Black Writers to Publishers Weekly: What Were You Thinking?

BlogHer Original Post

Here we are in this brave new world of so-called post-racial sensibilities and yet each day reality pokes us in the eye, mocking us with "You have not yet arrived." Any effort to comment on the beauty of our differences or attempt to address the ever-present wound of our inequalities while trumpeting inclusiveness is a balancing act that lands us on our collective rump. So, it's unsurprising that today, part of the Twitterverse erupted in outrage over Publishers Weekly's latest cover, "Afro Picks! New books and trends in African-American publishing."

Take a look at what rattled and dismayed vocal African-American fiction writers this morning. See the black woman presumably naked with picks growing from her head coupled with the cover's topic, the artistic statement, the pun of picking black books and picking Afros. You get it, right?

Carleen Brice, the author of two published novels, is not laughing. She said, "A photo should illustrate what the story is about.

The story is about how difficult it is for black writers and publishers and books in today's market place. The cover tag line says the story is about trends in publishing today. But the photo has gotta be from the 70s, not today. The photo involves a bunch of fists, when black writers are already perceived as threatening. And the photo is of a naked woman, who looks somewhat tribal, which seems to undercut the point of their article. (Carleen)

Brice, whose novel Orange Mint and Honey is now a movie from Lifetime called Sins of the Mother and is scheduled to premiere on LMN February 7, starring Jill Scott, has an entire blog about the challenge black writers face selling books. The blog's called White Readers Meet Black Authors. Today she was one of at least 20 writers tweeting disapproval over the PW "Afro Picks" cover.

Best friends and best-selling writing team Virginia Deberry and Donna Grant were also unamused.

As black writers, who are not Nobel/Pulitzer, NBA winners, but still honor and respect our craft and our readers, we struggle every day, with every book to get recognition in the wider marketplace. We write books about life. While our characters happen to be black, most of their stories are universal and images like the PW cover only serve to marginalize, categorize our work even more. I hate being a writer shelved in the Af-Am Interest area--like our books can only be appreciated by other black people. It's insulting to all readers and all writers.(@derryandgrant)

In addition, poet and writer Ruth Ellen Kocher (@ruthellenkocher) tweeted to @Tayari, "I think the PW cover depicts american black writing as cultish, personally. voodoo. foreign." The recipient, Tayari, wrote, "That PW cover shows how "other" they think that black writing is. That cover is ANYTHING but inviting. It is bizzare." And @OneChele echoed the common thought, "The cover of Publishers Weekly (@publishersweekly) is a post-racial #FAIL of stratospheric proportions."

Joining this chorus, Megan Smith, a BlogHer.com entertainment editor who also writes at Megan's Minute, didn't give the cover anything near a thumbs up. She said:

It seriously makes you wonder if someone (rubber) stamped this just so that (it) could get the negative reaction they're getting.

If not you have to ask, do any black people in power work at PW? Did anyone think to consult a black person, especially a black woman before publishing such a cover? ... Maybe they should have just put an Aunt Jemima kerchief on the woman's head. ... Maybe they should have had her in a field picking cotton. ... Maybe PW needs to go the way of Kirkus Reviews." (Megan)

Why the furor? After all, the Publisher's Weekly cover publicized an article inside by Felicia Pride that addresses the very concerns for which African-American writers such as Deberry and Grant, Carleen Brice, and Bernice McFadden have been sounding the alarm for years, that black fiction writers are suffering in the marketplace. Indeed, Pride took time to talk to leaders in the publishing industry, asking good questions such as how will they meet demands for African-American literature in a downsized economy where books are shifting from paper to digital and self-publishing is on the rise?

Unfortunately, this effort on Ms. Pride and the magazine's part to address a valid concern of black writers and readers has been lost to one of the written word's prime competitors, provocative visual affects. Possibly forgetting the old saying that "a picture's worth a thousand words," Publishers Weekly's editors have been sideswiped by the connotations of a striking image of their own choosing.

This writer thinks that the magazine's senior editor, Calvin Reid, may have missed last year's cover controversy compliments of the New Yorker. In July 2008, Lovebabz and a host of other people asked "Is this Funny?," speaking of the infamous Obama cover showing Michelle Obama as an afro-wearing, gun toting black militant and then presidential candidate Barack Obama as a Muslim in full religious garb. Even John McCain's camp said it's not satire.

I got the joke in the New Yorker cover, but like the current Publishers Weekly cover photo it had been tied to a painful theme. The New Yorker cover evoked fears of angry black people, in particular, "the angry black woman" with her angry black man wanting the world, and so, it was just too much on weary shoulders in the same way the PW cover is seen as too much on those same shoulders.

Not only is the PW cover too much for some black female writers, other writers are also deeming it overkill as well as under-skilled when paired with the cover's title. Writer Bradley Robb, commenting at Harper's Studio where its blogger asked "Publisher's Weekly, have you lost your mind?," Robb had the following to say:

... pairing it with that double entendre? At most it's 'one chuckle clever,' and certainly far more likely to illicit groans.

Where things really seem to go wrong is that the reader or viewer has no frame of reference, specifically the one presented in your comment (about photo's origins). There had to have been a better way to present that image. (Bradley Robb)

While the PW cover photo was used as a pun, unlike the New Yorker cover it was not created especially for the issue it adorns. However, by this afternoon, that photo was possibly linked to PW more than it is to the photographer who took it, Lauren Kelley, or the book that includes it, Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present, edited by Deborah Willis, a professor and winner of the MacArthur Genius Award. And once PW became aware of the controversy, within a short period of time, the @PublishersWkly Twitter page looked like this:

Read more of @PublishersWkly's tweets on this screenshot here. The last tweet around close of business today was this:

So just blame Calvin. But do read the article on AF-AM publishing by Felicia Pride. Its a fine article despite the cover image (@PublishersWkly)

Responding in email to this BlogHer CE's questions "What were you thinking?" and "Did you run this cover by any African-American females on your staff to see if it pushed any buttons before you published the cover?," Calvin Reid, Senior News editor of Publishers Weekly wrote the following:

Ms. Adams
I’m the one that’s primarily responsible for the cover. While the story is about black publishing trends and the problems in the marketplace it is also about the many good books available and coming out in the next few months. The image was taken from a book by a black scholar and the cover line was intended to play on the word picks—to highlight a story that picks whats happening in black books. I have to admit that I’m surprised at the reaction. It was not my intention to offend, or to be controversial or poke people with a stick. I saw a lyrical image with humorous overtones. I don’t personally believe the photo is disparaging or pejorative—in my opinion. Now, obviously I have to respect that others (in fact many many others) disagree with me on that. I would rather have people arguing about Felicia article, than the image on the cover.

I saw it as an ironic image of afro picks arranged in the form of an Afro and it evoked images of the 1970s, probably the most thoroughly lampooned and iconic decade of African American popular imagery in recent memory. It evoked memories of my own days in the 1970s walking around with pick in my fro and I thought the coverline was just the kind of amusing and memorable line that we usually use for cover lines. Obviously I was mistaken.

The image was not run by female staffers black or white to vet it because I’m not sure any of our covers are ever vetted in that manner. I’ve edited this feature for many years ((20? Maybe) and the cover image was chosen as it generally is (when the Af-Am feature is the cover story, which it isn’t always) by myself along with the art or creative director and maybe one or two folks who may happen to be around the office or in the art department will offer a comment pro or con. The Af-Am feature was not the cover story last year and I can’t remember what the image was for the Year before. But I’ll look it up. (Calvin Reid, Senior Editor, PW)

O.K., this is where I confess my bias. I know people like Mr. Reid. He's artsy, and I'm sure his Creative Director is as well, the other person who liked this photo for the cover. I've watched these kinds of thinkers up close, and they coast along the "Oh, WOW! That's slick. I like it!" wavelength.

"But, dudes, this is America," you tell them, tugging at their belt loops as they celebrate their cleverness, "We've got free speech and artistic rights but we've also got a lot of other people thinking about what's being said or implied about them and theirs."

I'm pretty sure when these PW men went to bed last night, they had no idea that this morning African-American writers would be looking over the rims of their glasses and away from their meager royalties at them, scrutinizing PW's post-racial sensibilities and their editorial souls.

But Brian Kenney, the publishing group's Editorial Director, also had a response for me and another journalist who wondered what goes on at PW:

The image on the cover is taken from Posing Beauty: African American Images from the 1890s to the Present edited by Deborah Willis (W. W. Norton, October 2009.) Ms. Willis is chair of the photography department at NYU, a MacArthur Fellow, and a scholar of black photography and representation. This book is one of the titles discussed in the feature by Felicia Pride (and which I think is absolutely terrific, by the way.) This particular photograph (Pickin’, 1999) is the work of Lauren Kelley and is used with permission of the photographer.

PW sometimes assign its covers to illustrators, but when our cover story is about a specific area of publishing, we sometimes use existing art from one of the books mentioned in the feature. So our decision to choose an image from Posing Beauty is not unusual.

Did I think it would be controversial? Well, Ms. Kelley created a beautiful, strong, and powerful image that was meant, in part, to be provocative. It would seem to be doing its job. I’m delighted that PW can help draw attention to her work and especially to the wonderful collection that is Posing Beauty. (Brian Kenney, Editorial Director, PW)

So, my fellow writers, does this soothe you?

Nordette Adams is a BlogHer.com CE, the New Orleans Literature Examiner, and the African American Books Examiner. See more at Her411.

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