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?