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Get back, get back, get back

By now, you’ve probably heard all about the dust-up surrounding Justine Larbalestier’s latest novel, Liar.

If you haven’t, you can start with Justine’s big post on the subject, and follow that up with this Publishers Weekly article, in which Bloomsbury has some very fascinating things to say.

The short version: Justine Larbalestier, a fairly well-known YA writer, wrote a novel featuring a bi-racial main character with short, kinky hair and fairly dark skin. These features and her bi-racial identity are crucial to her characterization and certain aspects of the book. This is particularly important because the character, Micah, is a pathological liar, which means that what the reader can discern as unequivocally true about her character becomes crucial to the reading experience.

Let me pause here to note that, unbelievable though it may seem, authors generally have very little input on the direction of the covers of their books. Often they have no input at all, and even when they do, publishers frequently strong-arm them into covers they are not happy with. Though it might seem strange for those who don’t have much experience in publishing, this is true of even relatively Big Name Authors, let alone one who is still building her career and reading base like Larbalestier. I just wanted to make this clear, because some people seem to think that authors have creative control or the final say over what appears on the covers of their books. Alas, this isn’t so (and, frankly– though certainly not in this case– one could make the argument that authors are perhaps not the best arbiters of what would work on their covers).

What happened is that Bloomsbury USA (her publisher) took this (truly excellent) book and designed a cover I suppose they felt would appeal the most to their base.

With a white girl. A white girl with long, straight, light-brown hair.

Here, take a look:

Liar cover

Now, pursuant to the discussion above (authors have not much/no say over their covers), plenty of photo realistic covers misrepresent characters in some way. Indeed, if you plow through the comments at Larbalestier’s blog or (if you dare) here at Boing Boing, you will see plenty of people happily Missing The Point and telling the sad tale of the time their red-haired protagonist was portrayed as auburn or something.

The publisher would like us to pretend that this is not a particularly egregious case of racist whitewashing (a problem endemic in publishing), but a matter of taste, perhaps even a bit of a literary game, a visual play on an admittedly secondary, but still valid interpretation of Larbalesteir’s text.

Don’t believe me? Let’s listen to Melanie Cecka, who worked on Liar, and defended the cover in Publishers Weekly:

“The entire premise of this book is about a compulsive liar,” said Melanie Cecka, publishing director of Bloomsbury Children’s Books USA and Walker Books for Young Readers, who worked on Liar. “Of all the things you’re going to choose to believe of her, you’re going to choose to believe she was telling the truth about race?”

Well, imagine that! Never mind that the author herself, and any reasonable interpretation of the text, would say otherwise. Never mind that Micah’s racial identity is crucial to the book. She’s a liar, so of course she would lie about her race. And of course the publisher only intended to make a clever play on this fact with the cover:

“Clearly, our striving for ambiguity with this cover, and for it to be interpreted as a ‘lie’ itself didn’t work for everyone. But again, if this jacket proves a catalyst for a bigger discussion about how the industry is dealing with its books on race, that’s a very large good to come of this current whirlwind.”

As someone noted in one of the comment threads (apologies– I can’t find the exact one at the moment), it’s a given that Cecka and Bloomsbury would have put a black girl on the cover of a book about a white pathological liar.

Wait, what’s that? You mean to tell me that there are criminally few YA books that prominently feature black faces? And those that are tend to be relegated to the “Urban” section of the bookstore? You mean that a YA novel with a black face on the cover has never had the full weight of a publishing house behind it (announced print run for Liar: 100,000 copies)?

I’d hope this would speak for itself, but if not, here’s the explicit version: Bloomsbury is in high ass-covering mode, and they are grasping at the only defense they have, despite the way it disrespects both the text and their audience, because they know on some level that what they did was wrong.

Not just wrong, but racist.

Frankly, I don’t think we should let them get away with it. Write about this on your blogs, your livejournals, your facebook updates and your tweets. If you like, contact Bloomsbury by phone or email and let them know that you find this behavior unacceptable.

And let me just say this, even if it were unequivocally true that Black Covers Don’t Sell (the thinking that pervades the industry), that would still make what Bloomsbury has done equally abhorrent. Money and marketing do not give you a free pass to be racist. “Practical” considerations don’t make it okay to pretend that a black character is white just to attract more readers. For the record, I doubt this is true, but you know what? I don’t fucking care. Morals for profits has never been an even trade.

I am very glad that this conversation is happening, but not in the way Cecka seems to think it is. I’m glad that we are finally getting a glimpse behind the curtain, an insight into the way racist thinking pervades the still almost-entirely-white publishing industry. I am also glad that we are seeing the vast disconnect between multi-cultural, engaged, and online YA readers and the apparently clueless people publishing books for them. It has been heartening to read the multiple posts by librarians and bookstore buyers who have expressed their desire for more black and non-white faces on book covers, because their readers are hungry for them. ***

In the spirit of that, here’s a great list of YA about POC, compiled by a YA reader of color as part of a guest post on Larbalestier’s blog. And if you know of other great YA that explicitly feature a person (or people!) of color on the cover, please link to it in the comments. Surely the best way to prove Bloomsbury wrong is to make sure that Black Books DO Sell.

*** It’s not really appropriate for this post, but I do want to get into the impression that some people seem to have that books about race are therefore about racism (scroll down a bit). I am baffled about the presence of most of those books on that list (Their Eyes Were Watching God?) Invisible Man is about racism. It’s also one of the finest books of the 20th century. The rest? They’re about the experiences of black people in regards to a whole host of issues, of which race is an integral part. Why do some feel it’s okay to dismiss books as being “about racism,” even if it were true? Is this just another example of the apparently pathological desire of some people to pretend/wish/pray that race doesn’t exist, such that any mention of race becomes, in their minds, automatically a depiction of racism? Does this say much, much more about them than the books they discuss? But yes, another post.

10 thoughts on “Get back, get back, get back”

  1. alumiere says:

    i’ve been following this since i first saw Justine’s post linked on another blog – i am as usual sickened by the ignorance so many people show and continue to show regarding race and other forms of discrimination and entitlement

    i wish people would at least have honest rational discussions when issues arise, and instead we get bad behavior, racist commentary, and an amazing array of head in the sand denial

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  6. Robin says:

    Wow. That’s… something. Cecka’s attempt to spin this as not just okay, but a net positive (“but we’re starting discussions on race! Go us!”) is ridiculous.

    (Now I’m scared for my first book, due to be published in December… the main characters are a Caucasian woman and a Filipino man in a romantic relationship, and I’m struck with horror that they might try to make him Caucasian too. O_O It didn’t even occur to me that publishing companies would do shit like that. I mean yeah, I had to sign in the contract that they have final say over the cover, but I never thought a company would change something so basic to the character. Hopefully my company will be more ethical than Bloomsbury.)

    I’ll definitely be reposting this.

    1. Alaya Dawn Johnson says:

      Robin, I also hope your publisher doesn’t whitewash your characters. However, as some romance fans have pointed out, sometimes publishers will take the route of only depicting the white characters on the cover of a book about characters with many racial backgrounds. This isn’t at all on the same level as the whitewashing that went on with Liar, of course, and perhaps they could point to specific story-reasons why they made that decision, but as a trend it’s also harmful.

      What’s your book?

      1. Robin says:

        It’s romance/erotica – the setup being that it’s an encounter between a woman and her tattooist, and explores the themes of claiming, bonding through pain, and psychological territory. The publishing company did ask for my input on the cover artwork, and I suggested a major image from the story which doesn’t actually involve the full bodies of either characters. The image I suggested was simply of her tattoo (which is a large, vivid piece spread over the entirety of her lower abdomen) partially inked, and his gloved hand holding the tattoo machine. Race would still be obvious though if they go with the image I suggested, since it would show his hand and arm above the glove, and her abdomen. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed. It’s actually quite possible that they may use the one I suggested, since a lot of their covers are unusual (they’ve won awards for some of their covers) and use imagery that one wouldn’t expect to see on romance and/or erotica books.

        You know, it had never even occurred to me to question how many romance books I’ve come across that featured a white woman on the cover and her romantic interest (who is a PoC) not being pictured. But now that I’m thinking about it (and took a quick glance through my bookshelf to confirm)… that doesn’t seem to be at all an unusual phenomenon. o_O And yeah, I agree that it absolutely isn’t on the same level as what was done to Larbalestier, but it’s still harmful.

        It’s odd, really, from a financial point of view (which is generally what motivates companies). Plenty of Caucasian women (who are generally the target market – of course there are specific imprints, like Harlequin’s Kimani, that are specifically trying to target the PoC market) fantasize about MoC, so why *wouldn’t* the company want to draw that demographic by prominently featuring the male love interest? Are they afraid that they’d repel more women than they attract? I suspect this is probably more of the phenomenon that the people attempting to market books just aren’t as in-tune with what their readership may actually want.

  7. Robyn says:

    I have not read this book but I am awestruck by the callousness of the publisher’s comments. I have read several posts on this topic on our site and yours is profound and spot on, very nice. Thank you for keeping this conversation going. Hopefully with the power of the Web behind us we can shake up that racist regime enough to make a change, ideally with this book cover but more importantly with their thinking overall when it comes to race, readers, and characters.

  8. Em says:

    Robert Heinlein’s book, “Friday”, has a female protagonist who is a woman of color, and I believe every cover of ever print run has shown a white woman instead.

  9. Andreen says:

    Something similar happened to a favorite writer of mine, Colin Channer. On his website, he discusses the fact of his not liking his book cover for his novel, Satisfy My Soul. When asked by an interviewer why that particular cover — a black male with dreads, his head bent, shirt off, and an image of a fairer skin black woman, dreads tossed to one side, slightly scolding, slightly sad wafting over the male’s shoulders — he responded with the following.

  10. Andreen says:

    “I hate it as much as you do. I think it’s one of the worst covers in the history of publishing. I thought I was going to lose my mind when I saw it. I think it was an attempt by the publisher to dumb down the book. Well, this idea is perhaps too scientific. I think they dipped in the design drawer labeled ‘Generic novel by black male author writing anything to do with love’ and this is what they came out with. Stuff happens, which is why we shouldn’t always judge a book by its cover.”

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