Given the title ‘Literary Bloomsbury’ and told to run with it in any direction we saw fit, I spent more time than I care to admit racking my brains for a topic. Before moving to London, I had never even heard of the apparently infamous Bloomsbury Group and my knowledge of the area only went as far as UCL (and probably Bloomsbury Publishing) being a part of it.
Turns out that Bloomsbury is home to more publishing houses than you can shake a hardback at. As part of our Publishing Contexts module, my class was given the incredible opportunity to nosy round Faber & Faber and meet some of the lovely people who work there. Inspiration hit.
I’ve loved Sylvia Plath since I first picked up one of Faber’s many editions of The Bell Jar on one of my regular angry teenage shopping trips. Stomping through Waterstones, I can’t imagine what attracted me to pick it up. At the time, I was almost exclusively reading manga, costing me nearly £10 a volume and devouring each one in a matter of hours. The Bell Jar was my first leap into the ‘literary’ or ‘classic’ genre, and I have yet to find another book that even comes close to it.
Sylvia, born in Massachusetts, came to the UK on a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Cambridge University. She had excelled in academics throughout her entire life and through her short stories, won an editorial internship at Mademoiselle magazine in New York. Her experiences there utterly exhausted her and later became the base upon which she built The Bell Jar.
Detailing in vivid imagery the crushing disappointment, resentment and loathing she felt in New York, The Bell Jar was the first novel I read that showed depression in such a raw and real form. Sylvia was repeatedly told how gracious and grateful she should be for such an incredible opportunity, that she should be having the time of her life. She simply wasn’t.
Faber publish The Bell Jar as part of their Children’s/YA list. Why? Everything about it screams mature, warning, parental guidance. The themes may be hard to swallow, but they’re real.
The number of 15 and 16 year olds with depression has almost doubled since 1980. And that’s only the ones brave enough to seek help. Young readers are experiencing these sudden extremes of emotion, squashed into boxes that don’t fit them by academia and society. Crushing down feelings of inadequacy and fear, teenagers are forced to compete against the projections of perfection endlessly plastered across Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.
We are failing them. By maintaining this shroud of taboo around mental health and making it so difficult to talk about our emotions, we are not teaching these burgeoning adults how to cope with their emotions in a healthy way. The number of children admitted to hospital due to self-harm has increased by 68% in just ten years. And that’s only the ones brave enough to seek help.
By publishing The Bell Jar in the YA list, Faber are speaking frankly to young adult readers and allowing them to take ownership of their education on mental health. We need books that create an open and honest space to discuss depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar and all the other labels we like to slap on each other’s foreheads. The Bell Jar. All the Bright Places. The Silver Linings Playbook. My Heart and Other Black Holes. Books like these allow young readers to identify their own difficulties, find solace in knowing they’re not alone, learn how to talk to people they’re concerned for and provide a springboard for seeking out more information. Mirrors and windows.
Carefully choosing to publish books that facilitate this discussion is a vitally important responsibility of our industry.
Faber & Faber summarise Sylvia Plath’s brilliant life in just five key milestones – one being her birth and the other her death. Her first key moment? Meeting Ted Hughes. This incredible woman achieved so much in her life but is defined merely in terms of her romantic relationships. Clearly we still have a lot of work left to do there too, but that’s an article for another day.
(All statistics from Young Minds.)