Jarring Belles

According to today's Guardian, there's been something of a furor over the cover selected for the 50th anniversary edition of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar - specifically, in the words of writer Alexandra Topping, about the fact that it "portray[s] the book as glorified chick lit", thereby "misrepresenting the work and trivialising its content".

The image in question? A young woman applying makeup, her face half-glimpsed in the mirror of the compact she holds; her fingernails are red, as is the background, with the author's name written in soft, white italics. The overall vibe is one of traditional femininity, though given the novel's content, it's worth noting that the model looks, if not exactly unhappy, then certainly distant.

Now: in the interest of full disclosure, I haven't yet read The Bell Jar: as much as I love Plath's poetry, I've always preferred the work of her friend and contemporary, Anne Sexton, who committed suicide nine years after eulogising Plath's death. (Both died of carbon monoxide poisoning: Plath with the aid of an oven, Sexton with vodka and car exhaust fumes.) That being so, and while I'm very sympathetic to those who feel the cover is unrepresentative of the story -- which deals with the encroaching depression of the female protagonist -- I'm much less impressed with the near-universal acceptance of "chick lit" as a pejorative in the context of Plath's work.

Of the writers quoted in Topping's article, only Naomi Woolf makes note of "the reflexive dismissal of 'chick lit'", which comment is left completely and lamentably unexamined. And yet it's arguably the crux of the matter; because in a debate about the need to be respectful of women's writing, and which rightly decries the practice of marketing women's books to women only, often using highly feminised covers that have little or no bearing on the content - as though the dread combination of a female author and a female protagonist automatically necessitates the presence of domestic imagery against a pastel colour scheme - the irony of feminist critics casually dismissing an entire genre of female-authored, female-centric novels for the crime of appearing too feminine cannot be understated.

Or, to put it another way: the perception of chick lit as frivolous, pointless and unliterary is irrevocably tied to its status as a heavily gendered genre, and while there are certainly some writers who embrace the label, more often than not, as Topping's piece demonstrates, it's deployed dismissively -- the (apparently) adult equivalent of shrieking, "You've got girl germs!"

It's a nesting doll-slash-oroborous problem: women's writing is frequently seen as being less powerful, important and universal than men's, even when it deals with identical themes; as a result, it's assumed to be of interest only to other women, and overwhelmingly marketed in accordance with a deeply outdated and stereotypical view of what women find interesting; thus, women who dislike being treated as an uncomplicated, amorphous demographic on the basis of gender learn to associate both chick lit and its trademark covers with an attempt to patronise them; which leads, unfortunately, to a situation whereby many feminists are dismissive of chick lit precisely because it's female-oriented -- or rather, because the type of femininity used to market it is narrow and traditional to a degree they can neither endorse nor tolerate, even if they're otherwise capable of admitting that femininity isn't incompatible with feminism; consequently, their denigration of the genre is seen as confirmation of the original, sexist assumption that women's writing is inherently less intellectual than its male equivalent, which tells both critics and marketeers alike that they were right all along, and to keep on treating such novels as unthreatening, light-hearted fluff, regardless of their actual themes and content.

So when I see a group of prominent female writers banding together to complain, in essence, that a classic work of female-authored, female-focused fiction is being demeaned and trivialised by the addition of a female-oriented cover, it makes me deeply sad. Evidently, the outrageous sexism surrounding the perception of women's writing has now reached a point where, in order to defend against the pejorative accusation of chick lit -- which can and does have a measurably negative effect on both book sales and authorial perception -- women writers are falling over themselves to agree with the fundamentally sexist assertion that yes, femininity and femaleness are trivial, and therefore have no business being anywhere near a classic feminist work.

One can't help but wonder what Sylvia Plath would've made of it.