The Cover Plot

Saturday, 2 February 2013


I hope you all spend the weekend reading or outdoors, because I’m spending it working. So, I’d like to live vicariously through you. Maybe that’s why I’m also posting this photo of mine.

Speaking of books, have you seen the new awful cover for the anniversary edition of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar? Yes, I know everyone is talking about it, and yes, I read all those tweets saying to get over it and stop talking about it. No thanks, I’d like to talk about it. If only for the fact that it pisses me off and I’d like to procrastinate some more before I return to work.

I lent my boyfriend a copy of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot recently, and when he gave it back he made a rather telling assessment: “If this was written by a woman, it would be classified as chick-lit”. True. It’s a love story (among other things), it has sex, it has some rather flowery talk about romance and desire. Those qualities in books by women get derided and defined as ‘romance’ and ‘chick-lit’, rather than simply approached as aspects of a character’s development. I read a lot of books classified as both genres, and just like in every other genre (including ‘literature’), there are varying degrees of good writing and good stories. You will find some gems in books called ‘chick-lit’ and ‘romance’, just like you will find them in books called ‘literature’. You will also find some duds. This is normal. What isn’t normal is classifying all these types of books according to gender.

Here’s the deal, if we keep using the model that what men write is general literature or fiction, speaking for all humanity, while what women write only interests and applies to women alone (and is ‘fluffy’ and inconsequential), then we are essentially saying that women’s humanity isn’t equal to that of men’s. It’s called sexism.

To me, the whole debate about book covers is a symptom and metaphor of all this. Why do books by women need images of idealised women? Or heels, or stereotyping pink colours? Does everything we do have to be reduced to our gender? Why do men often get the privilege of book covers that classify them as simply human? Does even the product of our minds, our writing, need to be constantly reduced to objectifying our bodies and stereotyping our gender?

I understand people will have different degrees of interpretation of the new cover of Plath’s Bell Jar. I view it as a defining of her work based on her gender alone. By the way, this is my favourite cover of her work.


rooth said...

Yeah, I'm not a fan of the anniversary cover? Who got the vote on that??

Amelia said...

Whenever people talk about how women write fluff I point them in the direction of Jane Austen. Yes, Jane Austen wrote P&P and the ever so dreamy Mr. Darcy, but let's be real she was one of the most unromantic writers out there. The emphasis in all her books was on money and social statute.

Yesterday I saw this on twitter and I didn't understand why someone would make something like that - your blogpost put it all in perspective.

Gabriela said...

Oh, but we absolutely need to talk about the new horrible terrible cover! It's not just that it's sexist and plain stupid and the publisher did not read the book. It's also ugly. It's like an attack of bad taste that is now going to be on the shelves of bookstores and libraries for years and years to come (I bought a new copy of The Bell Jar only last year and I still got the unfortunate 1999 cover), doing disservice to the book and to the perception of young people who are going to be reading it. Books last and so do their covers. It might seem superfluous and whiny and what not, but our culture is from a large part visual. It's a big deal that an important book is getting a crappy cover.

I'm also working this weekend. It's wrong. Weekends are for fun! And reading.

Jen said...

This is the first time I have seen the new cover and I'm just reeling in disbelief. It has been many (many) years since I read 'The Bell Jar' and it left quite an impression on my then-adolescent mind. To say the new candy-pink cover doesn't reflect Plath's work is an understatement.

Wow. It's truly awful. There, I said it.

Gracia said...

(You've probably already seen this, but on the off chance that you've not, here are 50 covers at a glance: )

Rambling Tart said...

I'm grinning after reading this post - not sure if that's the "right" response or not, but I am. :-) I've been thinking recently about how we classify ourselves just as much as we are classified by others as female writers writing for females. I confess that until recently I thought of my blog as a blog for women simply because I write about what pleases me and assumed (oh-so-wrongly) that it would only appeal to other women. I know I come from a wonky background, so perhaps such archaic thinking can be understood, but still!!! Imagine my surprise when my man came home from work saying he overheard two of the male janitors discussing my blog which, apparently, they read religiously. I've discovered that there are many other males reading it as well. I was staggered. And humbled. And yanked right out of my false thinking. We are humans, therefore we write for humans. We resonate with kindred spirits not with one sex or the other. So that's why I'm smiling after your post. How lovely to be human and not "just a girl." :-)

Miss Bibliophile said...

I thought it was interesting that your photo in this post included a Persephone book. Despite featuring many female authors, I think their books actually transcend some of the typical gender assumptions about fiction. I've read at least a couple of their novels by male authors that are centered around female, domestic worlds that would probably be classified as "chick lit" if they were written in today's publishing world.

Hila said...

Rooth: Obviously not us!

Amelia: Yep, exactly. When men write about these things, it's 'literature'. I'd like women's writing and female authors to not be treated like children, it's getting old. Initialising us seems to be the primary marketing strategy these days!

Gabriela: Yes, when people tell me to 'get over it', I respond by saying that even the 'small' stuff feeds into general sexism. We can fight sexism in whatever way we like, I'm not 'getting over' anything thanks.

Jen: That cover is like going backwards. Only someone who has never read the book and thinks women generally write fluff would come up with this cover.

Gracia: Nope, haven't seen it, so thanks!

Krista: It's so strange how we are still primarily defined by our gender and not our humanity and individuality.

Miss Bibliophile: True, good point. Actually, this image of mine with the Persephone book is a bit of a coincidence - it's just a random snapshot of books I was reading a few weeks ago. I didn't intend it for this post specifically, but maybe it's more telling than I thought and not so random.

Bethany said...

I just finished 'The Marriage Plot' a few weeks ago and find your boyfriend's assessment interesting. I'm still chewing on some of the ideas I found in it, and now you've shared an entirely new perspective from which to understand it.

As for Plath's new cover, it's insulting. I honestly wonder if the publisher has even read it. Not only is it ugly, but it almost feels purposefully antithetical to Plath's ideas in it.

Thanks, as always, for being willing to open up that discussion when others aren't. I'm happy to go there with you, Hila.

Chio said...

First of all, I'm very glad I found your blog! I've been perusing your old entries and I absolutely enjoy your writing style and content, very thought-provoking and interesting.

Now concerning this topic, I felt very puzzled by this cover. It looked like an attempt to frame The Bell Jar under the so called "chick lit" when there's certainly not much in this novel that could be classified as chick lit, apart from the fact that Sylvia was a woman. In that sense, I completely agree with you that this book cover is very sexist.

Additionally, I thought that instead of being an inclusive cover to attract the eye of a broad readership, they restricted it. I can't imagine any guy buying this version of the Bell Jar because it screams pink and I certainly wouldn't buy it, it's just awful and not only sexist but unappealing to the eye.

Chuck said...

We don't need lipstick covers but we don't need The Marriage Plot either. I know that wasn't really what you were saying but I haven't got over my irritation with that book... Better a wonderful book in a sexist cover than a sexist book in a great cover. Best neither obviously but that seems (tragically) unlikely. x

Hila said...

Bethany: yes, I found it an interesting assessment too. Unfortunately, such covers are becoming the norm. I think the logic here is to appeal to a 'wide' audience, but I always wonder why 'wide' means 'stupid'. It's insulting to everyone.

Chio: Thanks for visiting! Yeah, I also think this cover limits the book and its author to one gender, which is sexist. And I generally hate the term 'chick-lit', because men don't have an equivalent, they just get 'fiction' or 'literature' - are women 'special' while men are 'human'? It's all crap.

Chuck: haha, I remember how much you hated The Marriage Plot. Fair enough, it has big flaws, I admit.