Bloomsbury seems to be on everyone’s shit list right now, owing to the second time they’ve white-washed a cover. The first fiasco involved Justine Larbalestier‘s very excellent LIAR, which was thankfully rectified. But as Aja Romano pointed out, Larbalestier is an established author with an established online following–enough to warrant a change in cover. Poor Jaclyn Dolamore may not be so lucky.
I’ve written before about my reaction to LIAR’s white-washed cover, as well my distaste for minority “problem novels”. My feelings are pretty clear: I’d like to see a novel with a protagonist who is incidentally a minority (either a person of color or queer). I want the protagonist’s narrative to be informed by but not defined by their minority status. I want his/her narrative to stand alone from the “minority experience”.
Finding that in fiction is becoming less and less difficult, as is evidenced by Larbalestier’s LIAR and Dolamore’s MAGIC UNDER GLASS. It’s the covers that are something else.
The American Aesthetic
The saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is both charmingly idealistic and very, very true. Now, I don’t know much about the design process as I haven’t yet had the opportunity to see it for myself, but I can say something about covers as a reader and as a person of color.
Browsing a bookstore, one can see that covers roughly fall into four categories:
Children’s fiction seems to favor faces while adult fiction seems to prefer representative covers. When HIS DARK MATERIALS was reissued as an adult title, it was given different cover treatment.
As you can see, the YA edition has Lyra’s face/illustrative while the adult cover has…a zodiac figure. (Don’t ask me why; the reasoning behind cover treatment is not something with which I’m acquainted yet.)
Illustrative and face covers for YA books are more popular in the States than abroad–the UK editions of HIS DARK MATERIALS featured objects rather than characters. There is a distinct cultural aesthetic, and here in the US, this predominantly means pretty people in photoshoots. (Sarah Rees Brennan had a brilliant post about UK vs. US covers, but unfortunately I can’t find the link. :()
This is where we run into problems.
Default Setting: White?
The United States has a difficult and storied history with race. What makes our country so great is also the source of some of its unspoken problems. We are a country founded on egalitarian ideals and we try our damndest to keep true to them. But facing and addressing the issues of class and race are difficult for us because perhaps we feel lingering guilt that the playing field is not yet equal.
In America, when describing someone, if race is not used as a descriptor, then our immediate assumption of that person’s race is “white” and specifically Anglo-white. Other “white” ethnicities are often named: Italian, Irish, Spanish, etc. I will admit to assuming all characters are “white” when race is otherwise not specified in a book because that is the cultural language with which I’ve been raised. People often assume I’m “white” on the phone.
Not to mitigate Bloomsbury’s culpability with regards to LIAR and MAGIC UNDER GLASS, but I know for a fact that not all designers read the entire novel. They simply don’t have time. They often receive blurbs or excerpts from an editor that s/he feels is representative of the work. Of course, I think it’s poor research on the designer’s part not to ask what the protagonist “looks” like (if the cover will have a face on it). I’ve seen many covers where the character on the jacket doesn’t at all resemble the character inside. The problem is exponentially more enraging when the race doesn’t match.
Whose fault is it? The designers for not paying enough attention? The editors for not caring enough? The sales people for not believing “ethnic covers” will sell? The readers (like myself) for buying into the white = default idea? Is this all a self-perpetuating cycle?
I don’t think there are any short term answers for this. What needs to happen is a consciousness shift. We’re making our way there, but it’s far from perfect. Let us (the publishing companies) know that this is not okay. Blog about it. Make a ruckus. Nowadays we know it’s not okay for Mickey Rooney to tape his eyes slanty and play a horribly stereotyped Japanese man. Hopefully tomorrow we’ll know it’s not okay to have a white person represent a person of color on a book cover.