Monday, July 27, 2009

Ain't That A Shame

Author Justine Larbalestier writes Young Adult fiction and has written a letter to her fans regarding the outcry over the cover of her latest novel, "Liar". You see, the novel's protaganist, Micah, is a young black girl with nappy hair, while the the cover features a young white girl with straight hair.

Justine explains that, "Authors do not get final say on covers. Often they get no say at all." but goes on to lambast her puplisher, bloomsbury for whaite-washing its covers. Moreover, the book is about a pathological liar, and a cover with a girl looking nothing like how the protaganist describes herself, the meaning and truthfulness of the story is called into question.

You can read Larbalestier's entire response at her website, Justine Larbalestier: writing, reading, eating, drinking, sport.

Ursula Le Guin complained over the same white-washing of her covers in (one of my personal favorite responses to this kind of thing), "A Whitewashed Earthsea: How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books" on The Slate, where she describes publishing the orginal Earthsea trilogy thirty years ago:

I had endless trouble with cover art. Not on the great cover of the first edition—a strong, red-brown profile of Ged—or with Margaret Chodos Irvine's four fine paintings on the Atheneum hardcover set, but all too often. The first British Wizard was this pallid, droopy, lily-like guy—I screamed at sight of him.

Gradually I got a little more clout, a little more say-so about covers. And very, very, very gradually publishers may be beginning to lose their blind fear of putting a nonwhite face on the cover of a book. "Hurts sales, hurts sales" is the mantra. Yeah, so? On my books, Ged with a white face is a lie, a betrayal—a betrayal of the book, and of the potential reader.

I remember reading the trilogy in middle school and when I realized Ged was not white I scrutinized the cover fitfully. Ged was so small, I could have hardly been able to tell if he were purple.

Finally, I encourage you to take the time to read, "Shame," a short essay from Pam Noles about growing up black and loving science fiction and fantasy, while being black. One of my favorite tidbits is condensed below while she talks about Star Wars.
Then "Star Wars" came out. I was 11...I spazzed all the way through the screening, my first science fiction movie on the big screen and with everything so huge, it made a big difference...Han Solo had this ship that he flew upside down! Darth Vader even breathed scary!! And there were robots!!! And Luke had to fly into the canyon on the Death Star with the other ships shooting at him and he had to get the bomb into a tiny hole and then he turned off the machine thing and he prayed to Obi Wan and bomb went in. And then they got medals. Also there was a giant teddy bear with stringy hair and a gun.

He said it sounded as if I liked it. I said I mostly thought it was absolutely great. And it was, really. Don't get me wrong. But it was like most of the other stuff I had seen. I explained to him about the planet where Luke came from, a desert with two suns? And how here, where we only one sun, in the desert the people are black. I told him how there wasn't even one black person in the whole movie, even in the background, and I had looked.
Just reminding movie producers, book publishers and video game marketers that we are want our stories as stories. And we are watching, all of us, the black, white, yellow, female, male, straight, gay, Christian, Islamic, Jewish, martian all of us. And we don't like everyone in our heads to be white and male. Even the white males don't like it. So you got a lot of catching up to do. Bozos.


  1. one FB response to this was that authors are often bad judges when it comes to cover art and that we are only privy to her side of the story. here was my response:

    whether an author is a "bad" judge of a cover is not the issue, i don't think. they should have at least the right to have a good say. the visual that represents their work should match their vision. i don't want to come across as harsh but there is no "side" to the story. she is unhappy with her cover and that shouldn't be. if she has to compromise, that's one thing. for sure, the publishing company has it's interests to protect as well but this weird thing seems unnecessary. nobody is going to be 100% happy with anything in business but let's face it, the visual of the book can be more powerful especially to people who don't know her work. she should have considerable say. this point of view is exercised in the theater and i'm sure in other industries as well.....i would be interested to find out how the writers' guild/unions respond.....

  2. In response to:

    "I'll preface by saying haven't read the book yet, but from what I know the author didn't make the race of her character clear to her publisher or in the book. and when she expressed her dissatisfaction with the cover, it wasn't about the girl's race. that's why I say we're only getting her side of the story on her blog. authors do have a say in their cover, but not the final say."

    There are at least two different issues discussed in this post. First, authors' creative rights pertaining to their book covers and therefore book marketing. Second, the habitual white-washing of book covers as a marketing/sales/PR advantage in publishing as a whole.

    On her website, Ms. Larbalestier admits to rejecting all covers which had ANY face on them (black or white), because the main character is a pathological liar and her identity can be called into question. While the protagonist is black, she objected to the face (especially the white face) because it impinged on the novel's material. The fluctuating state of her character's identity. In this regard, I think that the cover is a major fuck up.

    Second, it is not in question that publishers routinely reject covers depicting non-white races because from as marketing standpoint they don't sell as well. This is a bit of a chicken or the egg scenario. Do the covers not sell well because buyers only associate 'of color' protagonists with racial issues and not mainstream fiction? Or do buyers associate 'of color' protagonists with only racial issues because that is the only time non-white faces are marketed on covers? In this regard the cover is still a major fuck up.

  3. point well taken on dividing the issues. somehow, though, when it comes to issues of race, class, gender etc. etc. etc. seems like the politics involved lead us through a murky and convoluted mass of grey area where one issue is always infinitely tied to the other. if african-americans as a whole in this country had enough power and influence over their own destiny, then predjudice would be merely someone else's ignorance. fact is, we can not separate out the racism engrained in ALL of our minds (even our own) and the power it has in ANY decision-making process, including laws that are made, opinions upheld, beliefs regarded as "truth" etc. books with black faces can not sell as well until blacks are regarded as human and not as any stereotype (good or bad). and really, that's another convo. it involves how committed we are to educating ourselves about ourselves and who we believe ourselves to be. ALL of us.