Today’s blog was written by Nigel McDowell, the author of TALL TALES FROM PITCH END, which will be published in June 2013. With this month marking the 50th Anniversary of the publication of Sylvia Plath’s THE BELL JAR, Nigel got to thinking about his experience with the book and the issue of “gendered” books.
Blue for a boy and pink for a girl. (Books for boys and books for girls). When I was sixteen I bought a book with a purple cover and a portrait of a young woman with yellow hair and pearls, the author’s name in a red handwritten font, like lipstick scrawled on mirror. At the counter I suffered a look from the bookseller that stays in my memory – his eyes skywards, and a small smirk. ‘Enjoy that,‘ he said. I wish I’d said back, ‘Oh I will. I really will.’ The book was The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.
Now, I doubt I was the ‘target audience’; I doubt I knew what ‘target audience’ even meant. In my English class I was asked: ‘Why are you reading that? It looks like a girl’s book!’ A friend, well-read, said to me, ‘She’s okay, but Salinger is better – that’s just Catcher in the Rye for girls.’
Fifty years since publication – and since Sylvia Plath took her own life – there’s been much talk about the influence of The Bell Jar on girls. There’s been some fuss too about the jacket of the reissued 50th Anniversary edition of The Bell Jar – too feminine, too commercial, too gaudy.
But Plath described her novel as a ‘pot-boiler’, saw it as something commercial, seductive, funny. I think she may have quite liked the new cover. The Bell Jar resists classification; can’t be crammed into any genre nor nailed to the ground. Where I found it, at sixteen, was in the Classics section. It would fit just as well into Teenage Fiction, Romance, Literary Fiction, Memoir, even Poetry. As a novel it’s a slippery creature, a cunning changeling – satire, social comedy, slice of stale Americana, swan-song. Esther Greenwood (the protagonist) is possessed of a voice that is witty, profound, scathing, grim, beautiful…Like all great stories it is for everyone, always. I grew up in rural Ireland: a boy who’d never been to New York, I’d never suffered from depression, I didn’t know what a ‘pocketbook’ was, but somehow I knew what Esther meant when she said: ‘The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.’ The Bell Jar awoke the writer in me, and I don’t know where I’d be without it. Great fiction is a startling mirror, its reflections uncompromising but essential: this was a book for adolescent girls, I was told, but in it I saw my own teenage self.
I’m wondering if things are different now for young readers? I imagine a sixteen year-old boy taking that new Anniversary edition to school, showing friends…I hope this happens. I hope that boys pick up a Jacqueline Wilson and see themselves in the complex worlds of angst and humour she creates, and not think, ‘This is good, but it’s just for girls’. Or that girls decide on an Anthony Horowitz or an Artemis Fowl as readily as a Meg Cabot.
I am glad that at sixteen I didn’t know about things like ‘target audiences’ or ‘demographics’ (or that I did and ignored them through stubborn pig-headedness). I hope today’s children and teens are just as pig-headed about what literature they enjoy. Let them read just what they want, and be changed by it. Let a boy of sixteen carry a bubblegum-pink book if he wishes; or a girl a cover of scarlet and silver, flame and frost. Let someone say to them with that same look, that same small smirk: ‘Enjoy that.’ And let them reply, I hope, with a smile of their own, words: ‘Oh I will. I really will.’