The Sylvia Plath Moment

9780571268863I had my own Sylvia Plath moment this week, by eerie coincidence just days before the 50th anniversary of her death. The ancient, galvanised something-or-other pipes that channel gas to my apartment’s stove sprung, well, the plumber stopped counting at four leaks.

I spent days inhaling gas, first inadvertently and then deliberately as I tried to determine the leak’s source (at it turned out, sources, plural). Eventually, after having my neighbour over to help sniff with, er, fresh nose, and plagued both by an unbearable, eyes- and skull-aching headache and by a nagging fear that were I to go to sleep I might not wake up, I abandoned my apartment in favour of fresh air at my parents’ house.

Plath’s death has always held a macabre fascination for the publishing world, and it arguably kick-started her posthumous catapult to revered writer—she hadn’t published all that much prior to her death, although what was published and what has been published since are testament to her undeniable (if unstable) talent.

Her death also feeds into the legend of the tortured writer—one can’t, it seems, write without at the very least crippling writer’s block and at the worst all-consuming mental health issues that drive you to suicide. Would Plath be quite such a sensation without her tragic demise? We’ll never know. In my inexpert opinion I think her writing prowess would undoubtedly be recognised, but I’m unsure whether she’d be such a cultural phenomenon.

Speaking of cultural references, Plath’s approaching death anniversary has been overshadowed by controversy. The Bell Jar has been reissued with what can only be described as a poorly chosen cover. Faber’s chick lit-reeking design (AKA, the antithesis of The Bell Jar’s heavy topics and a design that would likely have disgusted Plath were she alive), features a red-lipsticked woman powdering her chin via the reflection in a compact.

9780571245642I won’t just say that this cover is inappropriate for the book’s content, I’ll say it’s just generally dud (the cover pictured to the right is much, much better). Nothing about it jumps off the shelf at you to encourage you to read much less buy it; nor does it evoke carefully thought out design for a long-time bestselling book that’s sure to generate huge interest and new sales. BBC America quotes Jezebel’s Morrissey summing it up well: ‘If Sylvia Plath hadn’t already killed herself, she probably would’ve if she saw the new cover of her only novel The Bell Jar […] Also, it’s ugly and the colors suck.’

But I don’t need to say any of that, because social media said it faster and funnier for me with literary aficionados proposing and photoshopping cover parodies. The Guardian compiled a bunch of them, which you can view here alongside the original, offending 50th anniversary design. My favourite is the cover that’s gone literal, with a bell and a jar sitting side by side.

The questions are: Now that we know what the 50th anniversary shouldn’t look like, what should it? Oh, and have you seen any other The Bell Jar cover parodies I should know about?

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.