover the fabulous Plath that we know

Penelope Peacock said...

Lovely work Maeve. I've very glad that someone has looked at this argument logically and methodically. I think that the cover is garish, the red is too 'in your face', but working in a book store whilst completing my undergraduate I can see why Faber have chosen this colour as opposed to a more subtle one. Dealing with questions like 'do you have that book with the blue cover?' or 'it's the book that has a picture of a woman on the front' (and, yes, these really were questions that myself and my colleagues had to deal with on a daily basis...) can become tiring and monotonous after a while - Especially when it is an anticipated release.
This cover certainly will be easy to distinguish and also forward it into a wider base of female readers. It has created a firery response, therefore only furthering the anticipation for it to be released onto the shelves.
Again, well done with this post! Plath books are so limited on Australian shelves, I will be rejoicing when I see this in a book store here!

Maija said...

My copy of The Bell Jar is the red pin-up applying make-up one and to be honest, it has always annoyed me, it's exactly the kind of thing that would have irritated Esther, if a man had written the book there never would have been such a frivolous cover, I think.

Maija said...

Actually now that I've finished reading (sorry I just skipped the last two paragraphs or so when I wrote the last comment) you make a really good point. Anyway, regardless of the cover I love The Bell Jar and too have read it countless times through several different covers, none of which too away from the novel in any way. I wish she had written many more...