Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Bloggers, the Gatekeepers of What’s Right and Wrong? *Cover WTFckery*

By now you may have heard of the uproar among the blogs, specifically reading some YA blogs in regards to the “white washing” of another cover from Bloomsbury USA Books.

Last summer there was outrage in regards to the cover of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar. The original cover was this:

But, the narrator is Micah, a bi racial and a self proclaimed “nappy headed” tomboy. Very different from the girl on the cover, wouldn’t you say? When the YA blogs picked up on this, Bloomsbury USA scraped the original white girl looking cover (which was already the cover of the ARC’s handed out) and changed it to this:

Now a recent release from Bloomsbury USA of Jaclyn Dolamore’s Magic Under Glass is under fire because of this cover:

The controversy with the cover is because the heroine Nimira “is a dark-skinned amusement, a novelty “trouser girl” who earns nothing but pennies and whose number comes after acrobats and trained dogs in the music hall she is employed at.”

I would say the girl on Magic Under the Glass cover doesn’t look like a dark skinned trouser girl. IMO, she looks like a possible dark-haired Caucasian girl from the 19th century, a young woman who of means and of the upper class.

Book Smugglers took notice of this cover WTFckery back on December 21, 2009. Then 8 days later, Stella Matutina, who runs her own Live Journal, posted a review of this book and comments:

“I was a little disappointed with the cover. Don't get me wrong, it's gorgeous, but the model appears to be Caucasian--and Nimira's a woman of colour. It would've been nice to see a cover that reflected her ethnicity, especially after Bloomsbury's LIAR controversy early this year.”

The author, Jaclyn, commented and said: My cover was already made before the LIAR controversy, of course... It would be nice to see a darker girl on the paperback...the hair, particularly...Nimira's hair is her best feature! Although I love that dress. =( It will be nice when the industry straightens this out. Ever since Liar I've noticed a lot of books with white girls on the cover and non-white girls in the pages...

This line especially caught my eye from Jaclyn: Ever since Liar I've noticed a lot of books with white girls on the cover and non-white girls in the pages...

But, I will get to that in a moment. First, let’s take a look at some other covers that seem to false advertise:

The Girl in the Arena by Lise Haines (Bloomsbury USA) that came out in October 2009, shows the cover model with long hair. Lyn, the narrator  cuts off all her hair and gives herself a buzz cut.

Fallen by Lauren Dane (Delacorte) that came out in December 2009 has a nice cover showing a girl with long flowing black hair, Again, this is false because the narrator has very short hair also. I noticed this in my review.

Then there is Everything Beautiful by Simmone Howell (Bloomsbury USA) that came out in October 2009. The narrator Riley is overweight. But, if you look at the cover, this girl is far from fat.

And finally an adult book- Feminista by Erica Kennedy that came out in September from St Martin’s Press. Looking at this cover, I would think it is about a white woman who loves shopping. Wrong! This is black romantic comedy about a magazine writer who wants to get married.

This is the case of some major cover fails that has crossed race and body images. The majority of he YA blogging community, as well as other book blogs are becoming fed up by this.

Has white washing of covers always been around or does it seem more so now then ever because more people are taking notice? Book covers have never been perfect. Take a look at decades of romance covers, especially historical romances.

The first time I saw the cover for Spymaster’s Lady from Joanna Bourne (Berkley Jan, 2008), I rolled my eyes. And when I finished reading, I can say the hero Robert Gray is not at all like the Adonis on the cover the Berkley Art department created.

Over the past few days there has been a great deal of discussion over the controversy of the Magic Under the Glass cover. Why do publishers, especially a publisher like Bloomsbury USA that promotes a great deal of teen and young adult literature seem to promote this “blonde hair, blue eyed look/dark hair, brown eyed look ” even if the main character or protagonist is a person of color (POC)? Has there really been a proven or statistical fact that a reader will pick up a book, especially a child or teen between the ages of 9-17 based on the cover having a white face? Why would you have a book cover with a white looking person on it knowing the story is about non-Caucasian characters and mainly with a minority main protagonist or narrator?

Come on publishers! Readers aren’t that stupid. They know when they’re being played and that will have a big cause and effect, meaning a possible boycott of your products.

Some bloggers, who have a great deal of traffic and respect in the on-line world are calling for a boycott of Bloomsbury USA because of these white washed covers. Sorry, I don’t agree with that because many times an author doesn’t have a say in the cover, title or even the synopsis on the back of the book. This boycott ends up hurting the author most of all.

What about public outrage? The question comes to mind in regards to readers, fans and even the authors themselves. Should they take steps and make their disgust known? Do book bloggers have a right and are expected to stand up or speak up about this? And if they decide not to, do they deserve the back lash for choosing not to?

This brings to mind the case of Kristi at the Story Siren, whose YA blog has a very big following. She posted about this:

“I have to admit while I was reading, I kept flipping back to the cover and thinking... hmm that girl doesn’t really look like what I picture as Nim, as far as the book description goes. And then I would think, well I guess she does have dark hair, or maybe I just can’t see the color of her skin because of the lighting. The whole Liar cover controversy never crossed my mind. I never thought to be outraged about the cover.

Does that mean I’m a bad person? Am I ignorant?

Should I be reprimanded for not expressing outrage on my blog?”

The comments ran the gambit there where some supported her while others got very heated bringing up everything from Kristi being white and not caring about race issues to having white guilt and simply, she doesn’t have a right to decide what not and what to post because of her popularity. She has a responsibility because if she was just as outraged over the Liar cover fiasco, why not the Magic Under Glass cover one?

Honestly, Kristi can post whatever she wants. Why would it be expected for her to post on this? From what I understand, is Kristi may have received some emails asking why she didn’t post, which lead her to and opened a whole new can of worms. Forcing someone to take notice about something doesn’t work. If someone is going to stand up for a specific cause, they do it because they want to, not because they feel they have to. The same goes for a cause, charity or an issue on your mind. When a group of people “force” you to do so, your actions are pretty much not your own and the outcome is a very hollow victory.

Yes, one person can make waves and from that others can join in and make a change for the better. But, when has it become such an important thing, where bloggers have become the gatekeepers of what is right and what is wrong? Who are the ones who decide who should step on a soap box? Even though you may have a great blog following that may involve thousands of visitors or followers, it’s still yours to do what you want. You pick and choose.

We all must pick and choose our battles. In the case of white washing book covers, some choose to stand up and make their opinions known, others will follow suit, while some will stand by the side lines and watch.

The misinterpretation on books covers will continue to happen whether it’s in regards to the wrong race, gender or body type. It’s up to you, the public at large to recognize that it does happen and deal with it as you see fit. It’s disturbing that these covers are in the Young Adult section where children and teens are very much impressionable and still learning through experience on what is right and what is wrong. Bigotry and racism occurs because it is taught or learned, not formed in the womb. A person’s environment and who they interact with and see from the media and in other forms such as print publications can mold them and their set of beliefs.

Books can empower and teach and even though a cover can stop us in our tracks, remember- you can’t judge a book by its cover. The written word inside it is what matters most of all.

If you want to speak up and be a gatekeeper, a leader to this cause or others out there, more power to you. But don’t do it because you feel you have to because of what others tell you do or call you on it.

If only there could be a world where books covers didn’t cause such drama. It would be so easy to take the Bob Ross way of life and simply place a few happy little trees, clouds or cute kittens and puppies on these covers instead of what is considered an ideal face that will help sell books.

Beauty and what is acceptable is in the eye of the beholder. The Zen Leaf has a perfect example of what beauty is in every shape and form imaginable. A picture can tell a thousand words, but the actual words created from seeing that picture is up for the viewer or reader to decide.

Some other links of interest about the Magic Under Glass cover issue:
Bookish Blather
GAL Novelty
Mutli-Genre Fan
My Friend Amy

Reading in Color



KMont said...

Well said, Kate. Well said.


Katie how true... like KM said well said.

Christy Pinheiro, EA ABA said...

It's sad, but I think that buyers have a lot of prejudices and the publishers are just playing to that. I like the new Liar cover better.

MsM said...

Book covers that don't match the book story are a HUGE pet peeve of mine. It drives me crazy.

The last one I read was "Wild Card" by Lora Leigh - it has a bare chested guy with short hair wearing khaki pants on the cover.

The book's hero is a Harley biker dude with a FULL beard, long black hair and wears leather chaps and jeans every day.

The cover is NOTHING like the hero - not even close.


Amanda said...

I love your post. Thank you for linking to me. It means a lot that my little post actually made a difference to someone.

Katiebabs a.k.a KB said...

Amanda: Your post today brought tears to my eyes. It was very beautiful.

Angela Craft said...

Thanks so much for the link to Bookish Blather!

I do feel, however, that comparing covers where a character has a different type of hair is far different from whitewashing. Having a cover that perfectly matches a character physically would be nice, but short-haired girls aren't necessarily craving representation the way girls of color are. I highly doubt a manuscript has ever been rejected because of hair length; however there are far too many stories out there of authors being asked to change the race of a character. When people of color are already underrepresented in the pages, it's an additional insult to see them left off the covers.

I have a feeling that the next fight, after we feel we've "won" the whitewashing fight, is either going to be against thin cover models on books about overweight people, or the headless girl covers.

Lori(Pure Imagination) said...

I have read a lot of posts about this in the last couple of days but had chosen to stay out of it. Until now :)
I read Magic Under Glass awhile back and like Kristi from TSS I noticed that the model on the cover looked nothing like the character was supposed to but I didn't think much about it. I can see where some people are outraged. I agree, it's not right. But I honestly take book covers with a grain of salt. They never live up to a book. Like you said, you can't judge a book by it's cover.

Great post!

Tabitha said...

*raising hand as one of the fed up YA book bloggers* :)

I think the cover issues we are seeing today come from a couple of things. I read some statistics somewhere (wish I could remember where) that the 'whitewashed' covers are there for sales reasons. Apparently, if the cover is of a white girl, then everyone will pick it up and read it. If the cover is of a dark-skinned girl, then fewer white people pick it up and sales suffer. So, since sales are higher with a face on the cover, they go the 'whitewashed' route.

However, I think we are seeing more books with dark-skinned MCs than ever before, and it's making the 'whitewash' trend more obvious. I am so glad people are speaking out about it, and actually getting results (as in LlAR's case).

I hope this particular sales tactic will soon be a thing of the past.

Katiebabs a.k.a KB said...

With the amount of discussion about this on many blogs, Bloomsbury must have their heads in the sand if this hasn't gotten back to them.

Also helps that I emailed the publicist I know there and waiting for her response.

Emmy, who will stick with ebooks, where you don't really pay attention to the cover said...

Another online teapot tempest? Ugh.

Dunno if the chick in Magic Under Glass is supposed to be dark skinned, and who gets to decide if her skin is dark enough to suit them, but she's definitely hot. I'd do her.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Yes, that was well thought-out and written! And yes, bloggers have to pick and choose their battles.

And covers that don't match the books has been an issue for a long time, just for different reasons. I remember picking up the third book in Anne McCaffrey's Crystal Singer series (back in thge 80's) and wondering why on earth the black haired Killashandra had suddenly turned into a blonde! I think this was due more to a new illustrator - one who obviously never read the book.

Serena said...

I wonder what the reasoning is for these cover mishaps.

Julia Rachel Barrett said...

I think the issue should be labeled, Truth in Covers! Covers have been a major issue for me, personally, in the past. If I write a book, call me crazy, but I genuinely believe the cover ought to at least reflect a tiny bit of the characters and the story. I have had covers that made me sick to my stomach! There was such a disconnect between my story and my characters and my covers that I wanted to scream and punch holes in walls! Not only do these misleading covers disrespect the author, they disrespect the reader. If I bought a book with a white woman on the cover and the heroine was African American, I'd wonder why and I'd be pissed for the author's sake. One of my heroines is a tiny, red-headed fashion designer and her cover showed her as a punk rocker, black haired, buxom, Hispanic woman. Misleading! If I was looking for a romance about an Hispanic heroine and I bought the book based on the cover, I would be so pissed off!
So...what do you say? You can't judge a book by it's cover? I think publishers need to pay a little more attention to Truth in Covers!

Carolyn said...

Thanks for the interesting post, Katibabs.

I have to say, though, that as others have said, I think there's a huge difference between a cover that misrepresents the race of the protagonist(s) and covers that are simply inaccurate.

Removing the ethnicity of a character (through cover art) is a serious lapse that can't be seen as anything but racist -- whether it's deliberate or not.

Showing a long-haired heroine when she actually has short hair is a good example of inaccuracy in covers, but that doesn't perpetuate stereotypes (including ones of omission) that damage the stereotyped person.

There are probably a handful of authors who have any say over their covers. Contractually, if we're lucky, we get a "cover consult" which means they'll ask the author for ideas and show her before it's final, but the author has no say in what gets put on the book.

It's dangerous, I think, to suggest that the solution is to give authors more say in their covers. Who's to say an author isn't (deliberately or even unwittingly) racist herself/himself?

The problem isn't who makes the decision. The problem is the inherent bias of our culture.

The solution is to speak up when we see that bias displayed. The conversation raises everyone's sensibilities.

So, again, thank you to you and everyone else who has commented on this issue.

orannia said...

Thank you KB for a very though-provoking post!

Holly said...

I have to agree that there's a big difference between whitewashing and just having an inaccurate description.

The former is a major issue and one that should be addressed. The latter is just annoying and doesn't really matter too much in the grand scheme of things.

I think posting about both in one post takes a lot away from the main issue: The racism of whitewashing covers.

As for The Story Siren: I believe a blogger has the right to post about any topic he or she chooses. No one is forced to blog; it's a choice. I may choose to blog about one instance of author idiocy, but not every incident. That's my prerogative, just as not posting about this cover is the prerogative of The Story Siren.

Having said that, I think the issue many had with her not posting about this cover is her reaction to the LIAR cover. Why get upset about one but not the other? As Maili recently said on Twitter, it makes one wonder if she was only "jumping on the bandwagon" and posting about something because others were.

But beyond all that, I find myself annoyed by the tone of her post for one reason and one reason only: She clearly states in the body of her post that she took offense to another blogger saying others should post about this topic. Instead of doing so, she chose to blog about how she can blog about whatever she wants.

Which is fine, she's certainly welcome to blog about whatever, whenever. But in doing so she took away from the issue at hand and tried to make it about her.

Whether that was her intention or not, that's how I perceived it.