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.

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