shweta_narayan (shweta_narayan) wrote,

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What authors can and can't do (more on whitewashed covers)

Disclaimer: I want to draw some attention to the risks we sometimes expect/demand of authors, and I'd really like readers to think about whether they'd take those risks themselves. But yes, since this is about books featuring POC protagonists, and since I shall at some point be writing books, I have a vested interest in the matter; I am not at all unbiased.

To reiterate some background, book covers get whitewashed a lot. And recently this has gotten more attention, after Justine Larbalestier posted about it happening to the US edition of her book Liar.

Liar cover, before and after the controversy got Bloomsbury to change it:

And she's not the first; Ursula K. Le Guin has raised awareness about cover whitewashing for many years, and spoken eloquently against the whitewashing of Earthsea in movies. Most recently, I believe, she got the cover to Powers changed.

And yes, they both rock. But.

Justine Larbalestier was able to speak up because she's an established and popular writer, and had some clout. And (Ms. Larbalestier has acknowledged this, because she is made of win) because of her privilege as a white woman; when she spoke out about it, she was not dismissed as oversensitive and seeing racism where there was nothing of the sort.

And perhaps she was able to speak up in part because of Ursula K. Le Guin, who said at BookExpo America back in 2004, "I have fought many cover departments on this issue, and mostly lost." (Linky) Le Guin, who has sold a hell of a lot of books, finally managed to get non-whitewashed covers in the last few years.

Ursula Le Guin. Was mostly losing this argument. As late as 2004.

Now let's look at debut authors -- authors who do not have anything like the pull, or career safety (inasmuch as anyone does), that an established and popular author might.

Jaclyn Dolamore, Magic Under Glass
When Bloomsbury whitewashed the cover of Jaclyn Dolamore's Magic Under Glass, there was major reader outrage, and they recalled the book and changed the cover.
Magic Under Glass cover, before and after the controversy got Bloomsbury to change it:

Many of us were, and are, angry at Bloomsbury; however, some people were also angry with Jaclyn Dolamore for her post about the whitewashed cover, though Dolamore's comments elsewhere make it pretty clear that she preferred a PoC on the cover too. (Since she has locked comments to her post so they no longer show, I can't link to the angrier responses. But for the record, Justine Larbalestier asked people to stop blaming Dolamore. And here's a link to a post that is perhaps not angry, but definitely author-blaming: And frankly, I wish the author had thought about all this when she first saw the cover. Because it is her story and it is her name on the cover and at the end of the day, she owns this as well.).

On a similar note, nojojojo posted about why boycotting Bloomsbury over their coverfail would not have been a productive course of action . She argues (I'm simplifying hugely) that since it's incredibly important to readers of color to have characters like ourselves to read about, and the best way to get those books to us is to publish with a major press, it's really counterproductive to blame authors for signing contracts with major presses, even if the major presses are whitewashing the covers. Yes, we want covers that accurately represent the diversity in books, but not at the expense of having diversity in the books.

Karen Healy, Guardian of the Dead
And karenhealey posted about her own book cover, and the original deeply racist potential cover which she pointed out to her editors in private. She notes:

My point is that my publishers could have made me eat this cover, and then my choices would have been to swallow and say "mmmm!" or vomit in public and get branded as a disloyal spew monster, who, incidentally, had already signed a contract to deliver a second book. I cannot even imagine how uncomfortable that could have been, much less the damage it could have done to my career, and I honestly don't know what I would have chosen to do.

N.K.Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
The German Edition of N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms has a cover which is... well, I'd say problematic in current US context, but a) I'd need much more German context to know what's going on there, and b) she notes that covers across the pond are often not literally representative.

US and German covers of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms:

All of this background basically says that whitewashing of covers is an ongoing issue, it's not always a simple one, and it won't magically go away. The argument that "covers showing POC don't sell" won't disappear this year, or next -- or probably at all without readers speaking up. We're going to see many more reasons to be angry before we see a real change in publishers' assumptions. But... who exactly should we be angry with?

In responses to Dolamore, and some references to Healy and Jemisin's posts, I've seen this underlying assumption that the authors should be speaking up against their publishers in public; one comment was that they should "have the readers' backs" and not "side with" the publishers**.

And I think this assumption is deeply problematic. Yes, Le Guin and Larbalestier have been speaking up, and it is wonderful that they are using their positions to speak up for us. But they are exceptions (to some extent) to some fairly overwhelming tendencies:

1) Writers have no say in their covers. (And often even their titles)

For some good reasons -- writers often don't know anything about marketing. And for some reasons I think are pretty bad, too, especially:

2) Writers are a pretty fragile part of the publishing ecosystem.

And being labelled a "troublemaker" can spell the end of your career. It's often not clear to people who aren't involved in anti-racist work that "this cover enforces cultural racism" is not the same comment as "I don't like this cover", or even "this cover is inaccurate". So even established authors can't argue with their publishers about whitewashed covers without real risk.

3) Covers are designed to sell.

Not to be true to a book. Not, sadly but clearly, to be ethical.
What this means? Is that a debut writer generally will not accomplish anything by arguing about a cover, because they have little say in how well it'll sell.
And remember, Ursula Le Guin was mostly losing this argument as late as 2004.

What it also means -- what we've seen clearly -- is that readers can accomplish change. Because we're the ones they are selling to. (Real readers, at least. Anglophone Americans are unlikely to change a German publisher's mind. I think we need to be potential customers for our outrage to count as actual marketing feedback.)

4) What writers do best is write.

Every writer I've mentioned above is working towards a world in which there is more diversity in fiction, in the most direct manner possible -- by writing it.

And! By not ruining their chances to sell the next book with ineffectual protest. This is where I think it's most misleading to talk about the author not having the readers' back -- they do. They're showing it, in a way that will change someone's life, by writing the next book.

And some of them also show that they have our backs by speaking out -- but they are, necessarily, the ones who can speak out without killing their careers. Their actions are the exception, not what we should expect of everyone. So let's not sabotage the people who are writing the books we want to read because they're not blithely sacrificing their careers in the process.

I have been behindhand with book buying 'cause of moving house, but I will (very soon!) be buying Magic Under Glass, Guardian of the Dead, and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. And I hope you will too.


** I am not linking to these complaints, because I'm not interested in calling out people who were speaking from genuine anger that I happen to think was misplaced. I don't want to turn this into a fight; they and I mostly have the same goals.
Tags: anti-racism, community, whitewashing covers
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