Friday, January 22, 2010

The Internet Will Save Us All, Take II

A few months ago, I posted about a firestorm over Justine Larbaleister's Liar cover. The protagonist of that book is biracial, but the cover featured a white girl. Surprisingly enough, people noticed, and after the story got blogged and tweeted a few hundred times, the publisher agreed to change the cover.

You would think if you were that publisher, you might say to yourself, "Self, we really looked bad there. Maybe we should check to see if we've turned any other characters white on any upcoming books. Boy, wouldn't that be embarrassing?"

Well, funny story...

That character isn't white. And, surprisingly enough, somebody noticed. A book review site made an off-handed reference to the discrepancy in their review, somebody connected the dots, and pretty soon the internet exploded.

From Editorial Anonymous:

Bloomsbury, something is wrong in your house. Something that makes you think your Caucasian readers (and no argument, they're the majority) wouldn't be interested in reading about anyone of another color. And something that makes you feel it's ok to make your minority readers feel marginalized; to make them feel that whatever they look like, they ought to be white.

From Reading in Color:
I'm sure you can't imagine what it's like to wander through the teen section of a bookstore and only see one or two books with people of color on them. Do you know how much that hurts? Are we so worthless that the few books that do feature people of color don't have covers with people of color? It's upsetting, it makes me angry and it makes me sad. Can you imagine growing up as a little girl and wanting to be white because not only do you not see people who look like you on TV, you don't see them in your favorite books either.

From Justine Larbaleister's blog:

Sticking a white girl on the cover of a book about a brown girl is not merely inaccurate, it is part of a long history of marginalisaton and misrepresentation. Publishers don’t randomly pick white models. It happens within a context of racism.

"Boost the signal on this," one blogger urged. They asked their readers to make phone calls and write emails, the story landed on Facebook and Twitter. Some urged a boycott of Bloomsbury, others said the best thing to do was just make noise.

And they were right. Yesterday, Bloomsbury announced that they were changing the cover. It was less than one week from the post that seems to have started it all.

Now, some bloggers are turning their attention to the bestselling The Mysterious Benedict Society series. So, the question is, how long before the signal is boosted loud enough for Little, Brown to hear?

I can't imagine either of those covers ever would have been changed without the internet. It's nice to see it's good for something besides sucking away my soul.

(Parenthetical Addendum: for the record, one of the main characters in my trilogy is biracial, and in one cover sketch he was portrayed as white. I mentioned this, and they said, "Yeah, we're going to fix that.")


  1. I guess I'm glad that publishers are paying attention to the interwebz, but doesn't it seem like it would be easier to pay attention beforehand? Yeesh.

    Just curious what you think about kids of color being shown in silhouette, like my friend Olugbemisola's book Eighth Grade Superzero. I think it's a beautifully designed book, and her editor Cheryl Klein has posted that her intention wasn't to NOT show a kid of color, but I think the discussion around this issue shows we still have a long way to go.

  2. You know, in reading about this, I've seen some comments about the silhouette issue, that it happens a lot. And probably in most every individual case, it's not intentional, but the result is still the same--black kids don't get to see themselves on book covers.

    And I agree. It's disheartening to read the comments on some of these posts that say, "What's the big deal?" or liken it to changing the hair color. This is also spiraling into a discussion about representation of non-white characters in general, and these are always good to have. I didn't know how pathetic things were in fantasy until recently. And one blog pointed out how few of the black characters that do exist in fantasy are boys.

  3. I'm always fascinated by these discussions about race, because I truly believe kids need to see themselves in books, but I feel like it becomes a chicken-and-egg scenario. Kids that never experience a personal connection to literature probably don't grow up to become writers themselves.

    But when I'm working in my castle turret (or messy office, in reality), in the middle of telling a story I HAVE to get down on paper, I tend to forget that I'm making choices. Choices that are mostly informed by my own background but also sometimes plucked from the ether as I cobble my story together.

    So I can truly see how a publisher might silhouette a character of color, without thinking about the consequences of that choice.

    But when all those individual choices add up to become the dominant narrative, that's a problem.

    At the same time, making a choice to go against the grain can sometimes feel icky (like "ooh, I'm going to make her BFF Asian!"), and I hate, hate, hate when it feels forced in other peoples' stories. But I'm probably thinking about it the wrong way.

    I really admire Liza Ketchum for taking on perspectives WAY outside her own worldview. Someday I hope I'm up for that challenge!

  4. Thanks for this important discussion. Brings to mind Deb McArthur's critical thesis and presentation on writing characters outside one's own race at last July's residency. The dominant culture in children's books is still European American/white culture with writers and editors. But our historical and contemporary worlds were/are made up of many races and deserve a place in the narrative. With thoughtfulness and complexity, I believe this is possible.

    Yolanda's presentation this past residency about how many African American novels are full of ghetto teens and ignore the large middle class helped me open my mind to an area I hadn't thought about.

    I believe it's important for all of us to dig deeper while researching and writing. The most important section to write in my NF book Gold Rush Women featured the Native Alaskan women who kept those crazy gold miners alive in the early days of the northern gold rushes. In Children of Alcatraz it was the American Indian kids during the 1969 Indian Occupation that made me sit up and take note.

    This has moved away from inaccurate covers, Anne. But I appreciate your opening up the dialog.

  5. Moving away is great.

    I created my biracial character in honor of my cousin. And I really thought about whether or not to do it--I was very conscious of being whiter than most walls, of whether or not I'd be able to create an authentic black British teenage boy, of whether or not I had the right to even try, not to mention of accidentally falling into some trope or another.

    I was scared, really. But I could not honor my cousin and change his race.

    I didn't know at the time what a paucity of black characters there are in fantasy, particularly boys. And I don't know if I would have been aware of it otherwise. I'm embarrassed that I hesitated. I don't want my boy growing up reading about world that doesn't reflect ours, so I can't perpetuate that.

    But I'm also conscious of the token multiculturalism that Hannah mentions (and I was accused of that in one review and it still stings. That's my COUSIN.) And as I try to craft another book, I'm just thinking about how to make it all work.

    And I agree with everything Hannah says.

    We need Debra, Yolanda, and Liza in here!

  6. One point that resonates with me, after poking into this conversation, is the notion of an author's ethos in creating a character unlike herself or those represented in many texts. Anne alludes to this when she discusses a personal hesitation to do so. At what point do each of us possess the ethos to represent another person, group, race, etc. than ourselves? If we do so, authenticity in character is an issue, yet we are also charged with a responsibility to create an accurate identity for what Spivak coins the "subaltern."
    In other words, at what point does an author acquire the power to create this reality, and is that ok? How do we know we have created a fair representation of someone else?


  7. Also, if we move forward and unintentionally re-write the stereotype (while intending to fairly write it or (un)write it, than what have we achieved? In a way, the person, group, etc. is still silenced.

    I agree, hestitation seems unrealistic, but propelling forward feels about the same. Hmmm...


  8. A little away from the race issue, but back to the cover art--it seems cover art, especially in YA is often misleading. Not that this excuses portraying the wrong race of the characters. My novel, Country Girl/City Girl has a Cicilian charater whose skin is described as the color of mocha, but on the cover she is definitely quite pale. It bothered me, but the sales rep who designed the cover said it would sell better! It didn't. The paperback has a new black and white cover featuring a chicken and a tube of lipstick. Much, much better. It gets the idea of color across and deals with the major theme of the book which is about confliction and love.

    Personally I do not like people on the covers of books. Too much like a movie poster. There is so much more room for reader reflection when we are not given the image. There's also room for deeper meaning that connects to the book more directlt.

    This is an ongoing controversy in cover art in general. What will teens be seen carrying under their arm?

  9. This morning I was thinking about how both of the novels with "controversial" covers-- Liar and Magic Under Glass-- were written by white women. I think there are more people stepping outside of their own comfort zones, in a thoughtful and respectful way, than my last comment suggested.

    And Claire, I'm glad you chimed in because I was also thinking about the difference between fiction and nonfiction when it comes to these issues. When the topic is factual and the subject a real person, does it open the door a bit more to writers outside the subject's culture? I know the pressure is still on to get it right, but because there's a perception that a certain "truth" exists, maybe nonfiction writers are allowed a little more license.

    Even though I'm sure we'd all agree that the truth about Rosa Parks' experience is just as nebulous as that of a fictional character.

    It sounds like I've missed some great lectures on the topic!

  10. Mellisa, when I was in writing classes in college, I was taught that someone from the dominant culture just could not try to represent someone not, that the very act was marginalizing. (And the reactions in my writing workshops of people's attempts to do so was one reason I was so jumpy about this.) But of course if we do that, we end up writing a bunch of very white, straight, Western books--with perhaps some token diversity thrown in here and there--and that doesn't do any good for anyone.

    It's scary. Because your job as a writer is to give your character flaws, and to strand him in a tree and throw apples at him, and when you're doing that to another race, you get self-conscious. There were lots of bad things happening to my protagonists, and if you read them from a generalized race perspective, some of it is problematic. And then my main protagonist is a girl and of course I have a lot of strong feelings about that, so I worried about who was saving whom and who got to save the world, etc. Both needed to have agency. But eventually I just forgot about it, because the story did tell itself. And I finally realized my job with this character, like with any, was just to make him as round and real as possible, and let everything else sort itself out.

    And what I discovered--and I hadn't even thought about this at the time--is that the good of it outweighed whatever was problematic about it. Fantasy is a very white genre, unfortunately, and I've seen people bemoan the nearly complete lack of strong, central, black male fantasy heros.

    I'm trying to sketch out some new characters now, and this whole conversation has really made me think about what I'm doing. I think I want to make my protagonist a girl who was adopted from another country--China, Guatamala, Ethiopia-- and there are many good thematic reasons to do so. But it still scares me.

    The question is, is it better to represent poorly or not to represent at all?

  11. This dialog fascinates and haunts me (in a good way, of course, as this conversation should always be a conversation). I was always taught the same. The nail's head has been hit here. Anne, the issue you articulate at the end is spot on, "the question is, is it better to represent poorly or not represent at all?"

    If we represent poorly, we may be cementing that stereotype, yet if we don't do it, than silence enters. My, my, the double-edged sword.

    I, too, have a character in my YA piece from a host of backgrounds. I find myself hesitating when I think about her character, way before my "butt hits the chair." I don't want to misrepresent her in the story or in life.

    There is a void that must be filled. I know I should get out of my and her way, and just let her tell it. She knows more than I--it's so much easier said then done.

    I hope a sliver of my babble makes sense...


  12. Oh yeah, gosh, I was totally unclear in the first post. The act itself is not the issue because it should be done; it is the effect of that act that is at issue. Anne, thank you for bringing up "agency," as that is SUCH a crucial point in this conversation.

    Have an AWESOME weekend, everyone! :)

  13. Oh man…you miss a day or two of the Inkpot, and the next thing you know, you’re getting talked about here…

    As I read Anne’s initial post, I was thinking about my book and how some prospective editor might want the cover to look. My protagonist is white, but the story includes escaped slaves and Shawnee characters in lead roles. Would they also be included on the cover? I hope so.

    I made the choice, not as a way to include “token” characters, but to honestly portray the world in which my white character would live. To omit them would be dishonest to my readers. The New England Emigrant Aid settlers were passionate about making Kansas a free state, and were willing to risk their lives for the cause. Despite that, they often displayed attitudes that were quite condescending toward those whom they wanted to liberate. I wanted my protagonist to see things differently, and she could only do that by forming a personal relationship with a person of another race so she could see how much alike they were, as well as how different.

    Writing these characters is tricky. My critical thesis was spurred by a strong negative reaction from an African American adult who read a brief scene from my manuscript. She felt that my portrayal of the slave characters was insulting to them, and stripped them of the dignity they deserved. She very kindly gave me a detailed explanation of her response, and it made good sense to me. I changed that scene, and kept her remarks in mind as I developed other characters. [Interestingly, a different African American adult who read the original scene loved it and did not understand the first reader’s reaction.]

    I wanted the characters of color to be multi-dimensional, and I had some strong ideas about the personality of the young slave girl. I struggled with an advisor who repeatedly said, “she should be more frightened and not so bold.” I toned her down a bit, and my workshop peers said “she’s too passive.” I’m still working on it.

    I know that readers and critics will disagree, and I won’t please everyone. Even though the setting is 1855, my readers have 21st century sensibilities, and I have to consider that. I still intend to have readers of different ethnicities respond to both the black and Shawnee characters in the book before I send the full manuscript out. Even then, it may generate criticism. I do hope, however, that if my story finds its way into print, the cover art will be in “full color.”

  14. Thanks for posting, Deb. You have worked long and hard on bringing your characters to life and risk is part of the process. Seems like the more we risk, though, the more the story gains in depth.

  15. I hope that my talk didn't scare anyone away from writing characters of color because I really do think it's necessary that we're all out there creating positive and maybe even sometimes not so positive representations of people of color. My only caveat is course no simple stereotypes please. For instance, just in general I hate the movie Crash (we’re all racist, let’s call the whole thing off), but the character the rapper Ludacris plays in the beginning is a little bit genius to me. He goes into this intellectual discussion of people’s irrational fear of black men because of stereotypes, and right when you’re ready to hang your head in shame what does he do? He carjacks Sandra Bullock. I think dealing with our racialized society in some way or another covers a multitude of sins in writing characters of color.

    There's nothing more creepy to me than picking up a book, a contemporary novel especially, and not seeing a single person of color within the pages. It makes me wonder is this the author's idealized version of the world or is this just the way that white people get to experience the world—without ever coming into contact with people of color? Maybe because I cannot imagine a world without ever pervasive whiteness, I always include white characters along with any characters of colors. I’m not any sort of expert on whiteness, but I do know people. I know seven of those girls that always need to brag while putting you down—oh, you use a crockpot? If I didn’t have a husband to please I might be able to slack along those lines too—and consequently that character always finds her way into my story. Sometimes she’ll be white and sometimes she’ll be some other race and it almost always works either way because ultimately, color of skin doesn’t dictate your fundamental nature.

    I think people get into trouble when they think black characters have to be portrayed a certain way or you’re not getting at the essence of blackness. The only thing that is truly universal about blackness in America (and I would wager any other nonwhite race) is that you have to deal with operating in a world where you’re an other (and not in the Lost sense of the word). If your character deals with that fact and is a fully developed character with any back story or characteristics, I can almost guarantee you’ll have created a character with enough meaty goodness to make a dent in those stupid stereotypes.

  16. Thanks for a great post, Yolanda! I think you are so right that depth of character is the most important aspect. And isn't that true in life, as well as fiction?

    It takes a lot more work to create a fully-realized character of any race, but that's what sets apart the best books. Your lecture was terrific, too!

  17. Great discussion. I can't help but think of what the Sci Fi Channel did to Le Guin's Earthsea books:

  18. Yeah. she wasn't so happy about that.