Friday, 8 February 2013

Sylvia Plath: A 50-Year Retrospective.

If you follow my twitter you'll be aware that this coming Monday I've organised Sylvia Plath: A 50 Year Retrospective. The event will be held in the University of Ulster, York Street campus and runs from 7.30-10pm. Everyone is welcome - we have some of the best academics on the island of Ireland talking about Plath, as well as up-and-coming poets who are guaranteed to make this evening a wonderful commemoration of Plath's outstanding contribution to modern literature. Everyone is welcome!

If you're not close to Belfast, please tune in at 7.30pm GMT via:
  1. The Plath Diaries ustream channel (videos will hopefully be archived here on this blog),
  2. Twitter and follow the hashtag #plath50.
Here's the programme outline:

Sylvia Plath: A 50-Year Retrospective
7.30-10pm 11th February, 2013
Conor Lecture Theatre, University of Ulster York Street

7.30 – 7.45pm: Welcome, wine, book display and slideshow.
(Book display courtesy of Faber & Faber and the British Library.)

7.45 - 8.05: Depersonalising Plath: the 'I' annihilated as an 'I' elated – Dr. Anna Dillon (QUB).
8.05 - 8.25: Plath’s Clear Vowels – Dr. Philip McGowan (QUB). 
8.30 - 8.50: “I talk to myself, myself only": Sylvia Plath's Radio Broadcasts – Dr. Nerys Williams (UCD).
8.50 – 9.10: Hughes and Plath: “The Truth Untold” – Dr. Gillian Groszewski (TCD).

9.05 – 9.15: Questions from audience.

9.15 – 9.45: Readings of a selection of poems by, related to or inspired by Sylvia Plath.
 - Sophie Collins
- Stephen Connolly
- Manuela Moser
- Sam Riviere

9.45 – 9.55: Closing remarks by Maeve O’Brien (UU).

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.