Friday, July 24, 2009

It Matters

As writers, there is very little in our control concerning our manuscript. What we can do is simply write the best we can, then with a little hope, perseverance, and networking, get our best writing into the hands of agents, publishers, book reviewers, and readers. Along the way, a lot is out of our control. Which agent will like my manuscript the best? Which editors does that agent know--and which will want the manuscript? How much marketing will the publisher provide? Will the readers like it?

And what will be on the cover?

They're important questions--and they all matter. The wrong answer to any of those questions could make or break your book. Whether we like it or not, we live in a society that judges the book by its cover.

To the left is Justine Larbalestier's latest book, LIAR. Isn't that a stunning cover? The narrator of the book, a pathological liar, has her lying mouth covered by her own hair. It's gorgeous--and the thing that made me plan on buying a hard cover instead of waiting for a paperback.

There's only one problem.

That isn't the narrator.

The author describes the narrator as:
"Micah is black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short."

Now, there are a few arguments pro the white girl on the book cover.

First, the symbolic argument:

“The cover works symbolically,” said Catherine Linka, children’s and young adult book buyer at Flintridge Bookstore in La Canada, Calif. “We have a character who is hiding a lot, and the cover does a wonderful job of communicating that secrecy—the bangs, the hair crisscrossing across the face.”
(This argument, by the way, is invalid to me, as they could have as easily done this with a black model instead of a white one.)

Second, the "she's just a liar anyway" argument:
"One of the most upsetting impacts of the cover is that it’s led readers to question everything about Micah: If she doesn’t look anything like the girl on the cover maybe nothing she says is true."

(This argument, by the way, is refuted by the author herself: "In an interview with PW, Larbalestier, who is married to Uglies author Scott Westerfeld, said Micah told the truth about her race.")

In the end, I think the publisher just didn't think it mattered.

But they're wrong.

This kind of inherent racism, exclusionary tactics, an underlying belief that white is more marketable than color--that white is actually preferable to color... Seeing it, addressing it, and confronting it...

That matters.

[For more on the topic: E. Lockheart's own experience with racism on covers, the PW Article on the topic, the author's blog on the topic.]

So, I'm dying to know: what do YOU think about this?


MeganRebekah said...

I've been seeing/following the controversy across the blogosphere and it's terrible. It's sad that our society is still so biased.

And in general, I've always hated it when a cover has people on it and they don't reflect the characters. Like a romance novel with a willowy blonde when the heroine is an athletic red head. If you're not going to match up the characters, why put a person or face on the cover?

And it also scares the crud out of me that I won't get any say in my own future book cover (assuming of course I get to that point). There are certain things I *hate* about particular covers and if I ended up with one of them I would die.

Shelli (srjohannes) said...

this was on my blog today too :) interesting debate. I understand from a marketing perspective but think there could have been more of a balance.

Unknown said...

MeganRebekah: I totally understand. Mine's a sci fi, but I HATE the typical sci fi covers--you know, dark, with a space ship or planet on the front, very cheesy and overdone, imo. But the fact of the matter is--my opinion will count very little when the time actually comes!

Shelli: I think there were so many other things they could have done. What I find most insulting is that if they thought a black girl couldn't sell, why not just not use a person--or use an ambiguous close-up (i.e. of the mouth) that didn't really show race?

Eric said...

Since I'm such a stickler for keeping things authentic, this really bugs me. If the publisher agreed that the story involving a black girl was worth publishing, then make the cover reflect that.

Corey Schwartz said...

Wow! That is just unbelievable! I am shocked (and not in a good way!) It's really not right, though I am sure the controversy will help with sales.

Unknown said...

Eric: I agree entirely.

Corey: Yeah, that was my first thought, too. Although I'm hoping the paperback goes to a Black model, and that sales are a million times stronger with that cover!

Rebecca Gomez said...

Personally, I hate photograph covers, but that doesn't matter. If this was my book, I'd be steaming mad about it. If there's gonna be a face on the cover, it should be the face of the MC.

Danyelle L. said...

I'm with you, Beth. I don't know why anyone would decline to buy a book based on the race of the person on the cover. That's almost as foolish as using a completely misleading cover.

Wendy said...

I don't perceive it as much as a race issue as maybe a laziness issue. They should have made an effort to make the cover reflect what's inside. I wonder if they were just using stock photos and couldn't find the right shade of person and were too cheap to go get a photographer and model.

Unknown said...


I'm not so much responding only to you, but to other, future commenters and readers who may think that this is just a laziness issue.

This wasn't laziness. There are plenty of stock photos of African-American girls to pick from at iStock. Honestly? If they have enough faith to do an initial print run of 100,000, then they have the cash to hire a photographer to do a $300 photo shoot with a black model for an hour.

This was a deliberate decision, one more piece in a pattern of behavior that is both pervasive and insidious. Racism is not about intent; it's about effect. It's also not limited to burning crosses and white hoods and lynchings and swastikas. Racism is everywhere because of the lingering aftermath (and in many places, continuation) of imperialism and colonialism. Racism shapes our definitions of beauty and desirability, our unconscious biases that make us think that books with people of color on the covers "must be teaching books" or "must be literary" or "talk about THE Black Experience," etc.

Racism is everywhere. If -- and I am not saying you are, but invariably, some white person says something like this in every racism discussion I've ever read -- you believe that there are a ton of people who "read race into everything," please stop and consider that racism is so embedded in modern society that it affects nearly every facet of our lives. That doesn't mean there aren't occasions when someone perceives racial bias when there is another explanation, but 99 times out of 100 incidents, racism plays a factor. White people just don't see it, because their privilege is all-encompassing and allows them to go through life with many aspects of racism invisible.

Racism makes these kinds of publishing decisions invisible to most white people while very obvious to most people of color. Racism makes us believe that our children can't identify with dark faces, that WE can't identify with dark faces because their life experience must be "foreign" or "exotic," or the worst one... "not as universally human."

It is crucial to give white children the chance to experience a good story regardless of the race of the main character. It is even more crucial that we give children of color a good reason to stay engaged with literature and to teach them that they are beautiful and special the way they are, that they can also be heroines and spies and detectives and princesses and the grils next door.

Larbalestier's editor is now *deliberately lying* when she says that the cover was meant to cast doubt on our perception of Micah's honesty. Justine explicitly said that Micah was NOT lying about her race, as that ruins the perception of the book.

The effect was was racist. It contributed to a larger, longstanding pattern of exclusion and segregation of faces of color on fiction books. It furthered a whitewashing effect on children's protagonists. Therefore, this cover was racist. The editors, sales and marketing people, and publishers made a series of racist decisions that led to this outcome.

This does not mean they are bad, evil people. This does not make them "racists," at least not in the way that white people seem to try to define the term. (We are all part of a racist world. Everyone who has white privilege has or will have, at some point do soemthing racist. It's unavoidable.) All it means is that their actions in this specific instance were racist, and they should strive to understand why the outcome is so offensive and unacceptable.

Sticks and Stones said...

While I think perhaps they should have asked however I see no issue with this. She is a liar, and while in the book she might be truthful about her race at the point of looking at the cover you have no clue about that so that argument is invalid.

While I think that the publisher should have used a black model or explained there reasons before hand I don't fault them for it.

I will leave with my thoughts as thus; if none of you were just the tiniest bit biased or "raciest" then you would have never noticed. Those that noticed are biased just like those that would chose a white girl on a book over a black one. I am fairly sure most teens growing up now would not even have noticed.