Wednesday, January 24, 2007

On making a point – in the text but not on the cover?

When I write, I often do have a point to make.
But the point about having a point is that it should never become too pointed…

In other words, the story’s the thing, and if a fiction writer starts preaching, everyone loses interest – even those who agree with the point..

One of the points Ursula LeGuin made in her Earthsea trilogy (now the Earthsea quartet), with a quiet subtlety, was that heroes didn’t have to be white. Ged, the protagonist, is brown-skinned. The curious thing is that as a (white) reader, I hardly noticed and didn’t care. But LeGuin feels that it did indeed make a difference to non-white readers – here at last was someone they could identify with.

I believe I read somewhere that one of LeGuin’s beefs about the mini series (haven’t seen it myself) was that it ignored this. Even more odd is the fact that her original publishing house refused for many years to put a brown-skinned protagonist on the covers.

Huh?

As I mentioned in a blog a day or two ago, several of my main characters in several of my books are brown-skinned. Was I making a point? Of course. [But never at the expense of the story, I hope.]

Look at my gorgeous daughters if you want a very personal reason.

My Oz covers haven’t put people on the covers, except as distant figures, which seems to be an inhouse style common in Australia. Certainly, it would never have crossed their minds to do what LeGuin’s Earthsea publishers did 40 years ago.

I have found, btw, that my Oz publishers (HarperCollins Voyager) are happy to discuss covers with me, and to make changes at my suggestion. Bless ‘em. Not all publishers do that. My Russian and US and German publishers presented me with a fait accompli – here’s your cover, you better like it because it’s gone to the printers!


I haven’t seen the German or UK covers yet, but the Russian covers, see here, happily made Blaze brown-skinned.

So did the US covers. Well, sort-of…

The only comment I ever had from a reader about Blaze’s skin colour was from a US reader, something along the lines that they seemed to have made her more Mediterranean in looks than South Sea Island. They understated the colour, or so that reader felt. I wonder if that was deliberate? A sort of colour-androgynization in order to make her more universal – for marketing purposes? I personally think it a nice sign of the times that it has aroused so little comment – maybe we have learned a lot since LeGuin published her first Earthsea book (1968).
However, the real idea I was trying to put across was this: that Blaze’s skin colour was only an issue in the Isles of Glory because of what it (in combination with her green eyes) implied about her. Making another point? Of course.

And how many of us are guilty of this type of extrapolation? Eh? Eh? Come on, admit it! See that guy wearing robes and and a turban walking down a Sydney street looking like a terrorist - can he possibly be an upright Australian citizen who loves his country and know as much about cricket as you do? Or what about that middle-aged white woman driving through Kuala Lumpur - she can't possibly be a Malaysian who cares deeply for her nation, and loves to listen to classical Malay songs on her car radio, can she?

Blaze loses out because of her appearance, yet in the end, she is crucial to making the Isles of Glory a better place. So my story was making this point: outward appearances mean nothing, and we are ridiculous to penalise/judge/dislike/generalize/jump to conclusions on that basis. In the Isles of Glory, they had even incorporated the concept of outward appearance and race into the legal framework and the basis for citizenship.

We would never do anything as silly as that in today’s world, um, would we…..?

3 comments:

hrugaar said...

With TV and movie adaptations, it bugs me if they cast an actor with the wrong hair colour, let alone different skin or racial build la. But that's a niggle about visual consistency with the imagery in the source text, not about racism.

With Le Guin's Ged, I don't recall his colour or race being such an issue - but then it is a long time since I read those books! With the Isles of Glory, it would really bug me if an adaptation didn't have Blaze markedly different in appearance because that is so integral to her situation.

The Isles of Glory covers (US) don't bear any much resemblance to the contents of the books, to my mind. But I guess the artists knew what they were doing ... judging by the way teenage boys crane their necks to get a better look at the cover of The Tainted when I'm reading it on the bus!

Emmaco said...

I think a different skin colour in a movie or book cover (compared to the text) can be racist if it keeps reinforcing the sterotype of white heroes. Martha Wells' excellent Wheel of the infinite had a dark skinned heroine as the main character and a white male supporting character. On the hardback this cover was turned so the main character was on the cover but in the paperback they flipped it to have the white guy on the front. I can't see any reason for the change but believing it would have greater appeal.

I rarely pick up on skin colour in books, except where it is mentioned like in your books, Glenda, as part of what sets the character apart from their society. But I recently read an article that made the point that white readers often don't see race as an issue because we already have lots of characters in fantasy we can identify with!

Sorry for the long comment!

Glenda Larke said...

Hrugaar - I've heard of people actively hiding the US covers when reading the books!

Emma - that cover change is bizarre. Hmm.

And yes, I agree - Westerners who have never been subjected to the humiliation of racist prejudice simply don't notice these things - we don't have to. We have all the confidence in the world because we have not been humiliated of threatened or had our confidence constantly jarred. It can be different on the other side of the table.