Or a Few Thoughts on the Cover Design of The Bell Jar (An Illustrated Essay of Sorts)
In his recent essay ‘Graphic Design Criticism as a Spectator Sport’ designer Michael Bierut (author of 79 Short Essays on Design) suggested that “at a time where more people than ever are engaged with design,” design criticism has been reduced to a “seemingly endless series of drive-by shootings punctuated by the occasional lynch mob, conducted by anonymous people with the depth of barroom philosophers and the attention span of fruit flies.”
Unsurprisingly, I thought of Mr. Bierut during the recent furore about the cover design of The Bell Jar.
When Faber and Faber published a 50th anniversary edition of Sylvia Plath’s novel last month with a brightly coloured new cover, they can hardly have expected a controversy. But the design, which features a photograph of a woman holding a compact and touching up her make-up, was, it turned out, nothing less than “a ‘fuck you’ to women everywhere.” It was so truly hideous, that if “Sylvia Plath hadn’t already killed herself, she probably would’ve” when she first saw it. It was “THE BELL JAR as chick lit” — “1990s chick lit“!
It wasn’t much better when the designers weighed in. If the diplomatic Jamie Keenan thought Faber hadn’t “got it quite right,” Barbara DeWilde was less equivocal: “it’s a travesty… I’m still almost speechless that it was published in this form.”
We are, of course, morbidly fascinated by Plath, who died tragically young — there are at least 3 new books about her life being published this year alone. That The Bell Jar is both semi-autobiographical and her only novel makes our opinions about it even more intense.
But just how much of the criticism was actually fair?
On the face of it, the image isn’t entirely inappropriate. Mirrors (and photographs) are a recurrent motif in the book (one of its working titles was The Girl in the Mirror). The novel even begins with Esther working for a fashion magazine in New York. She talks about her looks, her clothes and her make-up. She carries a compact in her bag. Esther is fixated with appearances even as she struggles against being defined by hers.
Nor is the new design some kind of “chick lit makeover” — that just seemed like a convenient, if inaccurate, headline. While defining what qualifies a ‘chick lit’ is notoriously difficult, the cover has none of whimsy usually associated with the genre. Furthermore the new design wasn’t a sudden attempt to make the book look more feminine. The beautiful Faber Firsts cover from 2009 designed by Mark Swan also uses a glamorous retro image (albeit a disturbingly cropped one).
In fact, the new cover, also designed by Swan, is much more jarring than the Faber Firsts’ almost romantic image. There’s an angular sickliness to it — an awkward, unpleasant toxicity. The bright colours are unnaturally heightened, the pose mannered, the jerky lettering like “loops of string lying on the paper” blown askew.
As Faber themselves would later would confirm, it was meant to unsettle. The intent “was that the image of the expressionless woman ‘putting on her mask’ and the discordant colour palette would suggest ambivalence and unease.”
Certainly the new cover, is harder to like. It is indisputably ugly, especially compared to Swan’s earlier design or the original Faber cover from 1967 (pictured above) designed by Shirley Tucker (if not more so than this Warholian shocker from 1998). But tasteful covers rarely stand out on the shelves and from a marketing perspective there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with something being dissonant. It can be startling effective as Peter Mendelsund’s covers for Simone de Beauvoir demonstrate. Disruptive designs can also provoke interest in new readers and there is even some anecdotal evidence this is precisely what has happened with The Bell Jar – it is, apparently, “doing the business.”
Still, the design of The Bell Jar fails, at least as an accurate representation of the book. The mirror’s reflection does nothing to imply the introspection or detachment of the novel — only a coquettish vanity and narcissism. The woman in the photograph is just too put-together, too worldly. The mannered glamour is reminiscent of the stifling fashion photography of the 1950’s. This isn’t a 19 year-old’s face, “bruised and puffy and all the wrong colours.” There is no ennui or anxiety on display. No hint of poverty or isolation. Nothing of the suicidal depression aor a person coming apart. There is none of the disappointment. It is just an icily cool model posing for a photograph — an image Esther herself denies:
The magazine photograph showed a girl in a strapless evening dress of fuzzy white stuff, grinning fit to split, with a whole lot of boys bending in around her. The girl was holding a glass full of a transparent drink and seemed to have her eyes fixed over my left shoulder on something that stood behind me, a little to my left. A faint breath fanned the back of my neck. I wheeled around.
The night nurse had come in, unnoticed, on her soft rubber soles.
“No kidding,” she said, “is that really you?”
“No, it’s not me. Joan’s quite mistaken. It’s somebody else.”
To make matters worse for Faber, they also revealed the new cover shortly after Penguin Classics reissued new editions of George Orwell with cover designs by David Pearson. The contrast is unfavourably stark. Where Pearson deftly combines wit and originality with respect for material (not to mention Penguin’s design heritage), the stock photography, anachronistic type and bright colours of The Bell Jar seem crass and gaudy.
Comparisons with similarly stylish new editions of Kafka and Joyce designed Peter Mendelsund, Truman Capote designed by Megan Wilson, and Ralph Ellison designed by Cardon Webb, are unequally unflattering. It’s not hard to see that Plath, like so many other women writers, has been decidedly short-changed.
As Fatema Ahmed, noted in her post ‘Silly Covers for Lady Novelists‘ for the London Review Books blog, “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.”
In recent years, contemporary writers as diverse as Francine Prose, Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner, Meg Wolitzer, Fay Weldon, and Lionel Shriver have all noted how fiction by women is marginalized. No matter that women buy the most books, women writers are less well-reviewed, win fewer literary awards, and all too often the covers of their books don’t accurately reflect nature of the work itself.
If books by Jonathan Franzen, Chad Harbach and Ben Marcus are designed to look different and stand out on the shelves, contemporary literary fiction written by women tends to look the same regardless of the book’s subject matter. All too often there is a photograph of woman on the cover — pretty, domesticated, inoffensive and wistful. 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. In discussing the treatment of her own work, Shriver dryly pointed out, “publishing’s notion of ‘what women want’ is dated and condescending.”
This isn’t always true, of course. Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels defy all expectations. See Now Then, Jamaica Kincaid’s first novel in 10 years, has a type-only cover. The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling is notable for its hand-drawn lettering and calculated, corporate blandness. Both the American and the British editions of Zadie Smith’s NW — designed by Darren Haggar/Tal Goretsky and Gray318 respectively — are stunning. Alison Forner’s sinister canned cranberries for May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes is a neat inversion of domesticated happiness. The Penguin Modern Classics reissues of Carson McCullers designed by Jim Stoddart — with images selected by Penguin Press picture editor Samantha Johnson — also demonstrate that 20th century classics by women do not have to suffer from poor design or gender stereotypes.
There are surely other isolated examples too. But one can’t help thinking they are exceptions that prove the rule, and it is a particularly bitter irony that Plath’s novel about a young woman struggling with society’s expectations of her should, 50 years later, expose that woman writers are still stereotyped and treated poorly in comparison to their male counterparts. My sense is, however, that this latest controversy is a sign that the tide is turning. Women, both writers and readers, are being more outspoken about what is wrong with the way their books are handled by publishers and the media. They expect more and they expect better. This is the upside of design as a spectator sport. White middle-aged men are no longer the only voices being heard. Thankfully.
I was recently asked for my opinion on the new cover of The Bell Jar for an article in the Chicago Tribune. This an edited and expanded version of my comments to journalist Nara Schoenberg for that article. Thanks to everyone who gave feedback on an earlier draft of these remarks.