I’ve run across two interesting discussions about covers — book and magazine covers, that is — in the last week or so. Now, I can’t say I never judge anything by its cover. It’s basically human nature to do so. But I’m an incredibly non-visual person, so I don’t tend to notice much about covers. But that, my ability and willingness to not notice, is tied pretty strongly to privilege. I can walk into a book store and find people who look like me on book covers; I can find covers designed to appeal to people like me. So I’ve never had to notice.
Lately, I’m trying to do so anyway. I’m trying to read more books by and about people of color, and to take more notice of race in what I do read. I was late to catch the snap on this, but I’m trying.
Discussion #1: earlier this week, Tempest wrote about the cover of the new Realms of Fantasy. I’ve seen the magazine around, but have never picked it up; short stories aren’t really my thing. But basically, Tempest points out that Realms’ covers have always skewed towards featuring scantily-clad women; and now the magazine, about to be relaunched under new management, has… continued that trend, with a bare-chested mermaid on the cover.
You can insert a *facepalm* here.
Like I said, I’m not familiar with the magazine, but I’m also not shocked by the trend. I grew up on cheesy sf/f paperback novels, and there were hundreds more in my house than I ever got around to reading1; scantily-clad women were sort of a mainstay. The answer is defensive, which I do get; after all, Tempest’s post was a direct calling out, and most people would respond defensively. But that doesn’t mean the post was not facepalm-inducing and soaked in privilege. Like, for example:
But there’s that cover, Doug. You can see her breasts! Hmm. There is that. But last time I checked, mermaids tend to shun clothes. And last time I checked, the chicks in chainmail covers are far more offensive than this. And last time I checked, nudity does occur in artwork.
I worked at a magazine just long enough to know that the art director has something to do with cover selection.2 And if you’re the one selecting the art to include, saying that nudity occurs in art is pretty misleading. You’re deciding to use artwork with nudity and claiming “because that’s what art is,” as a reason; but you could just as easily not do that and … not have it be an issue.
And also, claiming “That other thing they used to do is more offensive than the thing that I did!” is basically a tacit acknowledgement that yes, what you did is part of the same problem. Because the problem isn’t that this cover had mer-boobs, or that a previous cover had chain-mail-clad ladies; the problem is that many covers have super-sexualized women on them, and that this cover is illustrative of a larger problem.
But what really gets me isn’t even that. It’s the bit about mermaids. Because last time I checked, mermaids were fictional. So please tell me what mer-person you found and show me the notes on the conversation about mer-culture and how bare-breastedness is part of that, and so clothes absolutely must be avoided in artwork to avoid an inaccurate portrayal of that culture. Because then I’ll nod along about how it’s totally justified; but right now, it just sounds like when an actual woman calls out a sexist trope, there are plenty of ways to avoid hearing her.
Controversy #2: This one is actually much nearer and dearer to my heart, because it concerns an author I do read, and, in fact, love: Justine Larbalestier. I met Justine at a signing a couple of years ago, and she was super charming.3 I bought her trilogy, and loved it; I particularly liked that of the three main characters, two were non-white (including the primary point-of-view character). Her next offering, How to Ditch Your Fairy, was also quite enjoyable; it’s set in a modern fantasy world, in which non-white was pretty much just the default.4
So this fall, her novel Liar will be released. In Australia, the cover looks like this. In the U.S., the cover looks like it does on the left over there. The controversy?
The protagonist of Liar is African-American. And the cover model used by Bloomsbury is really, really obviously not. The book isn’t out yet, so I had no idea; but earlier this week, Editorial Anonymous posted on it, and since then I’ve read a promo excerpt in which the character states, very matter-of-factly, that yes, she is black.
In response, Justine wrote two posts, both of which I loved and appreciated:
Why My Protags Aren’t White
Because a young Hispanic girl I met at a signing thanked me for writing an Hispanic character. Because when I did an appearance in Queens the entirely black and Hispanic teenage audience responded so warmly to my book with two non-white main characters. Because teens, both here and in Australia, have written thanking me for writing characters they could relate to. “Most books are so white,” one girl wrote me.
Because no white teen has ever complained about their lack of representation in those books. Or asked me why Reason and Jay-Tee aren’t white. They read and enjoyed the trilogy anyway. Despite the acres and acres of white books available to them.
Because I don’t live in an all-white world. Why on earth would I write books that are?
And, directly responding to the questions raised by the U.S. cover:
Ain’t That a Shame
Liar is a book about a compulsive (possibly pathological) liar who is determined to stop lying but finds it much harder than she supposed. I worked very hard to make sure that the fundamentals of who Micah is were believable: that she’s a girl, that she’s a teenager, that she’s black, that she’s USian. One of the most upsetting impacts of the cover is that it’s led readers to question everything about Micah: If she doesn’t look anything like the girl on the cover maybe nothing she says is true. At which point the entire book, and all my hard work, crumbles.
No one in Australia has written to ask me if Micah is really black.
No one in Australia has said that they will not be buying Liar because “my teens would find the cover insulting.”
Both responses are heart breaking.
This cover did not happen in isolation.
Needless to say, it’s a heavy post. And it, too, is a calling-out; while remaining respectful to a publisher she says is otherwise great, Justine calls out the self-fulfilling prophecy of claiming “black books don’t sell.”
For me it isn’t a question of whether or not I’ll read the book. I love that Justine writes books about people of color. I love her writing. She’s one of my favorite authors, and one of my favorite bloggers. I’ll buy the book. But at the moment, my plan is to figure out how to get an import of the Australian cover. Because I try to vote with my dollars, and I want my dollars to say that I like Justine Larbalestier and her books, and I don’t support racism.
- Literally hundreds. My dad’s sf/f collection was pretty awe-inspiring ↩
- I also know just enough to know that sales and marketing also have something to do with cover selection, and Sex Sells, right? Though if the magazine’s readership is 4:1 female:male, I’m not sure who they’re trying to sell it to, since it isn’t probably isn’t what the actual audience wants. But we all know that Sex Sells, and scantily clad ladies = sex, right? Right? Amiright??? ↩
- And she has written about gender and feminism in science fiction, and recently did a give-away of Battle of the Sexes and I managed to snag a copy, and did I mention I fangirl her like whoa? ↩
- And if I remember correctly, a character who was heavily implied to be a lesbian. ↩