Crazy Talk

There's been some disturbing conspiracy theory chatter around–mostly in various comments sections discussing Justine's post about the Liar cover–that this is all part of some grand design on the part of Bloomsbury and that somehow this is what Justine wants. She directly addresses that in a comment at her site, which I'm going to quote in full here:

No. I never wanted this. I fought tooth and nail against that cover. But even so I keep wishing I could go back in time and fight harder, find the exact argument that would persuade them. I never wanted this disaster.

I never said I loved the cover. If you read my post about the US cover and then my post about the Australian cover you’ll see a stark contrast. Courtney Milan (who I’ve never met in my life) did that comparison on her blog.

Liar is the most ambitious book I have ever written. But no one’s talking about my book; they’re talking about that bloody awful cover. Trust me, no author wants that. I told my editor a week ago when I was trying to get them to change the cover (again) that I wish I had never written it.

Whatever success Liar has or doesn’t have is now completely overshadowed by its US cover. I’m trying to deal with that but I wish people would stop talking about my damn book and focus on the larger issue, which is racism in the publishing industry.

It makes me UNBELIEVABLY sad that the cover that was put on Liar is now undercutting the book in a whole new way. It's an INCREDIBLE novel, that I know Justine put everything she had into. It deserves to be on award shortlists and feted round the world, and now it will always be associated with this cover, which I can only pray to the publishing gods is FINALLY replaced, as it should have been long ago.

All that said, I think that Justine is right about there being far more–and far more important–things to discuss about the ways in which racism manifests in publishing.

Of course, the specific situation clearly flows from the belief by many in publishing–and I'm using the umbrella meaning of publishing here, to include sales and marketing, chain buyers, other booksellers, etc.–that covers with a person or people of color on them don't sell. And I have to say to that: How can you know?

The vast majority of covers that end up with persons of color on them tend to be smaller, more literary works, many of which are directly about racial issues. I am NOT claiming there is anything wrong with that; many of my favorite books fall into such a category. Such books are important and necessary and awesome. But I think we can all look at the books that become big commercial hits–many of which, especially in YA and children's are still wonderful, literary books–and see that there's a real under-representation of minority characters in them. And my own beloved fantasy and science fiction isn't an exception.

The only way I know how to approach this issue is from a writer's perspective. If the characters aren't in the work in the first place, the cover doesn't have to be whitewashed as Justine's was. (Not that covers have to be representative of characters–I prefer it when they aren't.) Maybe it would make books harder to sell to include more diversity in them, but I'm not convinced that's true. I look at characters like Hassan in John Green's An Abundance of Katherines–one of my favorite characters in recent YA history, and a character I'd definitely read a whole book about. I look at Micah in Liar and I think, YES, WE NEED MORE OF THAT.

We need more stories that are by their nature commercial, popular and accessible, and that include characters that are not white.

I do not want to live in a literary world where only white characters can save the world. 

I also do not want to live in a literary world where we pretend that "white characters" live in a generic white vacuum. I want white characters with histories, with sacrifices, with cultural baggage. With ethnicity. And so I think as writers we must be very careful and very aware that when we don't make all our characters complicated in this way we are telling the world that only a certain bland, disposable TV type of character–a generic character–can be in certain kinds of stories. By not being specific and real, we are encouraging the further homogeneity of what people think they should be, especially when we're writing for kids and young adults. 

And if books that are inherently commercial never have protagonists or major characters who aren't white, we just cannot say that books with people of color on the covers don't sell like hotcakes. Because I'm willing to bet–based on our ENTIRE popular culture–that THEY WOULD.

I could say a lot more, but I will shush now, and see if y'all have any thoughts. But I would like to echo the challenge to yes, post about books that buck what I'm talking about this month, but also, let's keep talking about race and publishing. I think we owe Justine that much.

22 thoughts on “Crazy Talk”

  1. I am disappointed in the talk about this that ends with “bad Bloomsbury” or “don’t buy the US Liar” and doesn’t examine the bigger picture, such as when was the last time the person who is pointing fingers at the publisher reviewed a book by or about a person of color?
    And for the people who seem strangely silent on the issue, I have to keep telling myself, they think it’s all been said, they’re away for these days, the posts that went up were all scheduled days ahead of time. That it’s something other than “oh, I’ll only blog about books I want to, this has nothing to do with me.”

  2. You said it. I’ve definitely been disturbed by the lack of discussion on many of the blogs I read regularly–with a few notable exceptions. I usually pooh-pooh issues of coziness with publishers and the blogosphere, but I’m kind of wondering if that is playing a role. And I think even if people aren’t comfortable talking about the specific situation–don’t, but don’t ignore the larger issues. They’re too important.
    That said, I also don’t want to assume I know the reasons for people not posting. I know as well as anybody what it’s like to be busy and AWOL and not have the time to manage the comments and participate in the discussion, even if you had time to do an in-depth post. But I think it’s CRITICAL that Justine be supported for doing something that took real guts. And I really, really, really think that both Liar and those larger issues are getting lost in the shuffle and furor, and that makes me incredibly sad.

  3. In 1976 Andre Norton wrote a book called “Wraiths of Time,” about a woman who magically traveled back in time to ancient Egypt or a parallel universe with Egyptian psychic magic or into her past life or you know, SOMETHING very Andre Nortonish. Regardless of the story, as far as she knew at the time, Andre Norton had written the first fantasy novel starring a female black protagonist. However, considering the cover featured a very white woman, ala Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra, most people probably never figured that out.
    She said in the interview I was read that she was disappointed but figured it was par for the course. There was a white man on the cover of her 1960 book Storm Over Warlock — which was actually the first sci fi novel starring a male black protagonist. (I’d read that book and not quite realized it. She was very subtle about it. Kind of like Ursula LeGuin not revealing that her protagonist in Earthsea was not-white until the book was well underway.)
    You’d think almost 50 years would make a difference.
    Here’s an ebay link to a first edition of the book:

  4. You know I actually stepped back and posted one of my “round-up” posts today – with a new Hemingway book of all things! – because I felt like I was pulling too much of the blogosphere along with me through this. All the links I got were great and some people wrote some truly impressive and eloquent posts on the cover and what it means to them. I have been very frustrated by how some YA blogs have completely ignored this whole issue though and I think it says alot about them and their love of ARCs. They want the free books to keep coming so they are refusing to criticize. The obvious corollary to this is that they feel the same way about negative reviews – so yeah, that whole blogosphere/publisher relationship quandary is alive and well as far as I’m concerned.
    For Justine I do feel bad because she’s right – this book will be attached to this issue forever. It will come up as the book is released, when the paperback is issued (whether they change the cover or not) and I doubt she will be considered for any awards at all because judges will not want to touch it with a ten foot pole. Is any of this fair to her? No – but that cover and what it represents as far as a cultural slap in the face is so wrong it can’t be set aside (“judge the book not the cover”). She’s stuck and it’s very very sad.
    So two things – authors need to stop all this “can’t approve cover” nonsense and start demanding veto clauses in their contracts. And it is lame that they can’t. (There – I said it.)I’m not saying you design it, I’m saying if you hate it you get to veto it. And I don’t want to hear that this would be too impossible to do. If you can agree on a damn book through a zillion editorial changes then you should be allowed to agree on a damn cover. Just because it has always been this way doesn’t mean it should always be this way. And on the plus side for the publisher, the author then holds responsibility for the cover as well – they sink or swim with it together rather than the current situation where you have publisher and author in separate corners.
    As to changing the system, well I think we just need to buckle down and try harder. As reviewers/bloggers in the lit blogosphere we make a choice when it comes to issues like this – do you want to make things better or shove your head in the sand? I’ve got no time for people pretending this whole situation of white washing does not exist. (And yes – I agree with you on the blandness of many Caucasian characters as well – just wrote about that myself about a week a go –
    Let’s all grow up and take some responsibility and do a better job at reviewing – it’s the best thing we could do.

  5. Colleen, I can only speak to my own experience on Award committees, but this should not impact how Liar is read.
    If a blogger is accepting ARCs and saying they are part of the bigger publisher picture, I don’t see how they can pick and choose about that — in other words, saying “send me ARCs to help create buzz and sell books” yet when there is a bigger issue like this, there is silence.

  6. “want white characters with histories, with sacrifices, with cultural baggage. With ethnicity. And so I think as writers we must be very careful and very aware that when we don’t make all our characters complicated in this way we are telling the world that only a certain bland, disposable TV type of character–a generic character–can be in certain kinds of stories.”
    I was going to cite Colleen, but I see she’s already here. 🙂 I am encouraged.
    I agree with everything that has been said here. I am and have been very vocal about the absence of color on book blogs and I’ve probably pissed off more than a few in the YA blogosphere but who was it that said polite women don’t make history? lol Okay, I’m not so arrogant I believe I’m that important, but I strongly believe the individual has a responsibility to do what she can where she is with what she has.
    Haven’t been here before, but I’ll be back. Like how you think and speak your mind.
    Thanks again.

  7. Oh I think it will be read just fine Liz – I just don’t think an award committee is going to want to deal with the cover controversy by awarding the book. You can certainly separate the two while reading but awarding? Do you really want to slap a Printz award on the cover of a book with this much racial baggage? I’d love to read the column Nikki Grimes puts together on that one….

  8. Well, you are talking to a member of the committee who slapped the award on a book with incest, bestiality, & rape. So yes; I believe the conversation at committee and online will be strictly about the book. And Orson Scott Card’s personal beliefs did not prevent the Edwards committee from judging his books strictly on the words in the book.

  9. The only other author I know who ever went to the mat on a cover issue–and who even offered to pay for a new cover design out of pocket–was quite literally threatened by the publisher. I don’t understand the digging in of heels against an author who is that passionate about the issue, or that right about it.
    BUT I’m not necessarily sure I think that most authors should have final cover approval. The reason they don’t is because supposedly the publisher knows better than them how to sell the book–thus, a major reason we sell books to publishers in the first place. I think that whitewashing is a materially different issue than not liking a cover for aesthetic reasons. So I’m not sure how you’d manage that contractually.
    A publisher should listen when concerns are this direct though. Absolutely.

  10. Thanks, Susan–I have much admired and appreciated your commentary and couldn’t agree with what you’ve been saying more.

  11. Point.
    Also, I would like to think this issue won’t be old news by awards season, but I’m afraid it will. (Especially if Bloomsbury does the smart thing and changes the cover.) But even if it’s not then I think an awards committee recognizing the book and its complexity and excellence would be a very compelling argument in this whole discussion actually–part of what we’re running up against here is “perceived marketability” vs. “intrinsic literary value.” Perceived marketability won the cover, but I would hope it won’t win over people’s perception of the book. This book’s intrinsic literary value should have won it a cover that both accurately represented its contents and made it attractive to the right audience (which I believe is a broad one that includes adults).

  12. Oh, and yes, I don’t want to dismiss the excellent posts that have been made. It’s just–I really think this is worth discussion from everyone who’s invested in children’s literature (and literature, in general). I’m not seeing that. In fact, I’ve been seeing some chatter here and there about how, “It’s all been said, really.” Even if it has? It could be said AGAIN. The more voices, the better.

  13. I don’t know guys, I’m gonna agree to disagree. It’s one thing to say a book is about a controversial topic because then you can always say “but this is important and needs to be discussed, etc.) but it’s a whole other deal to say “the book is good, please disregard the publisher’s racist cover”.
    I’m not talking about the book at all – I’m saying I don’t think an awards committee will want to defend itself or reward a publisher who made a racist choice purely for dollars.
    Can you imagine the headlines? Can you imagine the drama? And even though it might die down by then, if the book did win an award the first line would be “Larbalestier’s book has a controversial cover that raised issues of racism and suggestions that biracial teen girls are less appealing to consumers than Caucasians across the blogosphere last summer…”
    And while Card might get awards the drama is there at the same time and everybody reads it. And this is even more than an author’s beliefs going on here(which are not represented in the text or cover of Card’s book) but a publisher’s financial decision to make a choice solely based on race. And it’s a book for teenager girls – who are most sensitive to peer pressure and feelings of inadequacy.
    What I want is a new cover. Just do it and buck up and own your mistake. And I don’t care how expensive it is because the bottom line here is that hurting a lot of brown girls (indirectly or not) is apparently, alternatively, on okay price to pay.

  14. I want a new cover too. But re:awards — people have short memories. There are still lots of people out there involved with them who don’t read PW and don’t really follow the kidlit blogosphere enough to get the extent of the discussion. I’ve paid attention to this kind of thing for years and I can’t remember off the top of my head which Le Guin book in the Powers series had the ARC with the white person on the cover, who had to be changed at her protest. (Gifts? I can’t remember, and it’s not easy to find with google; even though there was a significant discussion about it.)

  15. And–one other thing–I worry that there being negative consequences for Liar as a title just makes it harder for other authors in Justine’s position to talk about this in the future. The work is the work and it has nothing to do with the cover, and to me that’s what’s really been established here. The reason the cover has nothing to do with the work is what we’re all up in arms about. Low sales and a tarnished impression of _the book itself_ only hurts Justine. I simply cannot go there. She wrote the best book she could and it’s f-ing amazing.

  16. I understand what you are saying about tarnishing Justine – which honestly has made this discussion hard for a lot of people because you wonder how to say anything or phrase it that doesn’t hurt the author.
    But also I wonder this. You and I and so many others writing about it have white skin. And so we say (and I have said this as well) that the book has nothing to do with the cover and celebrate the book while protesting the cover and on and on but it’s easy for us to say that. None of this hurts us personally – we’re affronted by it, bothered by it, disturbed about it but I don’t feel like less of a person because of it. This cover has not devalued me. But it does actually hurt a lot of people with brown skin. I got emails from people who cried over this and who were infuriated to a point you and I don’t understand. In so many ways, the hurt has already happened and it will continue to happen as the book sells with that cover.
    Do I want Justine to suffer? No, of course not. But suffering is going on and I do understand why a lot of people will refuse to buy this book. They have to do something and clearly, dollars are what matter most to the people making decisions about “Liar”.

  17. Wow–I just can’t agree. One, I dispute that racism in publishing doesn’t hurt all of us. Justine is white. Clearly, it’s hurting her right now. And that’s at a very micro level. I’m not arguing that every slight here is on the same level, but I think that’s a very narrow view to take.
    The bottomline is: I don’t support publishers. I support AUTHORS. And the only thing Justine has done here? Is walk the walk and then speak up. Let us not forget that she could have just gone along and echoed the argument that Micah’s a liar and so the cover is a lie. This is NOT about Liar. I think Bloomsbury has got to know by now–after being embarrassed in the major trade publication–that this is not okay, but the larger issues are getting lost in the focus on Liar exclusively. Not to mention the fact that we wouldn’t even be having this conversation without Justine’s honesty.
    The whole thing infuriates me.

  18. I think you and I are stepping all over each other on this one Gwenda. I never said a single negative thing about Justine and would not. And I posted on this big time and I engaged in multiple email exchanges with folks at Bloomsbury which I haven’t blogged about but pressed the case against this cover in a far stronger manner then I even did on my site. My point is that I do understand why some people don’t want to buy this book; I get that and they are allowed to feel that way. It’s their money and their choice. I have supported this particular author by reviewing her work and interviewing her for years. In this case a review hasn’t happened from me simply because the book was never sent my way (go figure).
    To move away from “Liar” I’ll ask you this – what do you do, what do I do, what does anyone do other than the posts we have written and emails we have sent to persuade to Bloomsbury and other publishers that the status quo is wrong? I don’t hear Bloomsbury replacing this cover and if, as you and Liz say, the cover controversy has no bearing on the book’s potential to win awards (based on it being worthy of course) then what matters about all of this? The book sells, the book wins awards, Bloomsbury makes money.
    They were right is what they will think. It was rocky, a little uncomfortable, but in the end, they were right.
    So tell me, what do you think we do that really affects positive change? Or is this really all we can do and hope for the best?

  19. I’m not going to tell anyone what to do with their money or on their blogs. I can only express my wishes, as I’m doing here.
    On this specific issue, yes, I think that’s basically all that can be done–although I’d also add that we can support Justine’s hard work by talking about the text in question. I don’t believe for a second that if the book does poorly, the publisher will believe it was because of the cover decision. They will chalk it up to the book was too complex, not connecting with the audience, etc. The bottom line is: The book shouldn’t be considered for awards because of the cover (or not), but because of The Book.
    What we can do positively is what we’ve already been talking about–look at these issues more broadly in the books we read and make more of an effort to highlight authors who are writing what we’re all asking for when we review. Seems pretty clear.

  20. Really? Thank you.
    I always think my posts are rough and clunky. It feels good to know someone was listening. Thank you.

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