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18th February 2013

The Bell Jar’s new cover: a necessary facelift?

The new ‘chick-lit’ image undermines the novel’s integrity, but can all be forgiven if it reaches a wider readership?

“How is this cover anything but a “fuck you” to women everywhere?” Dustin Kurtz, a marketing manager at Melville House, succinctly vocalises many blogs-worth of outraged reaction to the cover of Faber and Faber’s 50th anniversary edition of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. The cover depicts a woman reapplying her makeup, while morosely gazing at her mirrored image.

Criticism of the book cover appears to fall into two categories: first, the glamorised image as undermining the serious nature of the narrative – which includes the limitations placed on women in society. The image reduces the daring and confessional elements of the novel to a superficial exploration of artificial and artful femininity. Secondly (and related), the response is tied to a negative reaction of the so-called ‘Plath industry’. The entirely un-superficial concerns of the author are misrepresented in favour of garnering revenue, an apparent inevitability given the current commercial landscape of publishing. However, both arguments ultimately stem from the belief that a book cover should reflect the themes and concerns of the author – an element that does not fall within the author’s creative purview. Leading us to ask, should a book cover reinforce its content or can it legitimately challenge and reinterpret such content?

As the first point of contact for the reader, the image of a book cover has the power to engage, or dismantle, the interest of the reader. The image has to be able to display the broad genre of a book, while also attracting (in the publisher’s interest) as wide a readership as possible. The image becomes central to a novel’s commercial success. The increasing number of titles that are reissued and repackaged following a corresponding film release reflects the commercial drive behind book covers. The recent reissue of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, to coincide with the new film adaptation, evidences exactly this: it placed the actors who had portrayed the protagonists, Sam Riley and Kristen Stewart, on the cover, aiming to attract the wider film audience. The image on the cover of a novel significantly directs the type of readership and popular appeal of a novel.

A drastic re-imaging of a book through the cover art always presents a danger. Readers are often tentative about a repackaging of a narrative that has been familiar, and personally significant. Faber’s paperback publisher, Hannah Griffiths, said “we often look to packaging as a way of describing an old work afresh”. However, when trying to attract new readers to a work, the core demographic of target readers are often antagonised and alinated by a controversial cover. Repackaging LM Montgomery’s classic, Anne of Green Gables with a buxom (and almost lascivious) blonde cover girl instead of heroine Anne’s fiery red locks, in the recent edition by CreateSpace, has stirred up a controversy, and possibly resulted in a loss of sales within the established readership. Many readers have contacted Amazon in an attempt to redress the distortion of the central heroine in the cover image. ‘Imaginative’ repackaging is a gamble, and the publishers will hope that a controversial reaction will bring more publicity to the re-issue, and therefore more readers (and sales) than it will alienate.

As a commercial endeavour, literary fiction has to be able to distinguish itself from the other books within its own genre and style. An interesting and arresting choice of cover image is one way to achieve reader interest and essential publicity. Undoubtedly, the controversial image from Faber’s edition of The Bell Jar has served its purpose: the cover has invoked debate, and many column inches to the novel’s re-issue. Re-branding it in the chick-lit genre, with the inevitable connotations of caricatured romantic entanglements and triviality that go with that, may prove to be a financially astute move. However, in the case of The Bell Jar, if it brings more readers to this beautifully wrought classic then it can’t be all bad.

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