This is kind of embarrassing to admit, but until just recently I was under the misguided impression that a Pulitzer Prize in poetry might actually entitle a gal to a little literary respect.
Good thing I had the nice folks at British publisher Faber and Faber to set me straight.
The cover of Faber's new 50th anniversary edition of Sylvia Plath's only novel, “The Bell Jar,” doesn't even tip its pillbox hat to art, madness and thwarted ambition. Instead, we get a stock image of a sultry retro babe dabbing on makeup for a big night on the town. Everything about the cover, from the raw reds to the awkward lime-green typography to the generic vixen caught in mid-primp suggests that “The Bell Jar” is a bit of harmless fluff dashed off by an obscure and inconsequential author.
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The Faber and Faber edition, which is available in the U.K., has sparked outrage on both sides of the Atlantic, with some bloggers and designers saying the cover is an insult to the author.
"I think it's a travesty," says graphic designer Barbara deWilde, who designed the book jacket for Jennifer Egan's "A Visit from The Good Squad."
"I'm still almost speechless that it was published in this form."
DeWilde says she has tried, unsuccessfully, to imagine the meetings where the cover was conceived. My guess is that someone got the bright idea to try to drag in the young crowd — "The kids, they like vintage fashions, don't they?" — and things spiraled out of control from there.
It's clear, just glancing at the Faber edition, that we have a book cover problem, but the question is: How big a problem? Is the babelicious Plath cover just another quirky aberration from the land of mincemeat pies and Mr. Bean? Or does it point to a larger — and more disturbing — problem with sexist jacket art?
Authors such as Jennifer Weiner have been asking related questions about content for quite a while now: Why is it that when Jonathan Franzen writes novels about relationships and family life he's hailed as a visionary who's saying something central about the culture, but when women write about families and relationships they're pigeon-holed as, well, women writers?
On the U.S. book cover front, you don't find many examples of in-your-face sexism, but there are a few. One of my picks is the 1984 mass market paperback edition of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" — also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It's the one that's seafoam-green with a puffy white flower of indeterminate origin (a mum? a peony?) framed on the front cover.
That's right, some genius decided to package Betty Friedan's razor-sharp manifesto, arguably the most important work of 20th century American feminism, as if it were a box of extra-fluffy facial tissues.
Another of my personal non-favorites is 2006 HarperCollins P.S. edition of Germaine Greer's feminist classic, "The Female Eunuch." The cover image of the model-perfect woman in white bikini briefs with a big box over her head reads like a parody of male cluelessness: "Look, she's oppressed — and super-hot!"
Perhaps more disturbingly, the covers on "The Female Eunuch" and "The Bell Jar" seem to be working at cross-purposes with the texts within.
"[These covers] are using every stereotype of mainstream femininity to visually represent work that specifically challenges those very stereotypes! It's a really crazy paradox," Meenakshi Gigi Durham, a professor of feminist media studies at the University of Iowa and the author of "The Lolita Effect" wrote in an email.
"The Bell Jar," Plath's semi-autobiographical account of the psychological unraveling of a talented college student, is so political in places that it almost seems the mirror image of "The Feminine Mystique." But while Friedan explored the suffering of ambitious women who felt forced to adopt the happy homemaker role, Plath was more interested in what happened when a young woman tried to envision a different kind of future for herself.
Plath's alter-ego, Esther Greenwood, studies on Saturday nights, bristles with literary ambition and recoils at the idea that a woman should be her husband's selfless helpmate.
"The last thing I wanted was infinite security and to be the place an arrow shoots off from," Esther tells us. "I wanted change and excitement and to shoot off in all directions myself, like the colored arrows from a Fourth of July rocket."
The story takes a dark turn when Esther is rejected from a summer writing program and stops sleeping for weeks at a time. Plath, who killed herself shortly after "The Bell Jar" was published, doesn't over-dramatize Esther's encroaching madness, but she doesn't whitewash it either. It's all there: the electroshock therapy, the insulin-related weight gain, the unwashed hair, the hallucinations, the suffocating sadness.
"The Bell Jar," which was originally published under a pen name at a time when mental illness was heavily stigmatized, paved the way for books such as "Girl, Interrrupted" and "Prozac Nation" and struck a chord with a wide range of young women who longed for the artist's life, or at least the artistic life. One measure of current interest: The book has more than 600 reviews at Amazon.com, and an average rating of more than four stars.
Plath, who won the Pulitzer Prize posthumously for "The Collected Poems" in 1982, was praised by Robert Lowell for poems that "play Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder."
In short, the lady is a literary lion. Why not give her due, Faber and Faber?
On a less urgent note, can someone please tell me who decided to package "Cowboys Are My Weakness," Pam Houston's beloved and critically acclaimed short stories about a young outdoorswoman's unrequited loves, as if it were a 1970s porn video? I'm not joking: The cover of the 2005 W. W. Norton & Co. edition features a tiny foreshortened cowboy, viewed between the long legs of a cowgirl who is wearing boots and nothing else that we can see. The cowboy between our heroine's legs holds a lasso and gazes up at her pelvis. The visual message is, unmistakably, Debbie Does Denver.
Jamie Keenan, the London-area designer who did the "Cowboys" cover, said in an email that he wanted to create a visual double entendre: "So initially it can be read in an old-fashioned 'demure young woman seeks hunky cowboy' kind of way and definitely uses the visual language of 1970s cinema to do this (I'd say spaghetti Western rather than your suggestion of porn). But then you notice that the woman is standing in a far more assertive way than the cowboy, and as he's small, blurred and holding what's looks like a limp lasso, he becomes a comic character."
Faber and Faber could not be reached for comment, but according to the British newspaper The Independent, Faber paperbacks publisher Hannah Griffiths released a statement saying, "In our endless endeavor to keep our backlist writers in the minds and hands of new readers, we often look to packaging as a way of describing an old work afresh.
'"The image on the cover picks up on the beginning of the story, where the narrator is ... encountering the conflict between new freedom and old assumptions about women's aspirations. We love it and the sales since publication suggest that new readers are finding it in the way that we hoped."
Megan Wilson, art director of Vintage and Anchor Books, drew flack for her 2008 cover of Alice Munro's, "The View from Castle Rock," which featured pink lettering and a photo of a young woman in a bathing suit that was cropped at the neck. Critics said the book by one of the greatest short story writers working in the English language deserved a more thoughtful and relevant cover. Some also said they would have preferred a woman with a head and wondered if a male writer of the same caliber would have gotten different treatment.
Wilson said by email that she doesn't think that women's fiction is marginalized when images of women are put on book covers.
"I also don't think that cropping a head from an image is a misogynist act; it is just a rather over-used device that we book cover designers employ to avoid showing a face. Men are beheaded just as often as women. The image of a girl in a bathing suit actually illustrates a story in the book — although in the story the girl takes her bathing suit off. Imagine the trouble I would have gotten in if I'd shown that!"
The larger problem, I think, is not the outlandish repackaging of a few revered books by women, but the less obvious and more insidious tendency to visually trivialize a great many books by a great many women.
"If books by Jonathan Franzen, Chad Harbach and Ben Marcus are designed to look different and stand out on the shelves, literary fiction written by women is designed to look the same — pretty, domesticated, inoffensive and wistful (or worse, pink) — regardless of the book's subject matter," writes book blogger Dan Wagstaff of The Casual Optimist, in an email exchange.
"The assumption is that women only want to read certain kinds of stories and that men don't want to read books by women at all."
DeWilde also objects to the way women's literature is packaged. She would be embarrassed to be seen in public with a Jodi Picoult book, she says; the covers are "insipid-looking." And, in general, she thinks designers are relying too much on pale colors, vague figures staring off into the horizon and images of girls jumping on trampolines. She particularly objects to the bland, bucolic treatment of Elizabeth Strout's bestselling novel "Olive Kitteridge."
"Olive Kitteridge is one of the best characters that's been written in the past 10 years — she's a big, strong, unapologetic heroine — and I can't see her anywhere on that cover," deWilde says.
"[That cover] was like a drive-by shooting."
Nara Schoenberg is a lifestyles reporter for the Chicago Tribune.
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