It is 50 years since Sylvia Plath left bread and milk for her children, stuffed towels under the door of their bedroom, and lay down in front of the gas oven to kill herself. I've been in thrall to Plath's poetry and aware of her final act since I was about sixteen, yet I still find it shocking as I type the words and am still caught in a condition of transfixed fascination about her life and death. I am far from alone. It is probably more difficult to find a bookish woman who isn't on very familiar terms with Plath than one who is.
Faber has released a new cover for her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar for this anniversary. The cover shows a bright picture of a woman looking into a powder compact. Lots of people are cross about this attempt to attract a new readership - it's an insult to all women, they think, to trivialise this important book in this way by making it look like a 'chick-lit' book.
I don't agree with this at all and find the furore rather disturbing as I always do when our hyper-literate community jumps on its elitist high horse at the faintest suspicion that reading might be trying to jump out of its small bubble. It is as though as soon as something is shown to have wide appeal - I'm thinking of Dan Brown, J K Rowling and E L James - the most literate amongst us start competing to dismiss it as rubbish.
This feeling that reading is for the elite, the people who get it, is so damaging. Not only in excluding those who don't read that often but particularly to the one in six adults of working age in the UK who struggle with literacy. I run a literacy charity called Quick Reads and the most important message in all of our work is to say, come in, reading can be for you, too. We are trying to say that reading can be for everyone, that it is not a closed club, there is no reason to fear, that everyone is welcome.
This isn't easy, actually. The reasons why someone gets to adulthood with low literacy are many and varied but, in a way that is difficult to grasp when you are used to seeing books as friends, books and reading have often been a source of worry and humiliation.
And that's really all I want to say to those of us who read so much that it is difficult to imagine a life without it, to those of us who are so steeped in an author's life that we almost feel it belongs us, whenever we are tempted to turn our noses up at something, let's just spare a thought for the one in six people who don't have that luxury. Because there will be women who have never heard of Sylvia Plath. It would be a revealing piece of social research. Maybe I can task you with it - how far do you have to go to find a woman who hasn't heard of Sylvia Plath? And if anyone of them can be attracted to picking up one of her books by an appealing jacket rather than the sort that is designed to say 'only pick me up if you are very, very clever' then I can only be delighted.
Anyway, back to The Bell Jar. I quite like the cover. It fits with the opening of the novel and it made me think of Edge: 'The Woman is perfected...' Lots of women with depression have a complicated relationship with their appearance and might even be carefully applying their lipstick as a coping mechanism to help them face the world. I don't feel insulted as a reader or as a woman. The more interesting debate for me would be about why it is trivialising to reference appearance but not offensive to dismiss vast amounts of fiction written by women as chick-lit. There's the uneasy relationship between art and commerce bubbling under as well, the idea that it is wrong of Faber to try to either find new readers or make some money. But most of all I think that if anyone has anger to spare, there are lots of other things that are far more important that we should be worrying about. One in six adults of working age has literacy difficulties. One in six. Surely that is the shameful thing here.
Galaxy Quick Reads are bite-sized books by well-known authors to help people get back in to the habit of reading. They are available nationwide in high street bookstores, supermarkets and online, priced at just £1 each or are available through libraries. For more information visit www.quickreads.org.ukSuggest a correction