Cover Talk

Posted by on January 31, 2010 in Uncategorized | 1 comment

Cover Talk

Recently there has been a lot of talk, and quite rightly, about the publishing practice of whitewashing covers – that is, taking a character who is described in the text as not being white and then putting a white-appearing person who is meant to represent that character on the cover. Most recently, the blogs have been talking about MAGIC UNDER GLASS, by Jaclyn Dolamore, where the publishers Bloomsbury did this very thing.

Responders were generally outraged by this, although there were a few people of the “but white people are the only people who sell on covers so therefore making a dark-skinned character light-skinned on the cover is okay” stripe who I do not want to bother with (which is why comments on this post will be screened). Even were this true, which no one has proved to my satisfaction, economics do not equal ethics. There is no way for the putative economic benefit of whitewashing to justify the ethical harm it does in visually erasing people of colour from the fictional worlds they inhabit.

But there was one response from people who were justifiably angry that I do not think was practical, and that was the expectation that the author should have spoken up publicly and denounced this cover. Even if, these people said, even if authors really have no control over their covers and it’s all the publisher’s doing, she should make a stand!

This is roughly equivalent to expecting someone who has just acquired their dream job to curse their boss for doing something wrong. In front of a packed press room. While the boss is standing beside them on the podium.

Economics do not equal ethics, but I think it is important to consider how much we demand of people who could endanger their livelihood and their futures by speaking out. Great change has been made by brave people who have spoken out on social injustices committed by their employers, but they paid and paid and paid for it. There is real and substantial risk, and it is sometimes hard to gauge the cost-benefits to society of taking it, especially when we are talking about someone who wrote a story about a woman of colour who could well end up unable to do so ever again if she is decided to be a troublemaker not worth publishing.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Following the outcry of determined and entirely justified people who spoke out against racism, Bloomsbury will republish the cover, with a new model who resembles the description of the main character more closely. I applaud this decision, even as I am disappointed and angry about the terrible mistake that made it necessary.

Anyway, I do not so much want to talk about Jaclyn’s cover as to discuss mine. I know, I’m such an egoist! But I thought I could perhaps shed some light on the process of cover creation and the social justice implications and authorial control thereof via the creation of my Australian/New Zealand cover*.

Okay, so that’s the cover that will appear on shelves. (There are some things to note about this being a slim, white-appearing, sort of unclothed girl, which I will get to later.)

Just to remind people, or inform newcomers (hi!) Guardian of the Dead is a book set in New Zealand/Aoteoroa that depends a great deal upon Māori mythology as the guiding supernatural force of the land (there are others – it’s an “all stories can be true depending on belief” narrative – but that’s the major influence). A lot of the book is concerned with how the white protagonist handles the reality of those myths.

Here was the first potential cover I saw:

My screams, they were heard from space.

Here is the email I sent my editors after I had run up and down the stairs gibbering for a while.

I hope you can put this diplomatically to the designer, but I’m going to be direct here, because it makes me very uncomfortable: there is absolutely no way you can put tā moko on an apparently-white girl’s face, especially with a pattern he just made up, and have that not be incredibly racist. Moko is something people earn the right to wear; women don’t traditionally get full-face tattoos; they’re traditional designs usually applied by someone who has trained in the art, conveying ancestry and achievements (not random patterns); and Pākehā desires to wear moko or “Māori-inspired” body art are controversial at best. That cover is really inappropriate.

Then I clicked send and had an anxiety attack. Good times!

I was freaked, readers. I have alluded briefly above to how much control first-time authors have over cover decisions, and the reality is, none whatsoever. Sometimes publishers give authors some say, but they are very rarely obliged to by the terms of their contract, and often they don’t. Every imprint of every publisher will have a different response, and often it’s not even the publisher who has the final say – the book buyers for big chains might want something different and then BAM new cover ahoy.

I know authors who have provided a cover brief and get something almost exactly like or even better than they wanted. I know authors who have got the first look at their cover after it had gone to the printers (sometimes they were happy, sometimes not), or who were shown a cover and told “It’s going to be our catalogue cover! The catalogue goes to press in three days. ANY COMMENTS NO EXCELLENT.” Ursula LeGuin had to cope with crappy white-washed covers of her books for years until she was in a position where, as a bankable talent, she was able to leverage a little more control over what went on the book.

My point is that my publishers could have made me eat this cover, and then my choices would have been to swallow and say “mmmm!” or vomit in public and get branded as a disloyal spew monster, who, incidentally, had already signed a contract to deliver a second book. I cannot even imagine how uncomfortable that could have been, much less the damage it could have done to my career, and I honestly don’t know what I would have chosen to do. And I knew all this when I wrote that email, and I was really, really scared.

But my editors, who are awesome, wrote back and said thank you for explaining! They would go in a different direction. Afterwards they confirmed that they had already been uneasy about the implications of using tā moko, and would have consulted with an authority before proceeding in any case. But my explanation had made it sufficiently clear that this design would be a bad idea. That was the end of the racist cover.

Ethical publisher, awesome editors, happy ending! But wait. Wasn’t there a thing about implications I wanted to talk about?

Right. This is a conversation slightly different to the one I was participating in above, and I want to make that divide clear. The one above is about racism; the one below is going to be about the tyranny of conventional beauty standards (which intersect with, but do not solely comprise, racism).

As you can see the cover of the book features a slender red-haired lady whose visible skin is white. She is the antagonist. The protagonist, who narrates the story, is a fat blonde white girl who is not viewed as pretty in the society she lives in. Ellie is six feet tall, overweight, flat-chested, and pimply, with skin she describes as “more skim milk than cream”. She does not have the sort of features conventionally regarded as deformities (scars, facial growths, etc), but neither is she anything but (again, conventionally) plain. She has long, straight blonde hair that she regards as the only pretty thing about her.

(It is incidentally difficult to accurately convey her appearance to readers because the story is told from her PoV, and most readers who have spoken to me about this have assumed that a lot of her self-assessment is based on typical teenage-girl low self-esteem about her body image. In my opinion Ellie is more or less accurate regarding her looks. She is also more or less okay with them, and becomes more so – she has moments of doubt, because when you’re a non-attractive woman in a culture that prizes very narrow beauty standards it’s hard not to, and she sometimes worries about how much space she takes up in the world, but she is on the whole more concerned about other things.)

The person on the cover does actually exist in the book, so this is not a case of pretending that this skinny person is Ellie and thus misrepresenting a character who is not attractive by Western standards. Although the cover person is not actually white, she textually appears so and passes as such for half the book, [SPOILERS] being half-Māori, and half-patupaiarehe, (but identifying as patupaiarehe) a species that is canonically pale-skinned. So it’s not whitewashing either. (Though it also doesn’t actually help correct the lack of visible characters of colour on book covers.)

But what it is is a very conventionally attractive woman (by Western standards) on the cover of a book told from the perspective of a young woman who is not. I, and my editors, and a lot of people in the book world, think this is in general very problematic. I am going to explain a little bit about how it happened in this case, but I want to establish that I am not trying to excuse what the cover is. It’s right there; pretty lady on the cover to entice the potential reader.

We wanted Ellie on the cover.

The first problem was that a search for “strong+girl” in the picture libraries brought up many many pictures of girls in bikinis hugging their boyfriend’s biceps.

The second problem was that organising a photo shoot with a model would have been both expensive and risky – it’s hard to get something like that right, and it’s hard to throw it away if it’s not right when you’ve spent so much on it already.

The third problem, which I kept in my heart, is that I did not believe a model could be found through any customary channels – even one of the right physical proportions – who wasn’t pretty. I felt that putting a big woman who was pretty on the cover and saying “This is Ellie” would have been a misrepresentation and a betrayal.

So my publishers showed me the cover, and said, do you like it? And I said yes, because I do. It’s creepy and mysterious, just like the woman it features, and like the mood of the book. We would all have preferred big, strong Ellie on the cover, but the entirety of established cultural expectations was working against it, and frankly, we gave in. Mine is a debut novel, from a non-established author. No one ever told me this, but I suspect a search for the exactly right cover might have taken more money than was worth risking on my work.

As far as visually standing against tyrannical and misogynistic beauty standards goes, this cover is a failure. What I hope is that the cover, which is very pretty, will help get a fat, not-pretty protagonist into the hands of readers who will find a book where she is shown to be worthy of love, friendship, and respect (and hopefully think she is as awesome as I do). Economics is not ethics, but sometimes we compromise, trying to be as ethical as we can within economical demands.

I have nothing but respect for my Australian editors (and my American editors!). I think Allen and Unwin is a fine house, and that I am lucky to be with them, not least because as soon as I sent my objections to the moko cover, they said, “You are right.” I am disappointed that this cover is not something else, but I am happy with what it is, especially in comparison to what it could have been.

The US cover, by the way, avoided all of these issues entirely by going with an iconic cover featuring the mask that plays a big part in the book. I like that cover a lot. But I hope that my talking about the ANZ cover has exposed a little of the complexity and compromise in the ethics of cover creation.

* Incidentally? When I started thinking about writing this post, I emailed my Australian editors telling them that I planned to do so, and asking if they had any concerns. I am not so brave that I will stand on a podium and shout either.