“The Bell Jar” As Chick Lit?

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. What began as a celebration, however, has turned into another occasion for the hand wringing that seems to follow most momentous events in Plath’s posthumous literary life.

This time the agitation is over the cover design of the anniversary edition of the novel presented by Faber and Faber earlier this winter. The design has received a thrashing in the blogosphere, one so pervasive that the mainstream media in the U.K. is now reporting on it. In the past 24 hours, the U.K. edition of the Huffington Post has even debuted a poll to determine just how hated the cover is.

For those new to the debate, a little context is in order.

The bold red cover of Faber’s anniversary edition of the novel features a young woman looking into her compact as she reapplies powder to her face. Her stone-cold features reflect back at us through the compact’s mirror. While some have complained about the use of a generic stock photo, the ahistorical font selection for the title and the overall lack of aesthetic appeal, what has most irked bloggers, tweeters and commenters is the edition’s blatant attempt to appeal to women readers, particular those with “chick lit” tastes.

In her blog for the London Review of Books, Fatema Ahmed put her complaint this way:

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.

Ahmed and others have found the cover “silly,” “demeaning” and even misleading. At least one has expressed worry for the “chick lit” readers who will pick up the novel only to find themselves unprepared for the serious, mature and depressing content contained between the covers.

Putting aside the question of whether the current cover is significantly different from many of the covers used to market The Bell Jar over the years (beginning with the cover of the very first edition in 1963), such reactions deserve scrutiny. To begin, let’s talk about the paternalism that shapes this particular construction of the “chick lit” reader. Well-intentioned book critics have been fretting about and attempting to regulate women’s reading habits for as long as women have been literate. A common fear over the centuries is that young women, hampered by biology and an insufficiently developed intellect, will pick up the wrong books and read them in all the wrong ways—and with disastrous consequences to themselves and to society.

Within Plath’s literary reception, anxieties about women readers have been especially pervasive and pernicious. Book reviewers, critics, the media and Plath’s literary executors have been curiously preoccupied with Plath’s young female readers since the late 1960s, when they began to emerge as Plath’s most ardent and loyal fans. Again and again, these readers have been cast in unkind, if not explicitly chauvinistic, terms: They’ve been depicted as immature, uncritical, misguided and even pathological consumers of Plath’s work. Meanwhile, their domination of Plath’s literary market has been regarded as a constant obstacle in Plath’s path to canonization in the world of serious, high-minded literature. These readers—and their reasons for finding certain books appealing—damage the inherent literary value of any text they become associated with, or so the argument goes. Such anxieties have lead us to where we are today in our discussion of the new edition of The Bell Jar.

Yet, it’s not an exaggeration to say that these young women readers are largely responsible for the fact that we are here today celebrating The Bell Jar. Indeed, without them, readers in the U.S. would not have been able to lay their hands on a legal copy of the novel in 1971. As Plath’s husband and executor Ted Hughes once explained, the decision to publish so much of Plath’s work in the early 1970s—The Bell Jar, Winter Trees and Crossing the Water—had everything to do with Plath’s growing audience and, in his words, the “commercial opportunities” that audience represented. Importantly, this audience was very much shaped by the burgeoning feminist movement of the time, which created a new market for literature by and about women. However much Hughes and the male establishment regretted this evolution in literary culture, one has to imagine that Plath, who strove to get as much of her writing into print as she could, would have welcomed it.

That Faber’s most recent edition of the novel takes advantage of similar “commercial opportunities” among women readers hardly seems surprising, for surely book publishing is at least a little about selling books. That a loud majority has assumed that any attempt to appeal to the “chick lit” audience necessarily demeans the book is also not surprising, for women readers have always been (wrongly) seen as a liability for Plath. So what’s so different this time?

Perhaps it’s the brazenness with which Faber is courting its female audience.

However one feels about the cover design, it clearly places the construction of gender and the question of what it means to be a woman at the center of the novel. As the book blurb that accompanies the new edition puts it, the novel’s protagonist

finds herself spiralling into depression and eventually a suicide attempt, as she grapples with difficult relationships and a society which refuses to take women’s aspirations seriously.

In a recent statement, Faber double-downed on this approach to the novel, refusing to make any apologies for the cover design. Speaking on Faber’s behalf, Hannah Griffiths cited as motivation behind the cover the publisher’s desire “to keep our backlist writers in the minds and hands of new readers” and to package an “old work afresh.” She further explained that “the image of the cover picks up on the beginning of the story, where the narrator is… encountering the conflict between new freedom and old assumptions about women’s aspirations.” By Griffiths’ own account, the effort appears to be working. “We love it,” she added, “and the sales since publication suggest that new readers are finding it in the way that we hoped.”

Those of us who love the novel must surely share Faber’s hope that the novel will continue to find new readers. The question is, will we recognize the debt we owe to those readers when they come?


Janet Badia is associate professor and director of women’s studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. She’s author of Sylvia Plath and the Mythology of Women Readers.