“Race-Fishing” Book Covers Are More Than Problematic


A few weeks ago, the speech broke when David Bowles revealed the new cover of his book, Blue Glitter Blue.

First published in 2009, Blue Glitter Blue bills itself as an immersive sci-fi epic filled with a huge cast of characters. On the cover was apparently the protagonist of this set: a beautiful dark-skinned black girl with braids, standing in front of a deep indigo background and the starry figure of a man. An absolutely gorgeous cover, promising what seemed like a sci-fi tale of a black heroine embarking on an adventure in the cosmos – or finding a memorable, doomed romance.

Unfortunately, however… that ultimately didn’t happen. Hours after Bowles revealed this cover, criticism surfaced online over what many saw as a misrepresentation of the story’s actual content. The black woman on the cover was actually not the protagonist – and what was worse, she was apparently just a minor character whose POV (point of view) was never explored in depth in this particular book.

Although Bowles released a statement acknowledging the criticsand soon released a new cover showcasing the story content and characters inside more accuratelythe uncomfortable question persisted: why did the cover reflect anything else the first time around?

Another example of a similar problem was found in Kristen O’Neal’s Lyncanthropy and other chronic diseases.

Although the book hasn’t even been officially released yet, a glance at early reviews on Goodreads finds it riddled with criticism over the description and presentation of the cover and the story itself, which focuses on a South Asian character struggling with a chronic illness. The book, however, is written by a white author.

Now, at first glance, it can be easy to dismiss criticism towards Blue Glitter Blue and Lycanthropy and other chronic diseases like a simple book speech; it can be even easier to fend off criticism as an unfair creativity police.

“Who cares who wrote the story?” some opinions may dispute. “Everyone should be allowed to write whatever they want, regardless of who they are!”

And of cours, this is absolutely true and valid. But the problem in this notion arises when marginalized groups who have encountered immense barriers of accessibility and respectability in publishing suddenly have their experiences co-opted, or their covers reproduced, in the name of “diversity” as trend, rather than as a genuine and intentional ethic.

Many black authors who are now published have spoken of the obstacles they have faced even in getting their stories to publication. There have been many stories—covered here and in other places – black authors who have been told that “black stories don’t sell” and that “black characters aren’t marketable”. Octavia Butler and Nnedi Okorafor even had their book covers whitewashed in the name of “commercialization.”

That’s why now, during this beautiful flowering of black stories and black authors finally being made visible, it seems mostly in bad taste to see white or non-black PoC authors suddenly writing books and making their first covers of books featuring black characters.

He doesn’t feel grateful – he feels appropriated. It doesn’t seem authentic – it seems like an exploitation. And what’s more, it sadly releases the energy to leverage what are actually very beautiful and long overdue advances for selfish ends, to jump on that aforementioned “diversity trend train” to mismarket stories as written by Black and featuring Black characters.

Authors Bethany C. Morrow and Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé said it best:

Although I personally have no envy that Bowles himself had any malicious intent in the cover of the book that was chosen for Blue Glitter Bluethe conversation that was opened by this snafu remains incredibly important, in many ways now more than ever.

And when it comes to the reviews surrounding Kristen O’Neal’s book, the conversation can’t take place without acknowledging #OwnVoices and why it was created in the first place. Coined by writer Corinne Duyvis in 2015, #OwnVoices refers to “an author from a marginalized or underrepresented group writing about their own experiences/from their own perspective, rather than someone from a outside view writing as a character from an underrepresented group.” (Quote: Seattle Public Library)

Now on to the other question: why was #OwnVoices created? For years in publishing, marginalized groups have seen their views and stories compartmentalized into crude generalizations, stereotypes and inauthentic portrayals. Worse still, it has often been after struggling to find a representation of themselves.

Although in some cases an unmarginalized writer may have good intentions of writing from a diverse perspective of which they are not a part, often there are dimensions and facets of that experience that cannot be properly executed from the point of view. from an outsider’s perspective – at least, not without (bare minimum, beware) intense amount of research and feedback from people of these identities and experiences.

What, unfortunately, many authors do not make the effort to do.

Kayla Whaley from Strongly wrote an #OwnVoices article a few years ago that also had some powerful insights on this topic. Here’s one of my favorite stitches she made:

Time and again, marginalized people have had their stories taken from them, misused, and published as genuine, while marginalized authors have had to jump hurdle after hurdle to get published themselves. Many think they have to fight to receive even a fraction of the salary, promotion, and accolades outsiders get for writing stories of diverse characters, and that’s when they are allowed to enter.

The most common criticism I see around various books written from non-marginalized perspectives is how offensive they end up becoming, whether they intend to be or not. Some books have been criticized as inherently racist, others as insensitive and phobic towards certain identities, and still others as harboring white savior sentiments or perpetuating stereotypes that only perpetuate harmful misconceptions about a group of people.

And that begs the question: who really ends up benefiting from these stories?

Certainly not the readers, and certainly not the marginalized authors who have had to fight their way to the table, to continue dealing with these harmful microaggressions.

This situation is also reminiscent of the controversy over the “miscellaneous editions” of Barnes and Noble’s 2020 Black History Month. For some ill-conceived reason, it was decided that classic book covers would be released with revamped “diversity” covers that displayed many familiar literary characters as people of color and other identities.

For obvious reasons, this mostly backfired on us.

What Needs You have to understand that when people talk about diversity, they’re not asking for performative activism. Having a book cover that features a black or brown character means nothing if that character isn’t same Black or brown – or worse, right? same in the book first. When people talk about diverse stories, they don’t mean that diversity should be exploited as the “hot new thing” that sells itself, and co-opted by writers who don’t have that identity and aren’t willing to exercise due diligence to ensure authenticity. and appropriate representation.

It really shouldn’t be that hard. But unfortunately, as has been repeatedly proven, there is a willingness almost to be obtuse and miss the mark when it comes to this issue. Authors of color still struggle to break through barriers of accessibility when navigating the industry. They still face microaggressions and disrespect, as seen in the case of a recent The Editor’s Weekly article detailing the fallout surrounding book agent Brooks Sherman.

Although the reviews were quick and The Editor’s Weekly was quick to edit his article as an apology, this example is just one of many problems that remain prevalent in publishing – and further exacerbated by things like “race fishing” book covers and the speaking out of marginalized voices in the narrative. One cannot expect a fair and equitable environment for success when actions show something completely different.

There must be genuine intent and well-guided introspection when it comes to championing diversity and equity in storytelling. Now that these stories are getting the praise they deserve, that doesn’t mean jumping on the heels and falsely advertising stories as “diverse” for marketing reasons. Or create deceptive covers with black characters on them in hopes they’ll sell better now that it’s “in”.

All we want are stories that truly reflect the beautiful diversity of our own world. And it’s up to everyone to make sure the way we do it is respectful, authentic and beneficial to everyone involved.

(featured image: Castle Bridge Media)

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