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Friday, January 29, 2010

Dear Authors: Please Don't Stand Up For What's Right (Make Profit Instead)

There's been a lot of talk about whitewashing covers lately. I haven't brought it up here yet because I didn't think there was much else to say that hadn't already been said elsewhere, and to greater effect.

Then someone wrote the following:
But there was one response from people who were justifiably angry that I do not think was practical, and that was the expectation that the author should have spoken up publicly and denounced this cover. Even if, these people said, even if authors really have no control over their covers and it's all the publisher's doing, she should make a stand!

This is roughly equivalent to expecting someone who has just acquired their dream job to curse their boss for doing something wrong. In front of a packed press room. While the boss is standing beside them on the podium.

Economics do not equal ethics, but I think it is important to consider how much we demand of people who could endanger their livelihood and their futures by speaking out. Great change has been made by brave people who have spoken out on social injustices committed by their employers, but they paid and paid and paid for it. There is real and substantial risk, and it is sometimes hard to gauge the cost-benefits to society of taking it, especially when we are talking about someone who wrote a story about a woman of colour who could well end up unable to do so ever again if she is decided to be a troublemaker not worth publishing.
The short of it is this: if you're afraid of losing a publishing deal for standing up for what is right (i.e. fighting against whitewashed covers, a.k.a. white people on covers for books with "colored" characters), then don't say anything. Those who get angry with you for not doing anything are just jerks.

To which I say, "Bullcrap."

While I understand the fear and the apprehension to act against any form of institutionalized (or even accidental) racism, you can't keep quiet about it while assuming that that no-action is ethically appropriate. Why? Because it makes anyone who doesn't say something, who doesn't stand up for what's right complicit in the wrong being committed, particularly if that person continues to participate in the institution committing the wrong (in this case, publishing).

Complicit, you say? Yes, because presumably that author is going to make money (or already has) by selling a book whose cover is the product of a racist system/accident. Said author is literally profiting off of racism, even if he or she had no control over the artwork for the cover (silence is complicity). If you don't see the ethical problems there (and I don't know if the original author does), then there's a disconnect between your reality and the reality the rest of us live in.

So, please, authors far and wide, do not stand up for what you believe to be right. Please, profit off of a system that under-represents people of color and women (for whatever reason) and participates in a racist scheme (even if it is accidental). Give in to fear and help the institution of racism to continue to permeate our industries.

A big middle finger to all those Civil Rights activists who were assaulted by fire hoses or beaten by police officers (or murdered) for having the audacity to face their fear and stand up for their rights. Big middle finger indeed.

P.S.: To the point about telling your racist boss off for being racist -- explain to me why you would want to work for a racist if you yourself are not of the same mindset? Exactly.

I also think the author isn't giving enough credit to the power of the Internet. If a whole bunch of authors writing about traditionally marginalized figures started getting "offed" by the publishing houses for speaking up against whitewashing, do you honestly think that the Internet wouldn't be on top of that like a diabetic on the last insulin shot on the planet?

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11 comments:

  1. Um, you used a double negative after 'bullcrap.' Jus' sayin' man.

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  2. I did it on purpose.

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  3. I think you have slightly mischaracterized the nature and intent of Karen Healey's blog post. She does not, as far as I can see, label as "jerks" those people who get upset at/with an author for not taking (public and publicized) action against a publisher that "whitewashes" a book cover.

    She does write that such a response is, as you quote her, "not ... practical." She also explains in calm, even-handed detail why.

    At the heart of these issues is power, which ultimately, as Karen Healey explains, lies with the publisher(s). For first-time authors, the power to get the covers they want is essentially out of their hands -- unless they are lucky to be with a publisher (or have an agent) who listens and is sensitive to matters of sociocultural representation(s). Karen Healey also describes possible ways to discuss cover problems with a publisher that need not be adversarial ... yet, as the comments to her post reveal, sometimes publishers simply choose not to listen or feel no need to consult the author.

    Thus, while you see things very much in either/or terms (i.e., if an author doesn't take a stand, then s/he is ethically compromised because s/he will gain economically from a "racist system/accident"), Karen Healey reminds us that things are in fact grey and complicated, with some people's livelihoods at stake -- especially when they lack power.

    I don't see anywhere in her post that she believes authors should keep quiet so they can "profit" from the system that you present as "racist." Judging from the comments to her post, she has actually written about an issue that several first-time authors have encountered -- comments that repeatedly address the power relationship between authors and publishers (with the former generally having none, unless having achieved a certain level of success).

    Finally, it looks to me like Karen Healey is taking advantage of the "power of the Internet" to offer her insight on a situation that authors may face. Luckily, her experience turned out to be positive, but her description of the fear she felt in challenging her publisher on a cover I think speaks powerfully to the "practical" realities of the publishing world.

    She is not writing about not saying something. She is writing about a side of the issue that maybe a few people have not considered: again, that livelihoods could be at stake, for authors quite tangibly do not have the power to bite the hand(s) that feed them and avoid the consequences.

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  4. Mike: I'm not denying any of the problems with publishing. But continuing to go along with it is doing sod all to change it. If there's a problem, you can't sit back and say "well, I have no power, so I'll just go along with it and grumble in my free time." That's immediately playing into the hands of the system that created the problem in the first place (and if you profit from such a system, you are also profiting from the problem precisely because you're not doing anything about it).

    We're talking about racism, not someone putting a dragon on the cover of a book that doesn't have any dragons in it...

    There's really no gray area when it comes to that (racism). You can try to paint in some gray, but when you have a book where the characters are black, and the publisher is printing covers with a white person on it, whether it's intentional racism or accidental, there's a problem there. Sitting around an accepting that "well, I'm a newb, so I have no power" is no different than saying "well, I may not be racist, but I don't feel like getting up and fighting for Civil Rights."

    And while she may not specifically use the language I indicate in my post, it is implied by this:
    "This is roughly equivalent to expecting someone who has just acquired their dream job to curse their boss for doing something wrong. In front of a packed press room. While the boss is standing beside them on the podium."

    Whether she personally condones silence or not (and, yes, she uses nice language, while I do not, because I haven't the patience to be diplomatic about racism), the post is implying just that: that it's okay to be silent if it means keeping your "job" (whatever that may be), even if such silence is contributing to the problem.

    Again, I'm not denying that there are problems with the publishing industry. Not at all. But people are only powerless if they continue to allow themselves to be so. At some point, getting over that side of the matter is going to have to be a priority, otherwise publishers are never going to learn.

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  5. I agree with Mike Johnstone that you're mischaracterizing (and misreading) what Karen Healey wrote; in particular, you're leaving out a fair bit of important context and nuance.

    For example, she goes on to say that she did speak up about her forthcoming book's original cover, and she got it changed, despite being afraid that her publishers would cut her loose for it. She did stand up for what was right, at a fair bit of personal risk. That takes a great deal of courage.

    But she also makes clear that the issues involved are complicated and difficult, especially for new writers. And as she and others have pointed out, the problem of whitewashing is deeply embedded in the American publishing business. If authors as highly regarded as Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler haven't been able to get their characters represented properly on their covers, what would lead a new writer to think that they can have that kind of control? Especially in an industry where traditionally, authors get no say at all in any aspect of their covers?

    I think that you're very much underestimating the power imbalance between publishers and writers. We're not talking about a job here; we're talking about a career. Unless you want writers to go with the self-publishing route that you've derided elsewhere, what you're saying here, in my view, boils down to this: "Writers, you should be willing to sacrifice your writing career if need be, in order to make a statement objecting to a racist problem that's plagued a major industry for decades. Doesn't matter if the content of the books you write could improve things; you must be willing to walk away from your life's work over a cover."

    You may be willing to demand that writers do that, but I don't think it's a realistic demand.

    (Some writers would do it, certainly. But not many.)

    It's certainly true that some new writers underestimate the amount of power they have in various areas. But with regard to the matter of covers, most of them really don't have much power.

    Let me come at this from a different angle:

    Since you believe that there are no shades of gray, tell me this: Would the world have been better off if Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin had given up their careers early on as a matter of principle because their covers had been whitewashed?

    You may be willing to make that claim, but I'm not. I feel that the world is a better place because of Le Guin's and Butler's work, even though some of the covers they got stuck with are incredibly racist.

    And over time, things do improve, partly due to the work of the authors who've continued to fight for these things. For example, Le Guin's latest books do have characters of color on the cover -- but it's only recently, after decades of being a major author, that she's had the clout to make that happen. (And that publishers have been flexible enough to do it.) She could not have gotten to that point in her career without the earlier compromise.

    In short: I think you're misreading Karen Healey's post, and I think you're misunderstanding the power imbalance built into the publishing industry. But then again, I believe in nuance and shades of gray, so you and I may just be arguing from different premises.

    PS: Have you ever reviewed a book that was published by one of the many many publishing houses that has whitewashed a book cover? If so, by your argument, aren't you complicit in giving money and attention to the racists? Shouldn't you be trying to get the world to boycott all publishers that have ever done this (which is probably most American publishers) until they all swear never to do it again?

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  6. Also to this point:
    "If a whole bunch of authors writing about traditionally marginalized figures started getting "offed" by the publishing houses for speaking up against whitewashing, do you honestly think that the Internet wouldn't be on top of that like a diabetic on the last insulin shot on the planet?"

    Well . . . the Internet itself wouldn't care much. Many blog posts, forum comments, and possibly even news outlets would denounce the situation. Others would jump to the defense of the publishers.

    Do I believe that the backlash would be significant enough to seriously impact the pubishers' bottom line? No - I don't.

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  7. Jed: I'd only be mischaracterizing if she wasn't saying it was okay to keep silent. Since she isn't, I'm doing no such thing.

    And yes, I am leaving stuff out, because regardless of whether she is offering an instance where it worked out for her, she's still saying it's okay to be silent (in less obvious words). That's my problem with her post. If people want the rest of it, they can go to her post, but none of that changes what the beginning says.

    I'm also not underestimating at all. I'm not denying that the power relationship between publisher and author is skewed heavily towards the publisher. You would be misreading me if you were to think I was saying that (and you'd have to misread, because I've said as much twice now).

    But you don't change a problem by not doing anything about it. Publishers are run by people, not robots. And right now, they think whitewashing is okay, not necessarily because the individuals are racist (though that may be the case for some), but because it is a practice that has traditionally been acceptable, despite its inherent racism.

    All of this sounds like an excuse: well, they don't listen, so I'll just keep my trap shut so I don't lose a publishing contract. Don't keep your mouth shut. Don't just rant on the Internet. If your characters are being whitewashed, then tell your publisher as much, and if that means you have to sacrifice a writing career with that publisher, so be it. Use the Internet to your advantage and tear the publisher to pieces. Hell, you could probably even sue that publisher for discrimination. All this talk about how hard it is and how the power is in the hands of the publishers reads precisely as an excuse to not do anything (and right now, too many authors aren't doing anything, and there aren't enough people dedicated to catching these kinds of mistakes to be able to bring them all up on the Internet).

    "Would the world have been better off if Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin had given up their careers early on as a matter of principle because their covers had been whitewashed?"

    You're making the assumption that by speaking out, they would have lost their careers. The assumption doesn't stand, particularly if you're going to say I'm mischaracterizing the original poster's post. She gives an example where the opposite occurred, and it seems to me that if you are willing to be diplomatic and honest with your editor and publisher, there is a greater chance that a change might occur. And there are other factors not being brought up here, such as; how many of these whitewashed books contain characters that are obviously of color? How many authors make clear that they are writing about characters of color? Those are questions worth asking too.

    It's not simple. It's not easy. It's certainly got a tinge of danger to it. But if you stand for something, and a publisher is openly willing to be racist, then you shouldn't be working with that particularly publisher at all.

    "Have you ever reviewed a book that was published by one of the many many publishing houses that has whitewashed a book cover? If so, by your argument, aren't you complicit in giving money and attention to the racists? Shouldn't you be trying to get the world to boycott all publishers that have ever done this (which is probably most American publishers) until they all swear never to do it again?"

    Not that I know of, no. If I did, and willingly read even though the cover was whitewashed, then, yes, I would be complicit.

    Boycotts, I'm afraid, don't work. Damaging their reputations does. Catching them with their hands in the cookie jar is a step in that direction, but it's not enough. The vast majority of the public doesn't know this stuff goes on (I only found out about it a few months ago).

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  8. Jonah: Then you're seriously underestimating (and ignoring) the power of the Internet.

    Case in point: It's the Internet that forced Amazon.com to publicly apologize for two separate "wrongs" in 2009. One was for something discriminatory in nature, and the other was an Orwellian farce.

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  9. I gotta say: this is all entirely beside the point. It is NOT the author's responsibility in the least, whatsoever, to the smallest itsiest bitsiest degree. It is the publisher's culpability, and the consumer's responsibility. Period.

    Why would you demand the one person in the equation with the most to lose and the least amount of power to enforce it be the mouthpiece figurehead for the crusade? That's vicious. And unnecessary. The publisher can find another newbie writer. They simply either care, or they don't. If they don't, the author is the LAST person they're going to give a flying fig about.

    You know what they give a flying fig about? Money. If the book tanks and readers are vocal about WHY it tanked - that is an effect. The power of every major corporate decision is in our hands, no question, and you know what? We shirk this responsibility. Daily. Hourly. In every way imaginable. We're vocal, but we sure as shit ain't gonna not buy what we want to buy. We want to be a part of the social climate that embraces the thing, whatever it is. So we'll gripe about it, but still buy it (I mean, we have to have it to talk about it, right?) to the point that the publisher never sees the point in changing their mind. The author? What the eff does the author have to do with it? We need to stop looking for others to lead our battles and shouting "coward" whenever they don't. WE are the cowards. Everyone else is trying to live and do business. Us? We have no reason whatsoever to support anything we don't want to vehemently support. But oh, baby, we do. And we have no one to blame but ourselves. The end.

    Yes, those more literate and educated (which = those you largely speak to and talk about literally things with) will likely see the racial bias and say "Yeah, don't buy anything with a cover like that!" But that's obviously not the majority. Or we wouldn't have covers like that. Publishing is about making money, always has been. That's the only thing that matters and the only leverage anyone has, including the author, or rather inversely the LACK of leverage on the author's part - oh, we can cancel the contract and take back the advance? Yeah, we'll do that.

    And a whitewash cover is racially biased, but that isn't the same thing as "Racist", at least not in the following: it doesn't remove anyone's Civil Rights, except those of the fictional characters. This is not a Civil Rights issue, at all. Or, actually, it is because you want to demand a person take drastic action to appease your politically correct sensibilities. But that's not your right to demand such a thing. Certainly not from your position. You can want it, wish for it, hope for it, whatever, but you may not demand it.

    Sorry to be so harsh (hopefully we can do that by now and agree on the 90% of everything else :P). Whitewashed covers are low, low, bottom-feeding things, I agree with you there. But the rest of this stance I'm pretty damn fervently opposed to, for the reasons listed above.

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  10. Your harshness is acceptable. I will be responding later tonight. Prepare yourself :P.

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  11. Dave: Here's the problem.

    1. Consumers generally don't know or don't give a shit. Just because a handful of us on the Internet are bothered by white-washing doesn't mean that we comprise any sort of sizable force. We don't. Consumers buy these books. To change consumers, well, that would take a monumental feat.

    2. Publishers don't give a shit either. Why? Because:
    a. They make money either way, whether or not people throw a fit on the net or not.
    b. Because, in the long run, they know the consumers don't give a shit either. The logic being "it's just a cover." They may make changes, but since this thing keeps happening, it implies that publishers aren't paying attention to the issue. Internet fits aren't doing the job.

    Authors, however, do have remarkable power, both as manipulators of words and as the object of monetary concern for publishers. Right now, your argument is one that further supporters racist ideology in publishing by also supporting the continued acceptance of the conditions of publishing by authors. There are some things authors shouldn't accept. If authors were more clear on that front, publishers might pay attention. But, they're not. Authors are either being opportunistic (which translates to "complicit in the crime") or don't know what to do (which translates to "someone needs to give them a new modus operandi," which the author of the post I linked to sort of does).

    Consumers should be changed, yes, but your argument assumes that consumers have access to the information that would be relevant to making that change. Since most people don't even know the difference between Socialism and Communism/Fascism/Dictatorships, it's no surprise that the general public isn't doing much at all about this. Our community is too internalized on the subject. We need more allies in other disciplines of discourse.

    "And a whitewash cover is racially biased, but that isn't the same thing as "Racist", at least not in the following: it doesn't remove anyone's Civil Rights, except those of the fictional characters. This is not a Civil Rights issue, at all. Or, actually, it is because you want to demand a person take drastic action to appease your politically correct sensibilities. But that's not your right to demand such a thing. Certainly not from your position. You can want it, wish for it, hope for it, whatever, but you may not demand it."

    Racism is racism, whether it's directly in line with the institution (slavery, for instance), or isolated (like the subject we're talking about). It's all the same. Separating the two is really only reducing a legitimate problem to a footnote. So long as racial biases continue to influence how we exist or communicate, we'll have to combat racism. That's the thick of it.

    And I'm not demanding. I'm simply saying that people who don't do something about it, who grin and say "oh, sure, do what you want, I won't say anything" are people who are complicit in the "crime." It's not different than a white man living next door to the plantation saying "I think having slaves is wrong, but I'm not going to do anything about it so long as Bill keeps buying my oranges." I'm not asking for rage (as might be seen in my post); I'm asking for honest, open engagement with publishers. If they do something wrong, say something, and be diplomatic about it.

    I personally don't buy books I know have been white-washed. I never will so long as they are printed in white-washed form.

    And if I missed anything, let me know...

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