Cover Girls: Why ‘women’s’ novels get the girlie treatment

There’s an uproar on the internet right now about the recent makeover of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. While the original cover was a concentric ring of mesmerising circles, the fiftieth anniversary edition shows a glamorous woman applying make-up in a compact mirror.

The original, 1963 cover, on left; the new, glamorous 2013 fiftieth anniversary cover, on right.

The original, 1963 cover, on left; the new, glamorous 2013 fiftieth anniversary cover, on right.

‘For a book all about a woman’s clinical depression that’s exacerbated by the suffocating gender stereotypes to which she’s expected to adhere and the limited life choices she has as a woman, it’s pretty f king stupid to feature a low-rent retro wannabe pinup applying makeup,’ writes Jezebel.

The London Review of Books placed the book’s new treatment in the context of a larger, ‘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’.

*Wuthering Heights*: 'Bella and Edward's favourite book'.

Wuthering Heights: 'Bella and Edward's favourite book'.

The Huffington Post compared the new Bell Jar to the post-Twilight covers of Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, aimed at teenage girls and heavily referencing the Twilight covers. Wuthering Heights now bears the coverline ‘Bella and Edward’s favourite book’.

*Pride and Prejudice* gets the *Twilight* treatment.

Pride and Prejudice gets the Twilight treatment.

‘It’s insulting to women and girls everywhere to essentially trivialise the topics of these books by creating these book covers showcasing female stereotypes,’ wrote Zoe Triska, the Huffington Post’s associate books editor.

A recent cover of Virginia Woolf's *Night and Day*.

A recent cover of Virginia Woolf's Night and Day.

It’s not just books by women that are redressed in inappropriately girlie clothing, though.

Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s – about a gigolo’s complex friendship with a high-class escort shopping for a moneyed marriage – has a new cover that features a little black dress on a mannequin, set against a pink and turquoise background of New York skyrises. The cover quote (from Blur bassist Alex James) declares it, ‘The most romantic story ever written’. Which is interesting, as the narrator who ‘spends his life looking for the woman he’s lost’ is gay. (As confirmed by Capote.)

'The most romantic story ever written'? Really?

'The most romantic story ever written'? Really?

Lionel Shriver is just one woman writer who’s come out swinging against book covers designed to appeal to a stereotypical imagined woman reader. ‘Take the American reissue of my fourth novel Game Control – a wicked, nasty novel about a plot to kill two billion people overnight. The main character is a man, the focal subject demography. Yet what cover do I first get sent? A winsome young lass in a floppy hat, gazing soulfully to the horizon in a windblown field – soft focus, in pastels. Dismayed, I emailed back: Did your designers read any of this book?

The eventual cover of *Game Control*, as negotiated by Lionel Shriver.

The eventual cover of Game Control, as negotiated by Lionel Shriver.

In the age of Photoshop and social media, disgruntled readers can voice their discontent with ‘insulting’ book covers in their own ways. Here are just a couple of the parodies circulating.

Do these repackaging exercises insult our intelligence - or are they clever ways to expand the market for literary fiction beyond its traditional readership?

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