When Bella Meets Heathcliff

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From Sylvia Plath to Emily Bronte, publishers are unapologetically lending a light touch to the packaging of literary classics by women

A few weeks ago, I came across something online that was both disconcerting and hilarious. It was an extremely cheerful book cover and I would not have cared much for it, except that it belonged to The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. The absurdity of plastering five cheery adolescent girls on the cover of a book that can only be described as morbid and depressing was not only confusing, but also misleading. Curious about the rationale of something as outrageous as trying to trivialise Plath by making her book look like a wellness manual made me dig further, only to realise that what I had seen was a parody in response to Faber and Faber’s 50th anniversary edition of Plath’s only novel. The actual cover that had inspired such widespread outrage and mockery is rather unimaginative. It features an attractive retro pin-up girl against a bright red background looking innocuously into a hand-mirror, fixing her lipstick.

Published in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas—with a cover image showing a bell jar, inside which is the silhouette of a girl sitting pensively at a desk—the book had little success initially. Only after Plath committed suicide, a mere two months after the release of The Bell Jar, was it catapulted to the classic that it is today, thanks to fans and critics both starting to view the novel as a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s descent into mental illness. In 1965, when Faber republished the book, crediting Plath for the first time, its cover, of concentric circles, became an iconic representation of the theme of the novel. Shirley Temple, the cover designer, said the design had come about because her own struggles with ‘sanity’ were so similar to that of the book’s young protagonist, Esther Greenwood. “I suppose it was a doodle that turned into a book jacket,” she said.

So, when Faber and Faber decided to commemorate 50 years of the novel being in print by giving it a cover that made it look like Sex and the City fan fiction, many readers were outraged. Plath’s writings have made her the subject of feminist studies globally and many argue that she is too literary to be packaged and sold as a chicklit author.

Jezebel, a feminist website, declared that the cover was ‘hideous’, before going on to say, ‘If Sylvia Plath hadn’t already killed herself, she probably would have if she saw the cover of her new novel.’ Fatema Ahmed in London Review of Books called the cover ‘silly’ and blogged saying that ‘the anniversary edition fits into the depressing trend for treating fiction by women as a genre which no man can be expected to read and which women will know is only meant for them if they can see a woman on the cover’.

Despite the controversy, Faber is sticking to the cover and Hannah Griffith, paperback publisher, Faber and Faber, clarified in a statement: ‘There is a reader who will enjoy its brilliance without knowing anything about Plath’s other works. This edition was briefed with such a reader in mind.’

Keeping Griffith’s statement in mind, I decided to gift an unsuspecting 20-year-old with a copy of the new edition on her birthday. A week later, she called back disgruntled. “When you gave me that book, I thought it was going to be a light read. Now I am depressed. The next time you want to buy me a book, get me real chicklit like Bridget Jones’s Diary or something.” Obviously, disguising Plath as a light read does seem a bit like selling shrapnel disguised as candy. Priya Kapoor, editorial director, Roli Books, says, “I can understand that publishers need to make literature more accessible.” But, she says: “The new cover looks like it’s chicklit—which it clearly is not.”

Despite having classics in their backlist and a certain target audience for them, re-issuing books in order to draw more readers is a hard task for any publisher. And book covers do play an important role in deciding how a generation views its literature. According to Vaishali Mathur, senior commissioning editor with Penguin India, “Rejacketing a backlist almost always entails giving a fresh lease of life and a new perspective in accordance with the times to the list. The Plath cover has to be viewed from that perspective. Sometimes, a new editor brings in a new thought or new viewpoint to the book. It might not appeal to everyone, but it does [make people take] notice [of the book].”

And it’s not just The Bell Jar. When HarperCollins re-designed Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights in 2009, the cover was deliberately made to look like books of the Twilight series to appeal to young readers. What’s more, the blurb on the cover even proudly declared this to be ‘Edward and Bella’s favourite book’. It was a nightmare for literary snobs all over the world, but despite the criticism, the publishers claimed to have sold 125,000 copies, as reported by The New York Times in a June 2012 article. The same was the case with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter. For the 2009 Penguin Classic Deluxe Edition of the novel, the person chosen to design the cover was Ruben Toledo, a painter, sculptor and fashion chronicler who ended up depicting the book’s protagonist Hecter Prynne, who is tormented in a puritanical society, as a Vogue fashionista. And let’s not forget the 2011 Penguin Essentials version of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which romanticised the notion of a Manhattan prostitute.

To think that women authors alone face the ignominy of suddenly finding their books in the chicklit zone is untrue. Sure, we are yet to see a mass market version of an Orwell or even an Eliot, but there do exist graphic pulp covers to classics such as Fahrenheit 451, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Valley of Fear. Gavin Morris, art director, Penguin India, is unapologetic about this marketing tactic. “Covers are meant to grab people’s attention and if something does that, then it is clearly doing its job. While re-designing a cover, you don’t want to alienate your core audience, you also want to expand it. If something is shocking, chances are it will work,” he says.

Some readers, however, do feel let down by the mass market approach of publishers and feel that an increasing number of them are making the mistake of thinking that readers are dumb. “You don’t have to dumb down a good book in order for me to read it. It is insulting to think that I would buy a book just based on the cover,” says 26-year-old Rachana Sharma. “When I want to buy a book, I know what I like and pick my genres accordingly. If I am looking for chicklit, why would I even touch Plath?” says 32-year-old Kanika Rana.

However, it is also true that readers who put the most pennies into the piggy banks of publishers are typified by 30-year-old Shalini Arora. “I don’t look for something heavy. I want something easy that takes my mind off things,” she says.

This pretty much explains the trend of bestsellers such as 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight, and the pressure on publishers and authors to play along with market forces and package their products. “We live in a time where marketing plays a key role in everything. For me, it’s important that I have a smart book cover that people don’t feel embarrassed of either reading or carrying,” says author Anuja Chauhan.

Keeping these publishing trends in mind, it is hardly surprising to see Plath’s book designed to make Esther Greenwood look like the new Holly Golightly.