I’ve been following and participating in the “Ain’t That A Shame” post over at Justine Larbalestier’s blog, in which she takes the risky (for an author) step of calling her publisher on its decision to post a white face on the cover of her forthcoming novel Liar.
Whitewashing — the fannish term for when fictional characters of color are depicted as white in cover art — has long been a problem in the book publishing industry. Its root is racism, of course: the pervasive belief that people of color’s stories aren’t universal enough to play to white consumers. (Though white people’s stories are deemed universal enough for everyone, hence the white cover figures.) We see this in other industries, as with the current fanrage over M. Night Shyamalan’s live-action film adaptation of the fantasy cartoon “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. The film version casts the heroic leads — for a series set in an all-Asian world — with Caucasian actors. The same thinking was behind the book industry’s bizarre reticence to publish “black fiction” for years, except from those few authors who were embraced by white critics (e.g., Toni Morrison)… until black authors started self-publishing to bestselling numbers, which forced the industry to take notice. Even then, the underlying racist beliefs lingered. At the National Black Writers Conference (put on by the Center for Black Literature a few months back), I got to hear Octavia Butler’s agent relate the story of a publisher she met who still insisted, in the late 1990s, that black people didn’t read. (Incidentally, Octavia used to get whitewashed too.)
So I wasn’t really surprised to hear that Justine had trouble with this. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it was something I was really worried about when The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms sold. In my first meeting with my editor, I said to her, “If you put my protagonist on the cover — and I’d rather you not because I’m one of those weird folks who hates figures on covers, but if you do — please don’t make her white.” But because I knew the history I was up against, in an effort to be “realistic”, I mentally prepared myself for a white cover figure.
But here’s the thing. My publisher is Orbit — one of the newer publishers in the US, though they’ve been around in the UK for awhile (they’re a subsidiary? imprint? offshoot? of Hachette). So they’re essentially a big old company that’s also small and new. Possibly because of this, they’ve got a new-paradigm way of looking at things, which over the past few months has increasingly impressed the hell out of me — to the point of catching me by surprise at times. So even though my editor is one of the only (or maybe the only) editors of color in SFdom, and even though I’d seen that Orbit was bucking some traditions in other respects, I was totally caught off-guard when they sent me the preliminary cover art for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. There was my character, front and center, looking striking and tough-as-nails… and gloriously brown. I’d absolutely convinced myself that a brown woman on the cover of a mainstream SF novel, from a new novelist, from a big publisher, just wasn’t going to happen. And yet there she was.
I felt a bit ashamed of my pessimism, actually.
Later on, though, my editor called to explain that they were making some changes to the cover — which included removing the character. I got a bit anxious about this, because I’d liked the prelim, but she broke it down: the preliminary image was just too busy, particularly once the final text was applied. It was also too dark, some other stuff. The final version ended up even more beautiful, and all my concerns vanished the instant I saw it, because it was glorious. It kicked ass. I was very happy.
But here’s the thing. Because I’d seen that preliminary cover, I knew the publisher had been willing to put a brown woman on my book. My fears were allayed at that point — such that when my editor said she was removing the character for aesthetic reasons, I believed her. But given the pervasiveness of whitewashing in the industry, I do wonder what readers are going to think when they see my book, read that the character is brown, maybe see my author photo and realize I’m brown, and then see there’s no character on the front. Will that feed into the notion that PoC on book covers don’t sell? And I can’t help wondering what might’ve happened if they’d kept my protag on the cover, aesthetic considerations aside. Even if the publisher had been willing to run with it, would the buyers at the chain stores accept it? Would retailers take one look and shove it in the African American Interest section? Would SF reviewers pay any attention to it? Like I said, this is a pervasive thing.
So I guess I’m still wondering what role my race (and my character’s race) will play in the business end of things.
I’m incredibly glad that someone with Justine’s profile is trying to call attention to the problems, though. I’ll be blunt here: authors (and readers) of color have been complaining about whitewashing for years, and it hasn’t changed much. So maybe it’ll help to have a big-name white author make a stink, and get a (largely) positive response from her readers. Every little bit helps.
All this said, I am still blissfully, gleefully happy to be with Orbit, in part because they are willing to buck the dominant paradigm. (Also because they’re just frakkin’ cool.) When a publisher has a 21st century attitude, it shows in everything they do — from who they hire, to what authors they choose to sign, to how they market their products, to their professionalism, and to the quality of the final work. I think this is paying off for them — several of their debut authors have hit the bestseller lists lately — so I can’t help hoping that I’ll be a big hit too, not just for my own sake, but to help show the industry that being progressive is a good (and lucrative!) thing.
Guess we’ll have to wait and see.