Review of The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

Source: Review of The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri


This is an interesting review of The Clothing of Books, which makes a compelling argument for how we design books and consume visual media. I can’t wait to give it a look. One of the most underappreciated arts is designing good, concise, covers that are reflective of what the writer knows the story to be. This may seem trivial but can have disastrous and embarrassing consequences.

Here is an example….

Back in 2009, the young adult book Liar by Justine Larbalestier  was a center of controversy due to the covers of the book. Larbalestier’s preference was the cover have no face at all, a preference met by the Australian cover, which featured the word Liar written over and over on a white background, creating a unique and visually striking image. The U.S cover however was another issue. The U.S branch simply, as most companies due, believed Americans were not going to buy something so artistic or intriguing. To the world we’re simple and commercial is best. You can guess my feelings on that. But that’s common…what isn’t common is the cover choice. The U.S cover of Liar originally featured a white girl, cast in black and white, her mouth covered, as she looks at the reader.

The problem? The main character, Micah, is described as a black teenager, and her physical appearance the author has described as resembling a WNBA player she’s a fan of with dark skin and short natural hair. Emails began appearing in Larbalestier’s inbox asking whether Micah lied about being black, or if the cover represents a lie. The author has said this:

“I  never wanted a girl’s face on the cover. Micah’s identity is unstable. She spends the book telling different version of herself. I wanted readers to be free to imagine her as they wanted. I have always imagined her looking quite a bit like Alana Beard,2 which is why I was a bit offended by the reviewer, who in an otherwise lovely review, described Micah as ugly. She’s not!3

In the planning stages she objected to a number of potential models to be used on the cover, and in her own words “none […] looked remorely like Micah.” But her words went unheeded. She remained silent, letting those unfamiliar with the text praise the over, while awaiting readers who’d push back, allowing her to comment without hurting her reputation as a writer who was easy to work with. As she watched she even began to realize how important it is to have a girl who looks like Micah, or Alana Beard, on the cover. Between people automatically calling her an ugly girl for having “nappy” short hair or being dark when reading the text, to observing the lack of diversity among models used for book covers…she began to see the underbelly of race, beauty and marketing. She began to see without ever being conscious of it how people assigned “marketability” to certain bodies or simply didn’t care.

But in a book about a pathological liar and in a world where a cover shapes how we read the publisher accidentally hurt the content of the book. The publisher, seeing the backlash and confusion, published a new cover with a light skinned curly coiled model. Better, but still problematic. Covers don’t have to be exact reflections of the character, but the choices publishers make about covers says a lot about them as a company marketing a product and a producer(the author).

I tell you this story because covers matter and they say a lot about the industry. Authors don’t always know whats best, but authors do know what’s honest and what works. The decision to ignore the content of the book, a story about a black young woman, and present an image completely seperate from that does damage to authors. And in this case makes the publisher’s U.S branch seem racist. There’s no way around that. The author gives them so much benefit of the doubt, but I cannot. It’s an embarrassing, event that didn’t have to happen, and could have been avoided if the author was actually listened to.

Hopefully ,The Art of Clothing books will open some eyes and begin to give the industry something to really think about when it comes to how writers can and should impact the cover process. Designing our books shouldn’t just be a formality, but a mindful process.