Monday, July 27, 2009

Be the Change You Want to See

I was at Comic-Con this weekend so I was only able to briefly follow the outrage concerning the cover of Liar by Justine Larbalestier. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, please read Justine's post) I read some interesting and thought provoking posts concerning it...and analyzed my own response.

To be honest, my first response was, huh? I thought that girl was Asian.

Seriously. So to hear the cover described as a white girl with long blond locks...well that conjures a totally different image in my head.

But I digress.

What happened is wrong. It doesn't even make sense. I don't think it's defensible in the least, but you've probably already heard a bunch of people say that so I'm just adding my voice.

I've read a lot of people say that they didn't like the cover anyway. Since I'm into honesty here, I'll say that I love it. I love that cover. It makes the
book look so intriguing. To me, there's so much mystery wrapped up in the combination of the cover and the title that it makes me want to read it right away.
Of course now, it's starting to feel laughable. But in the beginning, I loved it. And I hate the Australian cover. I would never pick it up. It looks like some sort
of cheap crime thriller, nothing about it screams PICK ME UP!

But I do think there's probably a better cover out there for the know, one that actually makes sense.

Interestingly, this weekend, I attended a panel on the Evolution of Fantasy. Greg Van Eekhout (really funny guy) was on this panel and he talked about he didn't set out to write an urban fantasy book but that was how the publishing house decided to market it. And they put a 3/4-of-a-girl on the cover because that's what urban fantasy books have, even though the book is not actually about a girl according to Greg. So it seems this mass confusion is going on in all areas of book marketing and covers. That's why even though we all do it, we shouldn't judge a book by its cover.

But you know what? While it's important to speak out about what Bloomsbury did and how they've responded, there's a bigger question we need to be asking ourselves. Do I ever avoid a book because the protagonist is a different race from myself?

I was thinking about this, because I love Tyler Perry movies. I go see every one of them in theater and I often find myself in the minority if not the only white group in the audience. Why would that be? And then all the of the previews before the movie are for other African American movies and I that okay? Is it okay to have a market like that? Or should we try to mainstream all Latin, African American, Asian, etc. entertainment?

How does this relate to Liar? Well, my question is...even though yes it was WRONG to place a white girl on the cover of a book about a black girl, were the publishers wrong in recognizing that a black face would turn potential sales away? And I ask you read books that are labeled African American fiction? I bet a lot of books (if not all) labeled that way would fit seamlessly into general fiction. Have you ever not read a book or read more about a book because it was labeled as African American fiction or Latin Fiction, or even...women's fiction?

I ask because it's not helpful to demand changes like this be made if we are not willing to examine our own buying and reading habits. It's easy to point a finger at Bloomsbury and say how dare you, without looking at why they did it. Why did they do it? Because WE've made it possible. Don't let race influence the books you decide to read.

I remember a year or two ago, there was an African American author who fought with her publisher about her book being labeled African American fiction, because it would cost her sales and readers. I can't find the information on it now...does anyone remember this and have a link? I did, however, find this excellent from Carleen Brice that talks about this issue in more depth.

In the interest of transparency, I decided to examine my own reading habits. I think I might avoid or not read more about books written from a Latin perspective or labeled as Latin lit. And so I apologize for that and will work on being more open to looking at books from Latin authors or with Latin protagonists. How about you? No judgement here, by the way. Just an encouragement to change. (oh and sorry for the corny title!)



trish said...

I wonder if Bloomsbury is right that having a black girl on the cover would hurt sales. Dare I say that we *gasp* voted a black man into the presidency? Perhaps America is still as biased as publishing houses think, but I would be interested to see what would have happened had they put a black woman on the cover of LIAR.

And it's an interesting question, asking whether we read books that have non-white people as the protagonists (I'm trying to speak as broadly as possible). I, personally, don't seek it out or avoid it. I want to read a good book, and I don't really care if the main character is black, if it takes place in Russia, or if there's gay sex in the book. I just want to read a good book.

I'm beginning to think that book reading is similar to the studies scientists have done on weight. If you hang out with people who read diverse books, you'll (eventually, probably) read diverse books. If you hang out with people who only read one kind of books, chances are those are the books you'll read, because that's what your friends are talking about.

Liz B said...

Amy, I very strongly agree with what you say about examining one's own reading habits -- especially when one is a blogger, blogging about books.

On the one hand, yes, I began blogging to talk about the books I like, the books I want to read, and shouldn't that be enough?

But I also realize that as my blog became more than a "reading journal" as it were that, like it or not, my responsibility to people reading my blog shifted.

So, yes, I have to ask myself -- what types of books am I reading and reviewing? Is it diverse? How can I say, "read my blog to find out about good and interesting books" and at the same time have an attitude "but it's only the good and interesting books I like"? How can I say, "use me as a source for books to buy and recommend" and not have those books cover a wide area of genre, interests, diversity?

KT Grant said...

Everyone thinks I am crazy to say the girl on the cover looks Asian. To me she does. I like the Australian cover better. And who at Bloomsbury recommended putting a white girl on the cover when the heroine is black? This really disturbs me. :(

Ana S. said...

I also wonder if it would actually have hurt sales as much as they feared it would. Jodie at Book Gazing works in marketing and she wrote an interesting post about how often these assumptions are made and how little research actually goes into them.

But anyway, I agree with you that this is a good chance for us to take a look at our reading habits. I don't avoid books with protagonist with different ethnicity/skin colour/cultural backgrounds, but when I did the diversity meme a while ago I realized I wasn't doing that great a job reading diversely eitherr. I guess the main reason is that authors of colour are underrepresent, even more so in speculative fiction than in general fiction. So if I don't go out of my way to seek them out, I'll probably not come across them. It matters to me to make that effort, not only for personal reasons, but also because I agree that we need to do this to show the publishing industry that yes, good books will sell no matter what colour the author and protagonist are.

Pam van Hylckama Vlieg said...

I read a lot of Latin American fiction. I absolutely love Isabella Allende, and Love in the Time of Cholera is one of my favorite titles. I have read some of L.A. Banks work and didn't enjoy the ebonics, but as far as black authors and black protagonists I just don't see those books or the covers anywhere so I haven't read much, going to try to be more progresssive about seeking it out. I love the Aussie cover, but I do not like people on my covers in general. A great honest post Amy thanks for weighing in with your views.

Sheila DeChantal (bookjourney) said...

I just read Justines post and I must say I feel like I live a sheltered life here in central Minnesota as I have heard nothing about this book or the cover until now.

Amy, you write a powerful post here when we think of our own (in this case, my own) reading habits as I have more than once said that I am a cover snob and do, more than not, judge a book by its cover.

That being said, I am trying to think if I had been approached with this book prior to this knowledge, would it have bothered me that the girl on the cover clearly did not represent the girl in the book? I honestly don't know.

Looking over my own book shelves I have several reads that contain other cultural covers and topics. I wonder if this is because I spend time in Honduras each year working with other cultures? Probably. I wonder how different my book shelves would look if I did not do that...

I was surprised reading Justine's post as to how little say the author has in the book cover. I too prefer the Australian Cover. It leaves the reader open to what they are about to encounter without a preconceived notion of what the heroine is going to look or not look like.

Ali said...

If it were a different book where the cover was suitable, I would love the look of it, too--but I don't see an Asian girl in the least! With those big round eyes, she looks totally Anglo to me. I'm with you on the Australian cover, though.

You're so right that examining our own reading / buying habits is key, here. It's easy to get outraged at the implication of racism in the book industry and shoot off a blog post--but do those same bloggers support diversity in the books they review? The harder task is to take an honest look inside ourselves.

I'm reading an amazing Latino YA book right now, it's called The Brothers Torres by Coert Voorhees. I'm only halfway through it but if the second half is consistent with the beginning, I would have totally nominated it for Nerds Heart YA 2008 if I'd read it in time.

Chrisbookarama said...

I love Carleen's blog & would love to read her book but just haven't had a chance yet. I haven't read any African-Amer fiction that I can remember. I would like to change that but just need the right book at the right time.

I think it was a bad idea for Bloomsbury to have picked that cover. It's misleading to the reader. I hate when a cover doesn't match the book.

Shalonda said...

Hi, Amy. Thanks for posting your thoughts.

I think it's important that everyone examine their reading habits. I am Black and have only reviewed a small number of books by authors of color. So this is something I'm working on as well.

I think we can all agree that we typically read books that interest us, but so often we miss other books of interest because they are not as highly publicized. And that is where publicists should be held at fault for not providing ample publicity to ALL books.

And just to comment on Carleen's message, I am one of those people who does not like African American books being shelved from other books. I think a lot of people miss out on good books by good authors because really who visits this section other than African Americans?

And yay for Tyler Perry movies! Aren't they great!

Janet said...

In Canada they all get lumped together. There are no racial or ethnic or even religious sections for fiction. Just very basic genres: romance, fantasy, science fiction and almost everything else gets lumped together as just "fiction".

I can't remember ever putting a book down because of the ethnicity of the person on the cover. Unless, of course, it's a young white cartoon woman in a style that screams chick lit.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I'm like Sheila, I must live a very sheltered life. (I think it is probably because I don't Twitter!) But you bring up an interesting point. Before I answered here, I gave it some nice long thought, and I believe that in life and in reading, I am color blind. I read gay literature, African American, Asian, Latino, you name it. If it is a good read, then I read it. I am saddened that decisions would be made to change the color of the skin of the front cover subject for the sake of perceived higher sales. Whoever made that decision, I would like to hope that they are smoking something. I would be willing to bet that most of us out here that do the reading wouldn't care the slightest the color of the protagonist or the author.

Trish @ Love, Laughter, Insanity said...

You bring up some interesting points about the labeling of books. Quickly, I'll admit that before I knew anything about the book I thought the character was Asian, too. Anyway, I'm always kind of annoyed when books are labeled in specific ways. Borders seems to be particularly weird about this. Why is it I found Fun Home in the Lesbian Fiction when it is a Memoir? Because the author is gay? Right above the very slim Lesbian thatiction shelf at Borders is the African American shelf. Not African American studies, mind you, but African American fiction. Interesting that I didn't find Toni Morrison on that shelf--she's with the "regular" fiction. When labels are applied, it begins more and more difficult to define things. And sometimes maybe things shouldn't be defined so clearly--afterall, life isn't just black and white. I feel like I'm rambling...

Anonymous said...

excuse me while i hijack your post: you went to comic-con!?!?! did you see my boyfriend edward cullen?!?!? please! pictures! something! toss me a scrap. lol.

Nicole said...

I have to admit I agree with you about the Liar cover. The NA one is amazing. The Australian one is meh.

There have been moments when I've picked up a book and had formed certain expectations based on the cover, and I was a bit puzzled when those expectations were not met. Mostly, though, I don't give a whole lot of thought to the cover once I start reading. Honestly, if I had picked up Liar before hearing about all this controversy, I truly don't know what my reaction would have been. I'm not even sure I would have noticed.

I'm not sure I can really say that the section where a book is shelved, or the label it's given, affects my decision to read it. I rarely buy books from the bookstore anymore, so I don't really pay much attention to labels, beyond the basic genres (horror, fantasy, romance, mystery, etc.) I don't really think much about ethnic labels, and to be honest, I don't really want to. Personally, I'd prefer that they weren't differentiated. A good story is a good story, regardless of the main character's race. Sometimes race is a central part of the story, and that's fine, and sometimes it's not, and that's fine too.

I suppose, like you, I haven't read much Latin lit. I suppose it wouldn't hurt to make an effort to read some, but in some ways deliberately seeking it out seems almost as odd to me as deliberately avoiding it. I understand that racial issues are very real and people are still being hurt by them, so it's important to deal with them and not just sweep them under the rug, but to be perfectly honest, I prefer to just see people as people and not as a race or color. The same goes for fiction as well as real life.

ANovelMenagerie said...

But, I loved the title!

Color Online said...

Great post, Amy,

Seeking out poc books doesn't have to be a chore, and it should never be something we do simply so we can say we have diverse reading habits. It's well known I read a lot of multicultural lit and most of it by women. But gender and race are not automatic passes with me. I'm like all readers: I want books that interest me and I want quality writing. POC literature provides everything you want in literature with the bonus of doing so from a perspective that may be different from your own.

There are a lot of misconceptions about poc lit: it's always about race/ethnicity, it's oppressive, too foreign, limited in themes and styles. None of this is true but ask me how many times a reader has said to me, "But I'm not black, why would I know any AA fiction?" (I'm not making that up) or a child saying he doesn't like to read too much AA fiction because it's mostly historical and he has other interests.

POC writers write all genres. Check out Diversity Roll Call assignment on Sci-Fi and Fantasy at Color Online. Race often may inform the read but race is not always the central theme of the book. Carol Rasco at RIF wrote a great post about book covers.

And I have chosen to do something. I run a blog committed to poc writers because the reality is they are underrepresented by the industry and in the blogosphere.And while we focus on multicultural literature, we are an inclusive community. We are not your AA section in the blogosphere.

Please join Color Online for our Color Me Brown Challenge. And we have all kinds of lists including Latino writers to help you discover new reads. Check new YA blogger, Ari at Reading In Color. She provided a great list of POC YA at Justine's blog.

It's easy to begin the change: read and blog brown.

Lastly, I'm no Tyler Perry fan but I do admire what he's accomplished. :-) I don't like AA sections in bookstores either. Appreciate the idea behind it, but it doesn't work.

Julie P. said...

Fabulous post, Amy. I think that's one of the things I love most about being part of the blogging community is that I have expanded my reading. I have found that I enjoy a good book regardless of the genre classification. And while my first reaction used to be that I wouldn't have much in common with the characters, that is no longer the case. If I can appreciate the writing, the story, and the character development and even learn a thing or two, then I am definitely up for reading that book -- regardless of how it's classified.

Meghan said...

It makes me so sad that people out there really believe that putting a black girl on a cover means it will sell less copies than having a white girl on the cover, and even sadder if it is actually true. I don't think it is, though. As someone else said, I must be colorblind when it comes to fiction, because even if the person on the cover isn't just like me I will certainly pick the book up if I think it's interesting. I'm not the most multicultural reader ever, but I have read fantastic books about every race and I'm completely open to reading more.

Actually, now I want to go to a bookstore and see how many minorities are represented and if we're really white-washing literature to this extent.

Anonymous said...

Why do we "have" to read a book written by a black author? I don't make a decision on what to read based on the authors' ethnicity.

Being diverse in your reading shouldn't be as a result of feeling guilty, it should be that you want too.

I understand where Bloomsbury is coming from, a purely marketing perspective that is all about what's the best way to sell. Saying that, it's a terrible cover; not because of the literal "whitewashing" but the sheer laziness of it. The book is about a girl therefore let's put a girl on front. It's shoddy.

raych said...

You raise an interesting point. In a sense, the publishers were totally in the right because publishers are not the Morals Police. If books with white-girl covers sell more (and I'm guessing they do), then it makes sense for an entity whose business is in selling more books to put a white girl on any and all covers.

Obviously, most corporations try to do the right thing if only so that they don't end up in skirmishes like this. I'm not saying Bloomsbury was right, just that we're probably wrong.

I would be willing to bet a substational amount of money that white-folk covers sell better than non-white-folk covers. We can sit here and shake our fists at Bloomsbury (and probably should), but we can't let that distract us from our own culpability.

Jodie said...

I've thought about this a lot since I saw Susan at Colour Online post about white bloggers getting outraged about the Liar,Liar cover. She wanted us all to think about when the last time was that we read and reviewed a book by an author of a different race to us before we got all annoyed at Bloomsbury.

That this is a really valid point and yet I found myself resistant to it, because I created my blog as a way to get my views out there about the books I was reading and if I wasn't reading books by authors of a different race then that was my business. It never occured to me that by operating a visible site I kind of have a duty to make sure my reading and reviewing is as diverse as possible, especially if I'm going to enter into the politics. I hadn't really taken the time to look at myself before launching into the fight. Also how blinded by my own issues (I ahve a serious gender and sexuality focus when it comes to reading) was I that I read books that were outside of my own expereince when it came to sexuality and gender, considered this not just fun, but important that I did so and yet mostly fell short when it came to reading books by authors of another race and didn't see this as an important gap. How telling.

So on with the Diversity Rocks challenge, on with diversity in reading and down with the people who try to stand in the way of these goals.

J.T. Oldfield said...

I'm so glad that you say that you like the cover! I do, too. Or at least, I did before I found out how completely WRONG it was for this particular book. Much better to have saved it for something else...even a book about Asians or Asian-Americans.

I am pretty diverse in my reading. I've always loved to learn about new places and people, and I think that's part of why I like reading so much! I read a lot of books that take place in or around India. However, I had a lot of Indian-American friends in high school, and that is where I originally got interested in that particular culture.

I would say I'd read more books by black authors if they were better represented in stores. There are a few that I love (Zadie Smith, ZZ Packer, etc.) but mostly new black authors are harder to find because you just don't hear about them as much.

Maybe we should have some book tours showcasing debut novels of black authors just so more people can hear about them. Clearly publishers and book stores are not doing enough to promote them.

Anonymous said...

raych - I agree with your sentiments. This is just another example of the way society dictates the way a product is marketed.

Whenever I read someone going on about reading more diverse, I always get the expression that they want to be applauded; it becomes almost a validation of their wonderful attitude to all races. A white persons way of feeling better about themselves.

That sounds harsh, and I don't mean it to be. I'm not saying we shouldn't be diverse in our reading, it's better to read men and women authors than just men, the same with it's better to read white and black authors. It's just I don't want to feel as if I have been forced to do it.

It almost becomes as if making a point of reading books by authors of different ethnicities, you separate them when authors and stories should be together regardless of race or nationality.

Although, playing Devil's Advocate with myself now, isn't blogging or being more diverse a good way of actually getting more diversification in what books are being marketed and even published? I suppose, it would be but I think it's a little more than just x amount sold = diversification. It's like saying because America has a black president there are no racists.

Hmm, in the end I just don't know.

Amy said...

Damnedconjuror...actually my original question was whether or not you AVOID books b/c of the race of the author or protagonist. I think on a subconcious level this happens. It's on a concious level for some of us.

So I'm not saying...go be more diverse and read more diverse stuff, but rather...why not examine your own attitude and see if it's there? Since you say you don't make a decision on what to read based on an author's or protagonist's race than I'm guessing this is not a problem for you.

It's just that once you've labeled a book a ceratin way...for example, saying this is an African American book, it's like your saying this book is only for this group of people and not for anyone else.

Anonymous said...

I was addressing myself to the general theme. I understand your point of examining our attitudes, that's important.

It's not that I don't care about diversity and attitudes towards race but that I don't want it to dominate my choice of novel.

"It's just that once you've labeled a book a ceratin way...for example, saying this is an African American book, it's like your saying this book is only for this group of people and not for anyone else."

Is that directed to me? I agree with it but labelling is an important part of our culture, to categorise something is to make it "safer". Not that I agree with it but it's something that is there in our everyday lives.

I think ColorOnline is exactly right in their first paragraph.

Good discussion.

Amy said...

DC--nope it was a "you" in a more general sense. ;) Sorry about that, I do it often.

Heidenkind said...

Great post, Amy, and very good points! I didn't even think about that when I first heard about the cover of LIAR, but you're right.

The thing about books about African Americans having less sales is interesting. There doesn't seem to be a racial divide in music, art, or movies (like, who doesn't enjoy Tyler Perry movies, amirite?), so why with books? Not to mention some of the greatest American classics in literature have been written by African Americans.

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