Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

You may have read that the reception to the 50th Anniversary cover of Sylvia Plath’s THE BELL JAR has been less than welcoming on account of being more akin to the cover style of the chick-lit genre. Reaction to the cover has moved through the spectrum of anger, derision and even parody. Out of the many critiques, the general feeling seems to be that the cover dilutes or misrepresents the content and dark subject matter of Plath’s writing. What surprised me, perhaps naively, about this whole debate was that those most vociferous in their abhorrence of the cover, were intimately familiar with the text. So much so, that they had assumed a role of custodian over the text, arguing that the cover should reflect what lay beneath and not stray from that path.

Now, the reaction to this redesigned cover was articulated by generations of readers who identified with the work and had personal memories with which the new ‘chick-lit’ like cover had no resonance. What about newly released books, though? Their covers have no history, so to speak–they are there to draw the reader in, tempt them to open the book to the first page, and ultimately purchase that book.

As the Plath incident shows, there is no universal design that can satisfy everybody. Which is why I was curious when I came across the piece in the Millions that examined the difference between US and UK covers.

Being a Brit living in the US, I feel unofficially qualified to pinpoint and understand the difference in covers and offer an explanation. The result: I can’t. In fact, I preferred the majority of the American covers. I’ve racked my brains, and all that I can say is that my judgment is based on purely aesthetic taste, whether it be on the type, composition, colors, or images; rather than national sensibilities that I grew up with “across the pond,” or have picked up while living in America.

What kind of cover draws you in? What’s your favorite cover? And have any redesigns of your favorite book stirred your emotions – good or bad?


3 Responses to Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?

  1. D. C. DaCosta says:

    Wow. I didn’t like any of the covers in the examples.

    I want to see:
    — Title clearly legible
    — Subtitle, if the title’s meaning isn’t obvious (What is an orphan master?)
    — Author’s name, smaller than the title unless he is a publishing powerhouse (e.g., Stephen King)
    — Image(s) that indicate at least two, but no more than five, elements of the story: people, location, era, weapon/tool, suspense/romance/history.

    I hate crowded covers, and I hate covers that don’t suggest even the book’s genre.

  2. EDWARD says:

    Let’s face it – publishers don’t have time to read books: they are too busy selling them. It’s like your Uncle Elmo getting you a job at the plant. He can get you in the front door, but if you are going to keep the job more than a few months you must have what it takes to do the job. Chopin’s mistress is trotted out every few years by a group of ardent feminists who claim, “hey, look, she’s as good as Flaubert!” In reality, she’s not, and she fades back into obscurity. Sylvia Plath, regardless of what the cover of her book looks like, had staying power. That is what gives the book traction half a century after her death. She wrote with an intensity and eerie clarity that few others could come near. She outshines her contemporaries with the force of genius. Feminists can’t help her; bungled book designs can’t stop her. Ultimately it is a testament to the quality of her writing.

  3. Sloan says:

    My first instinct is to lean more towards minimalism when it comes to covers. I like a clear title and author name and only one or so elements of the novel on the cover. Jens Lapidus’s Easy Money is an example (crime fiction covers, as much as I love them, are also the easiest to do – simply put a weapon on the cover and you’re set).

    Minimalism or not, though, I want a cover that best captures the mood of the story. Dan Simmons had a great one with the hardback version of The Terror: Two bodies, one frozen dead and one nearing it, sitting in the middle of an ice field with the unsettling glow of the aurora borealis crawling over the frozen mountains in the distance. Captured the bleak and hopeless horror of the book rather well, I thought.

    Ultimately, the mood is the biggest selling point for me. Even with books I’ve already read/owned, I will still wind up picking one that better captures the feel of the book. In that regard, I suppose I can see why that cover might anger some. Honestly, though, in a situation like this, where the book is already a classic and most people who buy it will be buying it with that knowledge, I don’t think it’s worth getting upset about the cover when the material inside so clearly stands on its own. For a first-time cover, yes, I might want it to be something more striking and in tune with the content, but at this point I don’t think a bad cover will ruin it.

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