Barnes and Noble canceled its plan to put black characters on classic novels written by white authors featuring white characters

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Opportunistic Marketing x $0 Cost due to Public Domain x The fallacy that images are representation = Debacle. Utter, Utter debacle.

They could have done this right – put out 100 great African-American books/books by African-Americans in the public domain (cheap) or not (Costs $) – but this is like watching a multi-billion corporation sleepwalk its way through being ‘woke.’


This really was a tone deaf attempt at inclusion…

They should be featuring black writers.


I hope Barnes & Noble takes this total public failure as an opportunity to hire a bunch of people who aren’t white and REALLY listen to them.


From Emma:

“Excuse me, ma’am, but this is by no means my intention; I make no inquiry myself, and should be sorry to have any made by my friends. When I am quite determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—Offices for the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect.”
“Oh! my dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.”
“I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,” replied Jane; “governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies. But I only mean to say that there are advertising offices, and that by applying to them I should have no doubt of very soon meeting with something that would do.”

This comparison seems beneath contempt.

(Much of the content in the 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park was the director’s interpretation.)


I don’t think there would be a problem if publishers just, as a matter of course, let book covers feature non-white interpretations of characters who are (in most cases) only assumed to be white. In other words, to the extent that people are buying books by white authors, it is not a good thing to require that such books feature only white faces.

That’s an orthogonal matter to the diversity of actual voices publishers represent, and it would be embarrassing if they thought the one had somehow addressed the other. I’m not sure whether that is the case here but it sounds like it.

There are interviews where Ursula LeGuin talked about this very thing – she, as a white lady, specified that most of the characters in the Earthsea books weren’t white, but publishers almost universally required white faces on the covers. If they had been true to the text, that wouldn’t have done anything for authors of color, but at least you wouldn’t have had the superfluous middle finger to her readers of color.


Oh, for fuck’s sake.


Yes, I really don’t know how they didn’t understand that. It’s not like there is a lack of fantastic black writers out there to highlight… everyone from the various abolitionist writers up to modern writers like NK Jeminsen…

Wow… look at us. We’re smart enough to run a major bookstore chain because we can think of the easiest, yet most unoffensive thing to do for black history month…


Or they can publish more writers of colors and books that have more characters of color… That really is the solution here. Make the industry more diverse both on the corporate side and on the creative side.


Well, maybe the marketing department…

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They understood. Just follow the money - and which authors would get more of it if the plan had succeeded. :thinking:


Where B&N crashes and burns, Tor takes a different approach:


That would be none authors. The works were in the public domain, so B&N would scoop all the cash for their “inclusive” reissues.


Exactly the point (and why it’s an especially ugly plan).


Apparently this was the inspiration for this project - I think specifically JK Rowling responding to the Hermione casting in the stage play with an actress of color, saying “Hey, I never specified she was white. This is just as much canon as the movies.” Of course the problem is, they picked a bunch of stories that had pretty explicitly white characters. Well, that and some racist covers - e.g. the Native American girls with… face paint. For fuck’s sake…

Reading complaints by authors, even authors of color with explicitly non-white characters see them white-washed for book covers all too often. (Sometimes the authors manage to stop it with vehement responses, and sometimes the publisher’s idea of “fixing it” just means the characters get obscured or removed from the covers entirely.) There are some issues in publishing that a project like this could have addressed, but B&N weren’t the ones placed to do it - and they managed to fuck it up royally. Given that they were well placed as book sellers to do something else entirely to promote authors of color and books with characters of color, it’s baffling that they did this instead.


It’s impossible for a corporation to be “woke” for the same reason a corporation can’t “love” or “feel compassion”.

Don’t credit corporate policy for being progressive. The corporation is just a machine made out of law to turn human labor into dividends for investors.


First, of course they should be emphasizing known black authors. There are thousands of authors who are black and who should be promoted and celebrated more often, before during and after Black History Month. But alongside that, there are plenty of opportunities to bring some historical reality into our interpretation of some classic works - our modern assumptions about the past often exclude people of color who were, in fact, there. This B & N effort was ham-fisted and not thought through - but so are some of the assertions of their critics.

Some of the critics assume that all the characters in a particular book are white, with no textual support - but that’s because of our prejudices, not because all the characters are necessarily white. There have been free black sailors on some European and American ships, for example, for centuries. They get ignored, like the black cowboys of the American west are ignored, or the black soldiers of the civil war, but they were there. Why not show some of the sailors in books like Treasure Island or Moby Dick as black, when the book itself is silent on their racial background? Free black men were there in real life on ships of the time. And the authors knew it - so we can assume that the racial category of a lot of characters was not important to the author or the story.

And in Europe - not all black people were slaves; yes, there were enslaved blacks, but there were also free black people in a number of European countries, as well as enslaved whites in Europe right through the Renaissance and beyond. It was a more racially complex world than most modern people assume - when you get your history from movies or TV (or US or UK school texts) you’re getting a very inaccurate and very whitewashed history.

In Romeo and Juliet, at one point her skin and eyes are contrasted by Mercutio, so we know she had a white face with black eyes in the text. But Romeo was not necessarily white - it’s a stretch, but textually the Montagues could have been black or mixed race in the Italy of the time. And certainly some of the other characters (the priest, the nurse, etc) could have been black or brown with no historical qualms at all, and without changing the text - having a few people of color in the play would be just as historically accurate as having an all white cast.

So yes, we should celebrate black authors - all year. And also yes, we should not continue to whitewash the past. Portrayals of people who could have been people of color should sometimes be cast or illustrated as people of color, whatever the race of the author is. They were there - erasing them is not legitimate, and including them breaks down our current racist stereotypes and brings some needed reality to our historical understanding.


I … wasn’t, hence the use of ironic, self-cancelling quotes?

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Written by a black man of Haitian descent