May 17, 2013

How to redesign a classic, or, The Bell Jar strikes back


Book designers are used to working quietly behind the scenes. If authors are the star athletes in publishing, designers are more like the training staff—there to make sure the stars are fully equipped to succeed on the field. So it’s hard to know what to make of the fact that book design itself is suddenly a spectator sport.

Major motion picture, indeed.

In a recent story in The New York Times, Julie Bosman writes of the controversy surrounding the movie tie-in edition of The Great Gatsby, which features Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan in a suggestive pose sure to raise the eyebrows of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg—although, perhaps surprisingly, that’s not what the controversy’s about. The new cover design, which “presents a stark choice for readers,” is “dividing the nation’s booksellers,” Bosman reports, with large retailers like Walmart stocking only the star-spangled edition. Small bookstores like McNally Jackson are taking the opposite approach, with bookseller Kevin Cassem inveighing, “It’s just God-awful. . . The Great Gatsby is a pillar of American literature, and people don’t want it messed with. We’re selling the classic cover and have no intention of selling the new one.”

(If he’s going to be that way about it, it’s only fair to point out that McNally Jackson isn’t selling the original cover either but another recent Scribner redesign, also a movie tie-in, which updates Francis Cugat’s classic flapper-in-the-sky painting with a blandly jazzy title treatment and pointlessly interloping orange stripes. But I digress.)

That there might be differences in opinion over the redesign of an American classic is unsurprising. What’s surprising is that the opinions appeared on the front page of The New York Times, in an article that was among the most emailed of the week on the newspaper’s website. When did book covers become front page news?

In fact, classics redesigns are everywhere lately as publishers aim to prop up sagging backlist sales in a slow economy. A fresh package is an inexpensive way to inject some life into an oldie-but-goodie, and a particularly eye-catching design can help a dusty book get face-out displays. A story by The Atlantic’s Jen Doll surveyed recent efforts like Penguin’s Drop Cap Classics, designed by Paul Buckley and Jessica Hische, and its popular Cloth Classics series, designed by Coralie Bickford-Smith. But the designer and illustrator Neil Gower, who has turned in a number of lovely redesigns himself, concedes, “if there is an existing well-known cover design, it can be hard to escape from its shadow.”

Indeed. As some publishers are discovering, people turn out to have intensely proprietary feelings about the books they pretended to read in high school, and they aren’t shy about voicing them. The controversy over Gatsby’s movie tie-in is reminiscent of the widespread outrage about Faber and Faber’s redesign for the fiftieth anniversary edition of The Bell Jar, which, to hear the Internet tell it, might be the worst thing ever to happen. Melville House’s own Dustin Kurtz was quoted in The Telegraph by way of Twitter asking, “How is this cover anything but a ‘f*** you’ to women everywhere?” Jezebel was even more direct: “If Sylvia Plath hadn’t already killed herself, she probably would’ve if she saw the new cover.”

Much of the criticism was mean-spirited and unfair, and to some extent I agreed with Emily Witt‘s smart appraisal in Paper Monument: “Critics complained that the publisher had reduced Sylvia Plath to chick lit, but there’s nothing about the photo that suggests a frivolous read. Women apply makeup every day: what the cover suggests is a book about a female experience.” Perhaps the problem is that female experiences still aren’t considered universally relevant or worthy of consideration. Still, I wouldn’t call the cover a smashing success. (The word I chose at the time was “unfortunate.”)

Thankfully, for American readers the point is moot: yesterday, Harper Perennial unveiled its own fiftieth anniversary cover, and the result is flawless in both conception and execution. Designed by Dan Cassaro with art direction by Harper’s Milan Bozic, it’s exactly the cover the book deserves.

Harper Perennial’s new edition of The Bell Jar

Via email, Cassaro described his approach:

Milan had a very clear vision about what he wanted. I think when you have a modern literary classic like The Bell Jar a lot of your work is cut out for you. The title already carries so much weight that it was more about keeping it simple, elegant, and just paying respect.

There are at least four editions of the book that use an old typeface from the ’60s, Davida, for the title, usually in a light pink. I wanted my lettering to quietly pay homage to the ball terminals and swashy forms of the type on those old paperbacks.

As Cassaro says, this cover lets Plath’s title do all the work, while the lettering feels both classic and fresh, dark and elegant, feminine and strong. It’s a perfect model for how to redesign a classic, one more publishers could stand to learn from. After all, as we’ve learned, the world is watching.


Christopher King is the Art Director of Melville House.