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.
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.