January 21, 2010

Race in Publishing: Discussion Part 1

Magic Under Glass, a debut novel by Jacyln Dolamore has been garnering great reviews for its writing, storyline, and characters. On some blogs that I've read, it's being compared to the next Gemma Doyle series by Libba Bray, which is amazing because that book series is amazing. Anyway, my only problem with this has been the book cover, which features a white girl on the cover of a book about a person of color. Thankfully they are changing the cover, but I wonder what made them do that in the first place and hopefully what can we do to prevent them from doing it again.

I was writing my Psych 168 paper on the Liar controversy when news about Magic Under Glass started spreading. I wish I would have said something earlier, but there were so many people who can say it more eloquently than I could ever hope to try. By the time I got my thoughts to say about the matter, the incident was handled and the problem with this one particular book was solved. Besides, I think my paper on the Liar controversy was much more interesting than what I had to say in my blog. I wanted to get my grade in that before I posted it anywhere else.

I never got my paper back anyway, so I never had my chance to give my thoughts to the general public before then. Waiting instead of taking action. I don't want to be accused of plagiarism just in case, but now that I have my paper turned in and hopefully graded with an A+. This blog has my name written all over it, so I hope that if the teacher does manage to read this, she'll know that it's me. (Hello Dr. Murray).

An interesting blog post about book covers and race started by Justine Larbalestier caused an interesting discussion on whether book covers represent or in this case, misrepresent, the characters portrayed in the novel. Larbalestier discusses the book covers that had been chosen for different versions of her book entitled Liar. The author states that her main character, Micah, is "black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short." The United States edition of this book is in black and white, but the girl on the cover is clearly white.

Larbalestier, an Australian author, states that none of her Australian fans were concerned about Micah's ethnicity and in fact, most of her fans from around the world admire the author for writing about non-white characters. In outrage to the white-washing of her American edition book cover, she asked how other authors, both white and non-white, dealt with white-washed covers. Larbalestier saw a reoccurring theme in the publishing world. "...Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA [young adult literature]...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?" This is a good question and one I will attempt to answer from my perspective as a black woman. My perspective is only one unique perspective about the black experience.

I am an young adult literature reader, but I will admit that most of the stories I do read about are about white main characters or written by white authors. I fully enjoyed those books and I even kept a record of how many books I read, who wrote them, and what the book was about. At the end of the year, I reviewed this record and realized that out of the thirty traditionally published books I managed to read this past year, none of them were written by African-American authors. Even though they had some African-American characters, none of them portrayed African-Americans as the main character. This was disconcerting for me. It made me wonder why this was the case? I didn't actively seek out books based on the characters' race. In some books race was never mentioned, but it was assumed that a character was white by certain characteristics, and in others, race was only mentioned to say that a character was non-white. This implied that my default setting for most characters was(and probably still is) white. Why is this?

First there is a stereotype in the publishing companies that books written by black authors are only written for a black audience. If I were to seek out a book about African-American characters written by African-American authors, these would normally be categorized in the "Urban Fiction" section, regardless of whether the setting is urban or otherwise. This is what black authors have become associated with and while it's not necessarily a bad thing to have an author have a defined niche, most books will never reach a wide distribution beyond their niches. The niche is for African-Americans, which only supports the publishing paradigm of black authors writing for black readers. If I wanted a book with a character that looked like me, I'd have to go to the "Urban Fiction" section, but I don't think my local bookstore or library has an 'urban fiction' section. Where do I have to go to find good books with African-American main characters?

The strange thing is that there are white authors writing about Black main characters all the time and those books aren't directed towards black audiences nor do I see them shelved in the Urban Fiction section. A Black author writing about a White character has an easier time than a White author does writing about a non-white character. This is because African-Americans are bombarded with ideals of a Eurocentric pop culture. Most white writers are scared to try writing about non-white characters, which is unfortunate, because at this point they have the majority of the market. I believe that many authors would want to portray a non-white character correctly by doing adequate research and observations of different types of people. It would be to their benefit and credibility to do so. If there were more books about black characters in general, whether written by black authors or not, perhaps this would allow my default setting and as well as others in my position to expand a little bit to encompass the way the world truly is.


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