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bear by san

March 2017



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writing carnival

what these people need is a honky

An excellent blog post by the estimable Justine Larbalestier on "whitewashing" in cover art. 

And no, really, authors don't have control over what goes on the covers of our books. Unfortunately. Because as Justine says, this is exclusionary and also kind of dumb, and like so much in our industry, smacks of Received And Unquestioned Wisdom that has gone unexamined since the 1930s.

It sounds like Justine gets more input than I do (as I would expect and is only fair, as she's a bigger "name") --I don't get to see preliminary sketches. Often I find out what my cover will look like when it goes up on Amazon.

What follows is a brief rant on my own frustration regarding this topic.

Of my published or nearly-published novels, nine (Hammered, Scardown, Worldwired, Blood & Iron, Whiskey & Water, Carnival, Undertow, All the Windwracked Stars, and The Sea thy Mistress) feature primary or secondary protagonists who are not white. Of those, exactly one (Carnival) has a character of color on the cover, and Michelangelo's face, while clearly bearing African features, is almost entirely obscured by a mask.

Now, I actually love the Carnival cover--it's beautiful, and it captures the book very well. But I would love it more if it didn't feel like part of a toxic trend. (Well, there's no cover art yet for TSTM. Maybe one of the two dark-skinned protagonists will get on it.)

I find this intensely frustrating. (When I first picked it up, I remarked on the cover of gregvaneekhout's Norse Code, which has a Latina protagonist, portrayed on the cover by Ambiguously Ethnic Lass. (Two of my dearest friends have Ambiguously Ethnic Lass as a superpower, but neither they nor Greg's cover art make me think "This young lady is of Mexican descent!") But she is at least potentially somebody who might be of mixed heritage, unlike the mysterious thirty-year-old white woman with cleavage down to there portraying a fiftyish Iroquois on some of my book covers.)

Of the rest of my books--well, Shadow Unit doesn't have any cover art, and what art there is we commissioned. (You can meet the characters here.)

and Chill have largely-white casts with a few characters of Southeast Asian/American descent, for various reasons involving my theories about who the crazy-ass Christian apocalyptic eugenicist cultists would be taking into space. (This will change in Grail. Yeah, that was a hint.) But at least Chill has the albino on the cover now instead of some random winged girl. Ink & Steel, Hell & Earth, A Companion to Wolves, and By the Mountain Bound have all-white casts, for demographic reasons (I could have brought in Azeem the Wonder Moor, I suppose, but tokenism annoys me unreasonably) having to do with the historical period and geography, so I have nothing to complain about there.

It'll be interesting to see what happens with The Steles of the Sky, if anybody picks those up, as for demographic reasons having to do with the historical period and the geography--as with Carnival--there are no white people in that book.

Dude. Marketing department. How hard is it to just put the damned brown-skinned protagonist on the cover?  

I await the response with bated breath.


I think educated readers learn to disregard the cover image, but it still has an effect.

For example, in my head, of course Harry wears a hat...
Ok, random poster here. But I am both a librarian (granted academic, but I spend time putting fiction books in hands of students looking for something to read on the bus ride home) and a bookseller.

And oddly, I have had never had anyone turn down a book because it has non-white characters or leads in it. Matter of fact, sometimes it because a talking point of the conversation for literature (in terms of setting, outside of yes, African American literature). I also never had anyone say anything like 'I will not read a book with x" (thank god, because I would probably have a moment of speechlessness there).

Matter of fact, I can think of some books (again, its YA titles) such as Monster and Single Shard that have had non-white characters on the covers that have sold well.

So from someone on the front lines - I think its time for publishers and buyers and everyone else who claims that non-white characters on covers cause books not to sell need to be called out on what is a lie. They can sell. They do sell.

Even in areas not known for racial diversity.
Thanks for sharing your expertise.
Do the artists get detailed instructions as to what ethnic features they may/may not portray?
See the post immediately below yours. *g*
Even with "cover consult" written into my contract, there was still some Epic Fail on the cover of FLESH & FIRE, as the hero is supposed to be Kazakhi with a few odd gene splashes, not.. well, not what we got. Thankfully they draped his (wrong-colored) hair over his face, so you can't say too much one way or t'other.

The blame's not entirely the publisher's, though -- the artist was given a rather specific description, and ignored it, and refused to make certain requested changes. Apparently his artistic vision trumped mine.

(the covers for the retrievers books are.. a whole 'nother rant. They decided my non-leather-wearing, non-babe character should be a babe in leather and heels. It sold books. I've made my reluctant peace with it.)
They modeled her on the author? :-)
Richard Morgan's "Black Man" had it's *title* changed for US audiences.

And I understand there's a complementary problem, where authors of color can't get their work shelved anywhere except in the "black fiction" section.

I fear an inertia cycle at work.

Someone, somehwere has shown (accurately or otherwise) that the predominant readership of fantasy is white. So someone else, somewhere else, decideds that white characters on covers appeal to white readers. And it all just gets perpetuated.

I have an easy out, because if you write about a character called Yi Qin it's going to be VERY hard for anything but a Chinese-featured main character to be portrayed. But the lines are not always so clear and we all know that white is still the default, in American publishing and in so much else.
Oh, you'd be surprised. (And it is easier to get an Asian character on a book cover than a black one. Notoriously, the black protagonist of Steven Barnes' Street Lethal got turned into Bruce Lee on the cover.
i get to see both sides:

i completely HATE it when the cover art doesn't represent what's inside; and i find it ridiculous that a professional illustrator can't simply take down a character description and accurately represent it, nor that a designer/marketing department + writer can't go to an online stock photo places and build a quick comp of "this skin tone, this build, this etc." hell, i've seen online stores that have interfaces that let you pick out makeup and clothes based on this kind of selection, and avatar makers that can handle some human variety, so there's really no excuse anymore for this sort of thing, if there ever was one to begin with. (and don't EVEN get me started on the "oh, look, brown skin, let's park it on the black studies shelf...", or the infamous "minorities don't read spec fic.")

on the other hand, i know exactly why there's a tradition of never consulting the writer, because i'm up to my neck in frustration right now as i type. i started out with a assignment that the writer is being consulted on. the infamous words "have fun with it! be creative!" appeared, which i already knew better (never, ever tell an artist that. they will run screaming, because they know this is code for "this project is going to be HELL") i did a fairly straight-forward background + figure cover. we are now looking at-- *consults calendar* roughly 3 weeks overdue, last night's communication ending with a request to see the cover without the figure. i'm getting paid roughly 2¢ an hour on this project, and falling, if it hasn't started actually costing me time already.

there HAS to be a better way.

Edited at 2009-07-23 08:33 pm (UTC)


Well, in fairness, where I do get to consult, my usual response is "I'm not a visual person, but here are some references for what people might look like."

The second version of the cover art for Chill, the image is obviously influenced by the references I provided, and I could not be happier.

matthew, meanwhile, does not have a mullet. *g*

I was amazed that you prevailed.

'course, it might have sold more with the emaciated muppet on it...
...I have copies of some very early editions of the original Earthsea trilogy. It never ceases to make my skin crawl that the cover of A Wizard of Earthsea depicts Ged as white. Or that the cover of The Tombs of Atuan depicts...Ged. Still white. While Arha/Tenar, whose story it is, is exiled to a line drawing on the back cover. And the figures on the cover of The Farthest Shore are in shadow to the point where you can't see clearly whether they're supposed to be white or brown.

Later editions also fudge the issue, usually by means of dragons.

And I always get cranky with the various editions of Tamora Pierce's Circle of Magic series whose covers do not show a Daja who looks anything like her description...or Sandry...or Briar...or Evvy...or even Tris...

It's a shame that nothing has changed much in the intervening thirty or so years.

However, I seem to remember some early editions of Patricia Wrightson's novels (the Song of Wirrun trilogy?) that did make it plain that her protagonist was Aboriginal. Occasionally someone gets it right.
For what it's worth, I loved the cover of Dust, and convinced other people to read it by saying "the cover makes sense."
Funny - looking again at the SU art, and then in a shadowed reflection (translucent glass closet door opposite me) I conclude Amanda Downum has Falkner almost exactly right. Her hair's a little flat, maybe.
Hee. Yeah. I'm still not sure she's forgiven us for making her draw all those different phenotypes. Particularly the white guys--Brady was a product of a lot of damned drafts. Reyes she nailed immediately, and I think I still like him best. He's perfect.
Another "I love you for this entry" comment from me, I like reading all the comments. Another form or privilege that I wish would change. :(

I also wondered how much control authors had when it came to their cover art/artist.
I have Ambiguously Ethnic Lass powers too, hee.

I have often had people read stories of mine about characters who were pretty explicitly not white and send me "fan art" depicting blond or redheaded characters who mysteriously had the same names as those characters. I do not get this. At all.
People tend to be solipsistic, I think.

And they also--if you are subtle, or the character is a phenotype that's not immediately obvious as "person of color"--tend to assume white. So I have at least three characters who are really not what an American would point to on the street as white people who tend to get read that way (Vincent, Elaine, and Elspeth).

That's the cultural default-white assumption, which Neil Gaiman plays with in Anansi Boys. Which gets in the way. There's that huge unconscious cultural bias which kind of colors everything.

(I know I assume everybody I meet on the internet is female until proven otherwise: I try to be aware of this, but I trip on it time and again. Funny things can trick me into thinking somebody is male when they're not, though--on one occasion, an icon of an Easter Island head. Which was male so the poster must have been male, right?)

Edited at 2009-07-24 11:47 am (UTC)
I'll take some of the responsibility for the depiction of my Hispanic valkyrie on the cover of Norse Code. The people who make decisions about book covers aren't always people who've read the book, or if they have, they may have done so months and months before cover decisions get made. I believe they were just thinking they wanted a valkyrie on the cover, and the fact that she was Hispanic got lost. I was assured it was an honest oversight, and I trust the person who told me that.

But for my next book, I've prepared capsule descriptions for the main characters. One of those characters is an African American girl, and if she makes it to the book cover, I'll do everything I can to hold up my end of her depiction.
This is an excellent point. I think often that may be where a default-white thing kicks in--there's no immediate contrary evidence, and any character who is not explicitly nonwhite is assumed white, and people are solipsistic. So if your art director is white, and your artist is....

Which bugs me.

Some of it is no doubt societal (I imagine if we were writing in Kenya, most readers would assume that the majority of characters were black unless it was otherwise specified.) as the majority of the US population is still white, and it's easy for those of us who live on the coasts to forget that. So you specify when somebody is in some manner not fitting the majority demographic for a situation.

But at a certain point, that specification itself becomes a kind of othering. To remark upon a woman doctor, after all, is to practice exceptionalism--why is the default for "doctor" male? (Actually, with MDs going all pink collar, soon we may have to remark upon a male doctor.)

And if you don't remark upon it, then the reader assumes the default.

The only solution I've managed to come up with is to remark upon everyone. Identify the brunettes as well as the redheads, and the pale-skinned as well as the medium-toned or dark.

This is much easier to do in a visual media, where you just stick a woman and/or a character of color in a role, and thereby you have subverted the stereotype. (Or a male nurse, or whatever.)

But I digress.