Stereotype versus Archetype

Earlier this month, at Grub Street’s Muse and the Marketplace conference, I was part of a panel discussion on “ethnic” writing with four very talented writers, Adam Stumacher, Qais Akbar Omar, Jennifer DeLeon, and Celeste Ng.  As you might imagine, I was—for better and worse—the designated voice of the “marketplace,” and I tried to address the commercial considerations of publishing books that John Cheever didn’t write.

At one point, the issue of cover design came up, and Ng, whose novel EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU comes out from Penguin Press this June, said she felt fortunate that her publisher created a cover refreshingly devoid of elements (bamboo leaves, jade figures, gold coins) that seem to be the go-to images for books by Asian writers. I noted that there is an analogous complaint about books that engage Islam, an overwhelming number of which feature the image of a veiled woman. A couple of days ago I spotted this blog entry that illustrates, quite effectively, that “all books about Africa have the same cover.” This same entry also cites blogger Marcia Lynx Qualey, who provides a gallery of covers featuring ladies in burqas.  

Book covers perform a function; their job is to be visually arresting, instantly evocative and appealing to a consumer. Most rely on archetypal imagery that stands in for larger ideas, and broadly communicates a book’s themes and settings. A cover design is effective not because  (or not only because) it is original or “accurate,” a cover design is effective if it sells the book.  And yet, inasmuch as I am a voice of the marketplace, over-reliance on the same set of images—images that reflect back and shape our own imperfect notions of a place, a faith or a culture– seems problematic. I think publishers need to be careful to avoid trading in stereotype, rather than archetype.

What do you think? Do you see similar done-to-death themes in other “ethnic” or international literature? 

3 Responses to Stereotype versus Archetype

  1. D. C. DaCosta says:

    Done to death: shirtless Highlanders. Isn’t Scotland cold?

  2. Lynn says:

    As far as the American market goes, every book that takes place in Paris has to have the Eiffel Tower on the cover. Why is that? There’s a lot more here than the beautiful Dame de Fer, the Iron Lady. (And I don’t mean Margaret Thatcher!)

    @D.C. Not only cold, but damp! Still, the countryside is breathtaking.

  3. Aden says:

    For Russians (or any book involving a former Soviet republic) it’s a cover with something red, a man with forlornly chiseled visage beneath a beard, a Soviet-era soldier, a well-dressed man with an expression that hints of cruelty and innate corruption, a woman of striking, low-cut beauty with dismissive eyes, or a haggard, potato-picking babushka. For South Americans, it’s paramilitary revolutionaries, peasants in worn clothes, the Andes, pan flutes, Machu Picchu, salsa dancers, and sultry, tired or steely-eyed women–all with a hint of impending promiscuity.

    It raises the question of whether literary agents and publishers–as one group of gatekeepers and definers of zeitgeist–hold any responsibility for perpetuating stereotypes and cultural expectations? The problem isn’t whether or not sales need to suffer by deviating from good marketing, archetypal symbolism and semiotics are part of our common lexicon, but it’s changing the prevailing attitude that Americans have an inherent lack of intellectual depth and attention, like presenting an American with any sandwich other than a Big Mac means that we won’t eat it.

    The Lawrence Hill and Aminatta Forna covers are just sad. It’s like visiting pharmaceutical websites with the same royalty-free images of doctors.

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