Saturday, 2 June 2012

The Colour Games

What's this with Keeping certain characters 'in closets' - until they're more acceptable? And racist book covers?

Whitewashed! It seems the lead in Justine Larbalestier's Liar is a
person of colour, but it seems not everybody thinks that's okay....

I remember all that online bawling over the coloured character in The Hunger Games - and the urge to take a rolled-up newspaper to some crybaby heads. Infantile, for sure, but is it because of the readers' inherent biases or the market's?

A young adult writer dug around and came up with some stats, which show that, in 2011, "...90% of [YA novel] covers featured a white character, 10% featured a character of ambiguous ethnicity, 1.4% featured a Latino/Latina character, 1.4% an Asian character, and 1.2% a black character."

Also, female characters appear over-represented in YA books, at 79%. A fair number of these models are either in fancy dress, have part of or all of their heads missing, or - maybe - both. Characters with disabilities? "Zero."

Do note that in some charts the total exceeds 100% "because many covers feature multiple characters," goes the fine print.

So it does look as though writers, book designers and publishers are going for the more recognisable Twilight-ish mould, and change doesn't appear to be coming to the genre quickly enough. And the reactions to Rue's appearance in The Hunger Games film doesn't inspire hope that ethnic diversity in literature will catch on faster.

Cover of Ursula K Le Guin's Powers: the whitewashed Spanish
edition (at left) next to the final (English) edition

But even in heterogeneous societies, writers tend to plumb shallower depths for material: times, places and cultures from home. This is more so for many first-time authors writing stuff about themselves and their cultures and upbringing. This approach saves time, less for research and more for writing, talking book covers and spamming Facebook with work-in-progress updates.

Also: In places where race and religion are hot-button topics, a writer can get flak for 'misrepresenting' another ethnic or religious group even if the necessary homework was done and verified, because the writer is not an 'authority'. Who wants that kind of stress?

So the writer falls back on the old and familiar, forsaking the chance to explore topics and spheres of thought outside his box, either out of expediency (or laziness) or genuine concerns over his career, reputation or even his life.

One can argue that readers today are more sophisticated, mature enough to accept literature that mirrors real life, one that's becoming more ethnically diverse. That depends on the writer and whether he's writing for a certain audience. Whatever ambitions a writer has for his work, publishers care most for the bottom line (and not having to deal with the censors). The resulting compromise may not be to everyone's liking - that's something audiences will have to swallow.

Besides: When I need a dose of reality, the last thing I'd turn to is a YA novel. And the current reality of YA novels is dispiriting enough.


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