Thursday, August 6, 2009

Bloomsbury's bad decision turns it into a 'Liar'

Posted By on Thu, Aug 6, 2009 at 9:41 PM

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When I was at Book Expo America back in May, one of the "must-grab" pre-publication books (called ARCs, or advance reader copies) handed out like candy was a young adult novel by Justine Larbalestier called Liar, about a young girl whose world of pathological untruths slowly dissolves around the reader. It's an amazing, dark and disturbing story that leaves pretty much every question unanswered (you may hate that, but it's the sort of device I can't get enough of in books, and, for a YA book it's really heavy and high-level). This is the cover (at right), as done by Larbalestier's American publisher, Bloomsbury (Liar has already been out for a minute in her native Australia)

Almost immediately upon cracking that book's spine, though, what you'll find is that Micah, the teenage girl narrator, is, as the author describes her, "black with nappy hair which she wears natural and short."

Anything discordant with that statement when you look at the cover?

Exactly.

I hadn't started reading Liar when news began to break of Larbalestier's distaste for what she termed a "whitewashing" of her book,  but when I did, despite the book's creepily compelling plot and a narrator constantly shifting from reliable to untrustable, that cover, the little white girl with the straight hair and the big eyes, kept pulling me back out. Bleeding-edge New York-based lit critique blog and performance group Fiction Circus took that sense of disconnect all the way to the mat when it caught wind of what was going on:

"If a black cover is an absolute deal-breaker, THEN USE SOME OTHER IMAGE. Like, the word "Liar" up in flames. Or a central image from the text. A broken mirror. ANYTHING. Don't put a little white girl on the front of your book about a little black girl. It's going to change people's ideas about the narrative, which is primarily a story about identity in the first place."

Fiction Circus wasn't the only one alarmed by Bloomsbury's decision to very obviously shirk both the text and wishes of its author for a cover they thought would have more mass appeal. I had a Twitter conversation with a bookseller at an indie bookstore who was planning on stocking the book with a shelf talker (a note on the shelf, most commonly seen for bookstore staff picks) drawing attention to the book's quality but also to the disgraceful job done with cover art.

Today, though, word was released that Bloomsbury has decided, after apologizing for their "original creative direction with Liar" — namely a white girl on the cover — to change the cover from the ARC to reflect something agreed upon by both the publishing house and the author, before the book's publication in late September.

So what was Bloomsbury's reasoning for going against both Larbalestier's wishes and what would seem to be common moral sense? The original, panned Bloomsbury cover was "intended to symbolically reflect the narrator’s complex psychological makeup."

I wish I was making this up.

Basically, Bloomsbury got called out, and they're undertaking a massive expenditure to set it right. Ideally, this will open a dialogue that extends beyond just the realm of publishing to a place very real where race still plays a giant factor: the book shelf. As Justine Larbalestier herself wrote, "I hope that the debate that’s arisen because of this cover will widen to encompass the whole industry. I hope it gets every publishing house thinking about how incredibly important representation is and that they are in a position to break down these assumptions. Publishing companies can make change. I really hope that the outrage the US cover of Liar has generated will go a long way to bringing an end to white washing covers. Maybe even to publishing and promoting more writers of color." For now, though, this is a large victory for one excellent book, and one tiny step forward for an often backwards industry.

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