Two Topics Related by One Book

Today’s two writing-related topics are steampunk (yay!) and cover whitewashing (boo!).

How do these things relate? Well, Jaclyn Dolamore’s debut novel, Magic Under Glass, is YA steampunk. (I have heard some arguments for calling it “Victorian fantasy” instead. Haven’t yet read it, so I’m going by what the various categorizing entities say.) It’s also one of that sadly rare species, the fantasy novel with a protagonist who isn’t white. Unfortunately, its publisher, Bloomsbury, saw fit to give it a cover featuring a white girl. Even more unfortunately, this is the second time Bloomsbury has done this in less than a year.

When Justine Larbalestier’s YA novel Liar came out from Bloomsbury in 2009, fans raged at the original cover, featuring an obviously-white girl with straight hair in place of the book’s “nappy-haired” mixed-race protagonist. The author joined the outcry, and Bloomsbury ended up giving Liar a new cover.

At the time the Liar incident started appearing on some of the blogs I read, I shook my head, disappointed but not too surprised. But this is ridiculous. I know that the cover of Magic Under Glass was probably decided already when people let Bloomsbury have it over Liar, but what? Did they think no one would notice? They didn’t issue an apology or an assurance that they will fix things in the paperback. What’s up with that?

The range of literature published in this country featuring non-white protagonists is disproportionate to the population, to say the least. Things get even worse if you’d love to read about people of varied ethnic backgrounds, but don’t care for “gritty” books, books that make you cry your eyes out, or books that are largely about racism. Yes, racism exists, and it’s important that it be recognized. But why shouldn’t a person of any race be able to just pick up a freaking fantasy novel and read a freaking fantasy story (or mystery or romance or whatever floats that person’s literary boat) featuring someone whose skin falls outside of the cream-to-khaki color range? By making one of a few such books look like it is about a white person, Bloomsbury implies that people of color don’t belong in this genre, or that this genre isn’t for them. I’ll say it again: what’s up with that?

Naturally, one doesn’t want to punish the author by boycotting her book. She’s not the one being racist here, and is probably distressed by the misrepresentation of her protagonist. Some bloggers suggest that concerned readers contact Bloomsbury. Probably a good idea, but I also think it’s important just to make noise about this whitewashing business and let Bloomsbury know readers have noticed and We Are Not Amused. Hence my commentary here.

If you want to see what some other people have to say about this issue, check out this Open Letter to Bloomsbury Kids USA, and the posts here and here and here. There are also these suggestions on how white bloggers should not take this news.

To end on a happier note, steampunk! As part of my YA Lit class, I’ve joined the listserv for the Young Adult Library Services Association. It is neato. At one member’s request, the listserv’s contributors have volunteered titles of YA steampunk, which were then compiled into a snazzy list. Check it out!

10 thoughts on “Two Topics Related by One Book

  • I just got Soulless, which is on that list – it’s technically my roommate’s birthday present but I will be reading it first. 🙂 It is Very Silly Indeed, and technically a paranormal romance – but the semi-love interest is a werewolf whereas the main vampire character is a flamboyantly gay fop with a monocle.

    But anyway – yes, white-washing of covers is absurd. I think I posted (and have probably ranted) about the terrible terrible adaptations of the Earthsea books, in which only the Wise Mentor is black rather than most of the cast; those books have also had their share of white person covers, being published in the seventies and all. LeGuin, I believe, commented that when writing the books that she didn’t reveal that Ged had dark skin until rather late in the first book, because she didn’t want to put off her publishers right away.

    It’s sad that some publishers are so obsessed with making money that they are out of touch with both what is right and what people really want. They do allow “urban fiction” to exist, because it they know it will sell, but they whitewash mainstream or genre fiction, because they’re afraid it won’t sell. It does seem like a fair amount of self-fulfilling prophecy is going on. The author of Liar‘s comparison with the lack of a race divide in the music industry is really interesting!

    • LeGuin, I believe, commented that when writing the books that she didn’t reveal that Ged had dark skin until rather late in the first book, because she didn’t want to put off her publishers right away.
      Seriously? When I read it I remember every other page was like, “Ged’s dark face…” “his dark skin..” or whatever. This was in the context of a class on fantasy lit, so we discussed the whitewashing of the covers that occurred despite all this, and of the issues surrounding Earthsea as a groundbreaking fantasy novel in featuring nonwhite protagonists and all of that, but my impression was she definitely erred on the side of NOT being subtle about it. (Which is fine, considering the context, and that plenty of people willfully missed it anyway (and we did watch clips of the horrible miniseries, which we groaned over as a class).)

      • I must be remembering wrong (and/or she was being a bit disingenuous in her quote) – it’s been a couple years since I read it.

        • I’m guessing the latter. She strikes me as the disingenuous sort. Not intentionally, but…hmm, have you ever read any of her essays where she discusses (the trainwreck known as) Tehanu?

          • Aha, I have found the quote I was thinking of:

            “I figured some white kids (the books were published for “young adults”) might not identify straight off with a brown kid, so I kind of eased the information about skin color in by degrees—hoping that the reader would get “into Ged’s skin” and only then discover it wasn’t a white one.” (from here)

            So she may be misremembering just a little.

            I believe I’ve read bits and pieces of those essays. But I really enjoyed Tehanu, honestly – it was certainly a very “look at me I’m being political” book, but not to the detriment of her plot or characters, in my opinion. I will admit that I am not well-read in contemporary fantasy and so the novelty of reading a feminist deconstruction/retelling of the epic fantasy genre went a long way with me, whether or not it had actually been done before. And I just really love Ged and Tenar. 🙂

          • I think I may have been the only one in class (a Fantasy class, mind you, filled with geeky sympathetic types) dedicated enough to read Tehanu all the way through, actually. But Robin McKinley and I go way back, so feminist fantasy was already old hat to me.

            I was referring more to LeGuin’s essays about her feminist awakening, though. I dunno, it made no sense whatsoever to me that she would have been led into thinking she had to write from a male perspective no matter what era it was.

          • Hmm… depending on what you mean by “from a male perspective,” I think it makes a fair amount of sense that if you develop as a writer in a tradition that tells such stories, you unconsciously do the same – especially since those stories partly inspired you to write in the first place.

            This is particularly true when that tradition is science fiction and fantasy – female novelists in the 18th/19th century at least had the precedent of early male novelists telling stories with female protagonists, but early female SF/F authors were working almost exclusively in the context of stories about men doing and thinking about male things.

          • I wish I had the essay on hand to quote from. I just remember her saying something along the lines of, oh, due to evil male repression I thought I had to write like a man and from a male perspective and it never ever occurred to me to write any other way.

            I’m aware of the history of fantasy and especially science fiction and that it was definitely a boy’s club back then, but even so, I have trouble believing her.

            Writing from one’s own perspective seems like the natural default. And Robin McKinley, even if she did start a little later (mid-late 70s?) never seems to have contemplated writing about anything other than Girls Who Do Things. And there’s always Madeleine L’Engle, too.

          • (And I also just have a big problem with her (apparent) subscription to the Men Evil, Women Good, foaming-at-the-mouth brand of feminism.)

  • *poke* You still need to give me your current address so I can send you the galley I found at ALA.

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