The Bell Jar: You can't judge a cover by its book

Plath's publisher is under fire for reissuing her 1963 novel The Bell Jar… in a cover that makes it look like 1990s chick lit

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As Ted Hughes learnt just a little too late, you mess with Sylvia Plath fans at your peril. This time, it is Plath's publisher who has come under fire, for reissuing her 1963 novel The Bell Jar … in a cover that makes it look like 1990s chick lit. Plath's only novel, which was semi-autobiographical, is about a young woman who feels stifled and trapped, not least by the expectation that she will conform to a traditional feminine role. The new edition appears in a cherry red cover, with a groovy font, and shows a woman pouting into a powder compact.

It could be argued that the image on the cover represents the pretty, good girl against whose confines Plath's heroine struggles. (At the time of writing, the publisher, Faber, is yet to comment.) The problem is, it is almost indistinguishable from all other "women's fiction". Men's fiction, which does not have a shelf of its own, can be about anything from infidelity, laundry and shopping to pandas in space, and generally appears between covers that more or less represent the subject. Women's fiction, many publishers and booksellers believe, is anything written by a woman, and knows its place.

Cover design is painful in a market where big retailers call the shots. In 2005, one romance writer told The IoS about having a cover redesigned 30 times because WH Smith didn't like it. In the end, it didn't take the book. Another author claimed that a book had been rejected by a supermarket because its colour didn't match its display.

It could be true that Plath's new cover is all about getting the book into the hands of new readers, who wouldn't look twice at its original design, a monochrome spiral. But it seems more likely that it's about getting it into Tesco, or it won't get into any readers' hands at all.

The Bell Jar is not alone. Naomi Alderman's brilliant, funny, angry novel The Lessons, about a manipulative gay relationship between two men, shows a man and a woman, from behind, holding hands, in a sunny meadow. It looks like a Christian marriage manual.

Australian author Justine Larbalestier's Liar is about a short-haired black girl called Micah, but advance copies used a photograph of a white girl with long, fair hair. "I was very upset," said Larbalestier. "Are the big publishing houses really only in the business of selling books to white people?" The cover was changed.

Many authors tell stories of arguing with their publishers about how their books should look, but one who rewrote the ending was Polly Courtney, who dumped her publisher, HarperCollins, at the launch of their third book together. It's a Man's World was set in a lads' mag office, but featured an anonymous pair of woman's legs, in heels. Courtney called it "condescending and fluffy". Her next book, Feral Youth, which is out in May, has a very modern, orange and purple cover. It's just a shame that Sylvia Plath can't do the same.

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