Knowing a Book by its Cover

Four Ways to Forgiveness - Finnish - by Ursula K. Le GuinKnowing a Book by its Cover

by Ursula K. Le Guin

This is the front cover of a new translation of one of my books. I want to report as truthfully as I can my first response to it:

I looked, I liked, and (since I couldn’t read the title) I wondered: Which book is it? What language? I must have forgotten that I had something coming out in Africa? or maybe India?

I looked inside, and saw it was Four Ways to Forgiveness, published in Finland.

The publisher is Vaskikirjat. I’d like to credit the translator and the cover artist, but since Finnish is a language of which I don’t know and can’t even guess at a single word, I don’t know who is which: (Käännös) Jyrki Iivonen, (Kansi) Jani Laatikainen, or (Taitto) Erkka Leppänen. In any case, my thanks to all.

Now I wish I knew if you, Reader, were as surprised as I was to find this is the cover of a book printed in Finland. And if you, like me, are a little horrified by your own surprise — but not surprised at it.

Finland is a nation of about 5 million people. As well as I can figure from the statistics, about 99% of this population is white.

The US is a nation of about 316 million people, of whom around 77% are or consider themselves white.

I believe everybody in Four Ways to Forgiveness is some shade of brown except for those described as black, and the slave population of Yeowe, contemptuously called “dusties,” who are a sort of pale greige. In most of my books, a minority of the characters, or none, are specified as white, while major characters or whole populations are described as dark-skinned.

With very rare exceptions, the cover art of my books in both America and England has utterly ignored specific descriptions in the text and portrayed the characters as white. Often strikingly white — pallid North European types — Finnish, maybe . . .

Many readers believe that writers get to choose the covers of their books. In traditional publishing, it’s a lucky author who even gets a look at the cover before the book comes out. Some of us who have gained a little clout get a clause in the contract that gives us cover approval, but our approval is ”not to be unreasonably withheld.”

Guess who gets to define “unreasonable”?

I’ve fought the blonde bimbos and the hairy-chested, blue-eyed Aryan heroes tooth and nail for forty years. Over and over I have been utterly defeated. Publisher’s cover departments are patronizing and impenetrable. We know what sells, they say. Covers with people of color on them don’t sell.

Cover departments are always absolutely certain that they know what sells. Blind certainty is a hard thing to overcome, particularly when it’s silently supported by a comfortably unquestioning acceptance of racial prejudice.

And so in a way it’s self-fulfilling, for if no one in America ever sees a book with a person of color on the cover, a book with a person of color on it may look quite strange, unfriendly, to something like 77% of possible American readers . . . Oh it’s something about Them, it isn’t about Us, I only want to read about Us.

Dear Finnish publisher and artist, I praise your spirit and thank you for giving my book this joyous and appropriate presentation.

May the publishers presenting my books in my own country look at it and take thought, and take courage from it too. It’s true, what this painting shows: if we bring the good spirit to the dance, we can dance together. There might even be a Forgiveness Day.




Knowing a Book by its Cover — 20 Comments

  1. Nope. Not surprised. I think Ä is a letter that Only exist in Swedish, Finnish and Estonian. ( Not certain about Latvian and Lithuainian.) And I knew that it isn’t Swedish. But it is a nice cover! Btw, have you seen the New Swedish covers for the first Earthsea triology?
    They are beautiful. 🙂

  2. The letter ä is used in Swedish, but not in Latvian or Lithuanian. Other languages include German, North and East Frisian, Luxembourgeois, Slovak, Tatar, and Turkmen.

    According to Google Translate, the title is literally “Four Forgivenesses”. The words “käännös”, “kansi”, and “taitto” mean “translation”, “cover”, and (I think) “layout” respectively. According to Vaskikirjat’s English-language page, Erkka Leppänen is the publisher and sole employee.

  3. I have always loved your writing. This post made me love you even more. Thanks for your stories over the years, and thanks for being you.

  4. A wonderful set of thoughts, expressed with a luminous clarity. Thank you for writing them.

  5. Don’t get me started on those sci-fi cover art cliches! Learning to ignore the cover art was one of the first lessons I learned about buying paperbacks. I still have a copy of Rocannon’s World with the classic fantasy art muscleman. I think there was an even more ridiculous rendering of the climactic scene from The Beginning Place on it’s paperback cover.

    I’m a middle class white guy from Central Oregon. Once I worked a job with a Mexican-American guy who grew up in L.A. I thought we had nothing in common until we stumbled on the fact that you were our favorite author – both of us. Then we both said almost in unison, “It’s like she wrote some of her books just for me!”

  6. I can help with the Finnish names: Jyrki Iivonen is the translator (I think he has translated most of your books into Finnish) and Jani Laatikainen is the cover artist. Erkka Leppänen has done the layout and is also the owner of Vaskikirjat (which translates as “Brass Books”), a very small press specializing in speculative fiction.

    Finland really is about 99% white, and only a few decades ago it would have been 100%. So perhaps traditionally putting dark-skinned people on the cover might act more as a sign to the reader that the book takes place in an exotic location; they are not meant so much as characters to identify with. (Although in this case, the cover actually portrays the main characters – and science fiction is a special case anyway, since the readership is more selective and open-minded.) Of course, with a new generation of darker-skinned Finnish readers and writers growing up, things are eventually changing here too.

  7. A Finnish fan here! When I saw that particular cover, my first thought was “Oh, a Le Guin book. I must read it.” And that was just looking at the picture…

    I find it weird that you’re supposed to be able to relate to characters not of your time or country or gender or sexual preference, but the colour of their skin should be an insurmountable barrier. After all, one’s brain doesn’t have a colour (except grey).

  8. I have to say, the “blonde bimbos” is a bit insulting and unnecessary. It was probably not used here as a reference to blond male characters; usually it’s a put-down insult to women. While of course not nearly as atrocious or cruel as racism, still I think the “stupid blondie bimbo” stereotype causes it’s own share of pain and misery.

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  10. How synchronistic… My wife and I have just read Betrayals from Four Ways to Forgiveness. (The HarperPrism edition cover art features four characters, all of apparently different races. We like to read the same thing and discuss). And we both came to the jarring conclusion that the fire was probably not accidental. your thoughts?

  11. I am one of the persons that are in charge of the Finnish translation of “Four Ways to Forgiveness” (translator). We were very flattered of the comments that Ursula K. Le Guin made of our edition and its cover. We wanted to have a cover that as such would say something of the book and would reflect the content of the book and more generally the ideas of the author. We thought that skin colors in the book were not accidental and therefore wanted to emphasize that in particular. And covers are important, an inseparable part of the whole book.

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  13. A dream of mine is to claw my soul out translating any of your creations into Polish. Save for attending a lecture of yours. Meeting you in person being the proverbial gates of he…. not quite sure how to finish that word. It could be both… But isn’t it the entrance — a metaphorical beginning of the road — that makes one embrace their duality and forge it into a path between both? Aren’t we all our demons and angels? Yearning for our destiny while grieving about our failures?

    Anyway… I thank you for “The Dispossessed” — the distorted mirror image that defined all my understanding of the world and guided me towards Bergson.

  14. UKL wrote: “I’ve fought the blonde bimbos and the hairy-chested, blue-eyed Aryan heroes tooth and nail for forty years. Over and over I have been utterly defeated.”

    Hate to contradict but if you do an image search of “Ursula LeGuin cover art” you’ll see that you have fared pretty well. Perhaps the web results are skewed towards more recent publications but other than a few white Geds, I found most of the art appropriate at least for the books I remember. In general there are few depictions of people on any of the covers, perhaps this was a “compromise” you reached with some publishers.

    And for Blonde who objected to UKL’s use of the term “Blonde bimbos”; LeGuin did not invent that stereotype nor did she make it a staple of sci-fi/fantasy art. She is saying she does not want that stereotype portrayed on her book covers (especially those that are clearly about people of color) so you’re really on the same side.

  15. I’m not even sure how I happened to read The Earthsea Trilogy, probably because after you were named NBA winner I was curious and Earthsea was only book in my small local library. I’m 73 years old and the experience was so similar to when, right about 35 years ago, I read my first Madeleine l’Engle book. As we leave our youth behind, we must try to keep at least some sense of wonder, which you do so elegantly with action, description and conversation.

  16. Greetings! I’ve been dreaming of sending some words of gratitude and admiration to you for all your books and ideas for several years, so now I can finally do it here. Please accept my deepest respect and warmest wishes to you and your family, including the cat. The Earthsea trilogy has been my most favorite and influential reading throughout my childhood and later on. I love it very dearly. And thanks for writing the blog, it’s great to hear from you. I even started translating it into Russian (which is my native, though I am Belarusian) and publishing my translations (with links to your website, of course) to my blog and into a small Russian-speaking livejournal community of your fans – I do hope you don’t mind my brave initiative. Translating whatever of your texts has been my dream for years (though it turned out to be quite a challenge =) )
    Yours truly, Alina.

  17. I have been thinking on this while I re-read the Earthsea cycle for the umpteenth time. With gratitude. But really what I want to say right now is thank you: Tehanu is a book that changes as you age. I first found it and read it before my daughter was born; her middle name is a variant of Tehanu and comes from the idea that we all have hidden strengths that must be nurtured with love and set free when the time is right. This time through I am paying more attention to your meditations on the roles of women and of men. Both times I have been grateful to you for setting your thoughts on paper.

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