Bodies & Books

So I found out about International Blog Against Racism Week just a day to late to officially participate, but I’d like to write about this anyway. I first found out about author Justine Larbaliester’s struggle to get an appropriate cover on her YA novel Liar via Jezebel quite a few weeks ago. I didn’t write anything right away because I was, and still am, unsure about exactly what I can add to the dialogue… but this just seems to compelling to go unremarked. (Plus, since today is reading day it seems to go along with the theme!)

liar-ozLiar is an impressive YA novel about a bi-racial girl (who very clearly identifies as “non white” in the novel) named Micah. According to the book’s Amazon summary Micah, “will freely admit that she’s a compulsive liar, but that may be the one honest thing she’ll ever tell you. Over the years she’s duped her classmates, her teachers, and even her parents, and she’s always managed to stay one step ahead of her lies. That is, until her boyfriend dies under brutal circumstances and her dishonesty begins to catch up with her. But is it possible to tell the truth when lying comes as naturally as breathing?”

According to the rest of the description on Amazon, Liar “[takes] readers deep into the psyche of a young woman who will say just about anything to convince them—and herself—that she’s finally come clean, Liar is a bone-chilling thriller that will have readers see-sawing between truths and lies right up to the end. Honestly.”

This book has been given overwhelmingly positive reviews by readers and critics alike… yet it has also been at the center of a bit of controversy in the United States because it seems as if its’ US publisher might believe that, had the cover depicted Micah as she was actually described, the book would not have sold nearly as well. According to the author’s blog:

“I was consulted by Bloomsbury and let them know that I wanted a cover like the Australian Cover,  which I think is very true to the book. […] I never wanted a girl’s face on the cover. Micah’s identity is unstable. She spends the book telling different version of herself. I wanted readers to be free to imagine her as they wanted. […]

The US Liar cover went through many different versions. An early one, which I loved, had the word Liar written in human hair. Sales & Marketing did not think it would sell. Bloomsbury has had a lot of success with photos of girls on their covers and that’s what they wanted. Although not all of the early girl face covers were white, none showed girls who looked remotely like Micah. I strongly objected to all of them. I lost.”

Larbalestier then goes on to put the cover into a context that is rather depressing:

“Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. Since I’ve told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all. How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white? Why would she pick up Liar when it has a cover that so explicitly excludes her?

The notion that “black books” don’t sell is pervasive at every level of publishing. Yet I have found few examples of books with a person of colour on the cover that have had the full weight of a publishing house behind them. Until that happens more often we can’t know if it’s true that white people won’t buy books about people of colour. All we can say is that poorly publicised books with “black covers” don’t sell. The same is usually true of poorly publicised books with “white covers.””

This is depressing, but it gets even worse. According to Liar’s publisher, Bloomsbury, this cover art has nothing to do with sales but, rather, reflects a desire to “[strive] for ambiguity with the cover.” I know that this response from Bloomsbury was meant to defend the company against accusations of racism,  but to be honest it disturbs me even a little more than the idea that Micah was whitewashed because black covers don’t sell as well.

Using a white girl to make a cover more “ambiguous” appears (at least in my eyes) to be playing into the idea of white as ‘neutral’ or the ‘default’ – an idea that is widely accepted in American culture. Most recently we’ve seen this idea rear its ugly head in relation to the response to Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination. (The link leads to a Salon article that really articulates this issue well!) By implying that a white girl makes a cover more ambiguous (and I suppose more universally relatable by extension)  it reinforces the idea of white as the default, and any other race as “other” – an idea that is endlessly harmful in modern American society.

I talk a lot on this blog about how harmful biases about certain types of bodies often go undetected, because they are so widely accepted within our culture (although, admittedly, that conversation usually revolves around our cultural bias against larger bodies) and I believe this is another example of that phenomena. The idea that a cover be whitewashed in order to sell more copies is blatantly racist as it favors white bodies – but, because it is blatantly racist, its’ also rather east to call out. The idea that a white cover was chosen for the sake of ambiguity is a lot harder to analyze and understand because it relies on the damaging, but culturally pervasive, idea of white as default – an idea that is much harder to criticize and call out in a public forum because of how much it is taken for granted.

Regardless of Bloomsbury’s reasoning behind the Liar cover – be it a sales tactic, ambiguity, oversight, whatever – the decision to whitewash Micah contributes to a very harmful social glorification of white bodies, and subsequent disrespect for people of color. Most peole reading this book will not be aware of the debate over its’ cover, all they will know is that Micah was not described as white but she was depicted as such on the cover of this novel, so they will be left to draw their own conclusions; conclusious that, sadly, will probably lead a great deal of them with bodies similar to Micah’s to feel badly about their bodies as they wonder why Micah’s real apperance was not good enough to be depicted on the cover.

On her blog Larbalestier makes a wonderful call for action – “[N]ever forget that publishers are in the business of making money. Consumers need to do what they can. When was the last time you bought a book with a person of colour on the front cover or asked your library to order one for you? If you were upset by the US cover of Liar go buy one right now. I’d like to recommend Coe Booth’s Kendra which is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Waiting on my to be read pile is Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger, which has been strongly recommended to me by many people.”

I agree. Make yourself heard with your buying power but also, use your voice. Call out incidents like this, blog about it, talk about it, take it apart… become more aware of the biases that you may have personally absorbed from your culture so that you can better fight them because no one should be made to feel unworthy for looking like themselves.


ETA: The publishers have decided to go with a different cover :) The girl on the cover appears older than the character in the book but she’s a much better representation racially & overall this is totally a victory thanks to author Justine Larbaliestar and the blogs and bloggers that let their discontent be heard! [Via Jezebel]

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