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2.21.2010

The Art of the Book Cover

One motivational tool for writers is to create their own cover: picture it then do it.

I have mine all ready:



Of course, it would be something like this:



because it's all about who you can sell your book to, and there are always rules.

For example, did you know that if you write a book about Asia, or if you're an Asian author, you must have three elements on your cover: blossoms, fans, dragons, women's neck. Or, another example: if the author doesn't say anything, and even if you do, make everybody on the cover white, as what happened to Jaclyn Dolamore's Under the Glass, or the whole Justine Larbalestier debaucle, both of which had or has a cover featuring a white character, while the text described the protaganist as clearly brown skinned. For Dolamore, the cover has not changed. For Larbalestier, well, she fumed, she made noise, and got a new cover. Yet this is not always the case. In a Bookslut article, Colleen Mondor observes:

"This industry runs very much with the knowledge that there are sixteen writers waiting to take your place, who are willing to shut up and be agreeable, so they openly treat writers with contempt. I had to continually throughout the copyediting process write notes and send mail when they would change my words regarding a character of color. For some reason, copyeditors have a serious problem with an African-American girl turning ashy when she pales. They really, really want her to turn white. They want her knuckles to turn white when she's scared. They insert stupid, coffee metaphors for skin color, and add words like kinky about the hair."
The issue is whitewashing--"Caucasianization," if you will, and the writer's say in the final publication of their work, as well as the way publishers go about selling their products, but also: the effects of representation in literature on the general reading public. The question Mondor leads her article into is: what effect does whitewashing have on the reading youth?

Like any other media, it is possible erasure and the overall lack of diversity and consciousness of that diversity. Writer Zetta Elliot says this:

"Because I so rarely saw black characters in books when I was a child, I learned to relate to protagonists who didn’t look like me -- but that doesn’t mean I couldn’t identify with their struggles, triumphs, etc. It did mean, however, that I started to erase aspects of myself when I read -- I couldn’t consciously be black and read a lot of those books because then I’d realize there was no place for me in that imaginary realm. I didn’t pretend to be white, I just didn’t acknowledge my own erasure from the scenes that delighted me so much."

Think about it: as a kid, how many books did you read that had characters just like you? For me, that means queer Asian teenagers, so the answer is zero. I read Lord of the Flies, presumably white kids because they're British, not to mention the movie was full of white kids; Hamlet...Shakepeare never saw a black person in his life, probably didn't even knew they existed; The Great Gatsby...rich white people, enough said; Animal Farm--now that's a book I could relate to! No color, no sexuality, just communist animals, I bet the education system was really thinking about how that can relate to today's youth.

But such a line of thinking traps us into the idea that we can only relate to people like ourselves and that the narrative form can only exist to reflect our own perceptions. Which is wrong: I liked Pride and Prejudice because the writer was smart, witty, and Jane Austen knew how people behave--not because I was at one time or another, a British woman of middle-class upbringing in the 1700s (even though this the impression people get of me all the time!); The Scarlett Letter is about being an outsider; Animal Farm is more about humans than about animals.

Yet there is the issue of representation. The question of--are there people like me out there? And furthermore: how am I supposed to look like, as a--person of color, as a queer person, as etc. This is the simple social theory that indeed the media shapes the way we perceive ourselves, and when there is a lack of represention, there is an erasure (of some sort) of the self (not that I'm advocating that there is a self to begin with, everything is socially constructed, including who you say you are).

And as publishing houses try to embrace diversity, the problem is not just having represention, but the idea of correct represention. One example of this that irks me the most is...The Gossip Girls series, whose covers are always, always--white people! If you look at the covers of the series, it's always the same message: rich white girls have fun. This--in comparison to, say, Drama High, by L. Divine, which usually have angry black girls (of questionable class) who always have to be in a beauty shop. The message here is almost obvious: if you're white, you have fun; if you're black, you have to be angry, evidently because you work in a beauty parlor. Such a discourse is bad for both blacks and beauty parlor employees.

Another thing that irks me (because I'm liberal and I'm ALWAYS irked!--I should rename this blog "Things That Irk Me") is the gay publishing community--and it's bad enough that the gay community has had problems with race. Pick up any "general" gay book--anything not aimed at a certain sector, like black gays--and it's an automatic, it's an assumed white person on the cover. It's even worse for erotica collections, because by stating that it is erotica, and automatically putting a white person on the cover, you're making an association between sexuality, beauty, and race. In the case of, for example, Shane Allison's new anthology College Boy, the equation is: white=erotic==beautiful. This is just a look at the cover, and not at the content, but the cover is the first thing people will see (but in my case, I first see "Shane Allison," and think "Wow! Shane Allison is super-uber cool! He writes porn and sestinas!"), and the image is part of the ongoing discourse.

But on the subject of representation, what does this mean to writers? Must writers favorably represent the community they represent. For example, must a gay writer write about happy, situated gay characters? Again: simple representation (the fact that that person is present) versus proper representation (the fact that they reflect these peopole in reality). As a writer, I would think not. Good writers, anyway, do not represent their community, they cannot possible encompass an entire community, and therefore have no obligation for their community, but only the community of the human race. To write of a gay character is not about writing the gay experience, per se (as if there is only one gay experience). It is about writing the human experience--sexuality included, in that case. Likewise, to write about a black character is not writing about the black experience (again, there isn't just one black experience), but the writer writes of the human experience. Writers write of human stories. Cover artists, however, facilitate an impression of what said character will be. The automatic discourse is not in the writing, but in the images companies put out in an effort to make profit.

Ah...the wonders of identity...

1 comment:

  1. It's too easy to look at one book cover and ask "why is this guy white?" Look at all their covers. I haven't, so I don't know if you're wrong.

    It's more interesting that the body type on the covers is always the same, ripped and shaved. It's probably just the ideal for gay men that media has crafted and Cleis Press is just going with marketing inertia. It's frustrating that average hairy guys (scrawny or chubby real guys) are classified as too alternative for the marketing purposes of a cover, even if the stories inside have a diversity of race, body, time period, aesthetic. Cliche to say, but you can't judge these mainstream erotica books by the cover. The zine and independent publishing world has a little more fun with image.

    ~ Rob Wolfsham

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