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Monday, 11 February 2013

Sylvia Plath Book Covers

It's the fifty-year anniversary of The Bell Jar, and the Guardian had an interesting array of author reactions to their first encounter with the book.

There has also been controversy over the cover of the anniversary issue of the book - the Bell Jar is about limited life chances, suffocation, depression and suicide, but the cover reflects something different. Jezebel had this to say:

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 fucking stupid to feature a low-rent retro wannabe pinup applying makeup. (Also, it's ugly and the colors suck.) But redesigning feminist staples and classic literary ladies to be more appealing to the larger and more lucrative chick lit audience is apparently a common practice (see the Twilight-branded cover of Wuthering Heights below).

John Dugdale says that there is hierarchy of portrayals of women on the covers of books by female authors from different eras. It breaks down into something like this

Contemporary authors: no women on the cover (silhouettes/shadows/backs/shoes or body parts are prominent instead).

Pre-20th century authors:A woman (in period dress) on the cover

Some exceptions: Women on the cover for crime/chicklit/biography

The idea is that having women on the cover means the book won't sell (unless the woman is Keira Knightley or Katie Price or Lisbeth Salander...).

It's a bit like those movies where women are supposed to be the main protagonist but their actions are reflected through a prism of male permission/inspiration - so the women become secondary players in their own movie. Made in Dagenham or Chak de India (or any Hindi film) are the two best examples I can think off from the top of my head.

And in (Documentary?) photography, how are women portrayed - are they reflected through a prism of male definition/permission/dominance? It's a huge question and ridiculously broad, but it just popped into my head as I was writing this, so...


Anonymous said...

There is an interesting article on the new Plath cover on the back page of this week's TLS.

It's considerably more enlightening than the one on Jezebel

colin pantall said...

Thanks anon. What is the link. The nice thing about Jezebel is it's pretty fucking direct in that good old-fashioned Jezebel way and directness can be a very good ( if simplistic) thing.

Andrew Lamb said...

No link! It's the 8th February issue.