Thursday, 23 July 2009

The Unbearable Whiteness of Covers

As I may have mentioned on here a couple of times, I work in a bookshop. In the course of my job, I see a lot of book covers. I notice a lot of things about these covers. I notice that a lot of ordinary romance novels feature male characters on covers, but the cover figures on paranormal romance books tend to be female. I can spot the difference between a US and an English edition spine-on at fifteen paces. I can often tell, from the font used on the cover, whether a given book belongs in psychology, self-help or mind, body and spirit.

A while ago I noted that there seemed to be a two-tier thing going on with the black writing section. On one level you have the likes of Ellison, Walker, Morrison and Baldwin - literary fiction written by people who happen to be black. On the other hand, you have a tier of books which tend to be either gangsta-fiction (a surprising number of which are allegedly written by 50 Cent) or chick-lit of the girl-meets-playa variety. Now, here's a fun quiz to try: which of these tiers of the 'black writing' section are more likely to have cover images that feature black people, and which are more likely to have more, shall we say, 'abstract' covers?

If you said the literary fiction would be more abstract, and that the lower-tier material would be more likely to have covers showing actual black people, give yourself a pat on the back. If you've worked out the reason for this, then pat yourself on the back and give yourself a handshake, because you're obviously smarter than I (who only twigged this about five minutes ago when I had to see it basically stated in a blog to which I link below).

The reason, of course, is that a lot of people in publishing are worried that white people may be put off reading a novel with a non-caucasian character on the cover. This is not only really patronising, but it can actually be harmful to books which do feature black characters, as outlined here by Justine Larbalestier. Larbalestier's book, Liar, is a novel about a woman who may or may not be a pathological liar, and her struggle to stop lying. Larbalestier worked hard to create a believable background for her character, Micah, who happens to be black and to have what Larbalestier describes as 'nappy' hair.

The publishers - acting on the assumption that to feature a black character on the cover might frighten the white folk - decided, not to even go with an abstract cover, but to illustrate the cover with an image of a very pale white woman with incredibly long, straight hair. Juxtaposed with the title of the book, of course, this suggests that Micah is actually lying about being black, too.

Say what you like about the death of the author, the fact remains that fiction relies on a careful dance between belief and incredulity. If you're writing a novel about someone who lies pathologically, it's even more important that there be some bedrock of truth for the lies to play off. Deciding to write a book with an unreliable narrator is one thing; having the narrator become unreliable because of the decisions of your cover designer is another thing entirely. And when that decision is based on the patronising and racist assumption that a pasty-assed mofo like myself will only read books which have picture of white people on the cover, it's downright bloody dangerous.

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