Wednesday, 27 November 2013

An Ode to Chick-Lit.

I was thrilled to offer some comments about the 50th Anniversary edition of The Bell Jar to 'An Ode to Chick-Lit', produced by Pauline Dunne and broadcast on Dublin City FM this week. My feelings on the notorious cover have not changed since writing my original blog post and I was happy to contribute to a programme that asks us to challenge our preconceived ideas of what is 'proper' writing or fiction. My comments come in around the 8min mark but I would urge everyone to listen to the entire programme as it is so interesting!

Janet Badia points out in her excellent book, Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Women Readers, Plath has been frequently characterised as , 'St. Sylvia - High Priestess of Suffering' with a collection of 'emo' followers who inevitably grow out of the poetry and fiction with maturity. I second Badia's frustration at this categorisation and also go on the defensive, asking: so what if Plath's main readership is sensitive young women? Does this lessen the value or quality of her writing or indeed, the validity of her readership? Throughout my PhD experience, when asked about my topic, people will usually respond how 'depressing' it must be to study Plath. Do the covers of her books and fiction contribute to this perception of Plath and her writing as dark and depressing? I really believe so!

In my opinion, the 50th Anniversary cover of The Bell Jar draws attention to aspects of the novel that have not been popularised in conjunction with the 'Plath myth'. And again - if the book is marketed to resemble chick-lit, part of me wants to say: so what? What's wrong with chick-lit! In fact, are we contributing to women's secondary position within the wider literary tradition by dismissing chick-lit as something trivial and embarrassing? Furthermore, by kicking up a fuss at how Plath is marketed, are we denying the multiplicities in her voice and creative imagination? Why can't The Bell Jar be seen to represent a young woman's coming of age, struggles with mental difficulties and also the frivolity of youth?

Plath's calendar: illustrating how she planned
and budgeted her life. (c) Smith College.
Part of the reason I strongly opposed the furore that occurred on the publication of the 50th anniversary edition of The Bell Jar spans from viewing Plath's archives at Smith College and seeing the pages Plath wrote that budgeted, planned and listed poems and stories: how much they were bought for and how much she expected to sell. Plath was a keen businesswoman (and child of consumerist USA!). It is Heather Clark who most clearly points out the difference between Hughes and Plath's approaches to writing and publishing. For Hughes, the act of inspiration and composing the poem was the important and most meaningful part of writing. For Plath, selling her poetry was of tantamount importance. It wasn't a 'success' if it wasn't published and paid for. For these reasons I think the reaction to the 50th anniversary edition was seriously over the top. Personally I can imagine the Plath who planned every meal, every dollar, saved every paycheck being absolutely overjoyed at The Bell Jar being placed on the 'holiday reading' list at WH Smith.

Frankly, whether The Bell Jar is marketed as chick-lit or a children's bedtime story, these book covers will not change the content of the book. The Bell Jar shocks, intrigues, entertains, is very moving and is a brave, brilliant novel. Indeed, marketing this book as chick-lit introduces it to a whole new catalogue of readers and may assist in the 'Plath myth' subsiding - allowing all of Plath's inspirations to shine through, appreciated. As Pauline Dunne concludes, we should 'applaud [chick-lit readers] choice of reading material for the funny, moving and intelligent piece of writing it is'.


Zoë said...

Bravo Maeve, we do judge the book by the cover. For a woman's literary output to be taken 'seriously' why is that it has to adopt 'masculine' traits to reach out to a wider audience. The 50th anniversary addition surely reached out to a new audience as you say, a non-exclusive, non educated middle class one, I should hope.

Anna said...

My main problem with the cover wasn't the fact that some people could/did label it as chick lit. I just think the cover design was plain ugly. That's it. The colors are awful, even though I love red. And I personally hate it, when there are faces of other people pictured on the cover. I loved the idea behind the cover, I guess they were opting for a retro feel and I even think the powder compact was meant to relate to the "beautiful" world of all the interns who were supposed to be having the time of their lives while attending fashions shows etc. in New York, but what ruins the cover for me, is its tackiness. If they had gone with something more classy like the cover of Winder's "Pain Parties, Work", I bet everyone would have been happy or at least not as appalled as they were. Another reason for the outcry may be the fact that this was an anniversary edition and people were really expecting something special.
Anyway, they printed a new version, black/grey with pink/red lettering and Sylvia's picture on the back cover, so everyone should be happy by now. ;) At least I am. ;)

Lara Serodio said...

I couldn't agree more with Anna. It is ugly. Although I have dozens of chick lit books, and I do not consider that The Bell Jar could be classified among them, I understand the intention of 'selling' other aspects of the book, but that was not the way! There are thousands of chick lit covers so nice and beautiful and simple, I just wished they would have used one of them!

Lara Serodio said...

By the way!
Although the link is of a spanish journal, I would like to share an article about how the covers of the books change whether the book its written by a man or a woman:

Highly interesting!