I posted on Monday a reflection about my reading of The Gift of Asher Lev, the sequel to Chaim Potok stunning novel, My Name is Asher Lev. Potok’s book really is a “gift,” but I noted some “curse” elements as well. One problematic feature I left out was the book cover.
I know, I have complained of bad book covers before. One of the worst I noted was the book description to C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet, but there are some hilarious book covers to Perelandra, including a never-nude superhero-pose Ransom confronting some half white/half green alien elemental beings.
Man, those sexy butt cheeks. Convenient clouds too. Totally Lewis. Absolutely.
But the Gift of Asher Lev cover is not much better. Here is the cover of my copy:
Pretty terrible, isn’t it? I set this sequel to the literary fiction classic My Name is Asher Lev on my bedside table and my wife said, “Oh, now you’re reading trashy novels?” Little could she know, between these trashy covers is a highly sophisticated exploration of faith, love, art, and culture.
Do you get that from the cover?
There are some nicely artistic covers of the Asher Lev series in brash colours:
As book covers go, these at least capture the essence of the novel. They’re all better than this:
And yet, this last terrible, terrible book cover has one essential truth. Would you have gotten from this survey of paperback covers that Asher Lev was a ginger?
More than that, in youth, Asher’s distinctive red hair was a feature of the novel, and he grew his forelocks (payos) out beside his ears. Later he tucked his payos behind his ears, and then grew a solid, red beard. In the sequel, Asher’s red beard becomes streaked with grey. But it is a constant feature of the book–a gene that is passed on to his little son, Avrumel. Asher’s father’s beard goes white, but he continues to wear his payos, often tucking them behind his ears.
Let’s take a look at this terrible book cover again, looking for a Jewish artist with a large red beard who always wears a fisherman’s cap, his young ginger son with a sweet disposition, and his father with the white payos:
The anti-ginger element is clear and shocking.
I admit that I have some skin in the game. It isn’t just recent media messages, such as the fact that redheads have genetic superpowers or that there is a ginger pop culture movement afoot, a “gingerenaissance“. It isn’t even that I am from Prince Edward Island, home of Anne of Green Gables, where we are legally required to love redheads. My son is a ginger, and is pretty good at it. As he looks forward to a future as a rock legend, I know that there will be some rough paths ahead.
Now, if I had written a long, detailed, and technical master’s thesis on antisemitism, I might be inclined to also note that the Jewishness on most of these covers is entirely erased or hidden, and the story of Hasidic Judaism is most certainly not at the front of the reader’s mind when going to this shelf–though there is one anti-ginger Hasidic cover, and some vaguely Jewish or European peasant hints in others.
Perhaps an even more important story than anti-ginger bias is the not-so-subtle suppression of Judaism in two of the most Jewish-soaked books I have ever read.
There’s actually a term for this. “Whitewashing” is when publishers present a character of colour as white for marketing purposes. Here is an example that’s pretty classic and well known. This is the copy of the cover of Octavia Butler‘s brilliant and disturbing root novel of the Xenogenesis series, Dawn:
The protagonist is a distinctively black character, though when I was first reading the book it wasn’t something I really noted. When I saw the first edition of the softcover, however, I did a double-take:
Quite beyond the fact that it would be difficult to place this scene in the book at all, this is clearly a case of whitewashing. In this article on Book Smugglers, they take the time to show some examples from different genres (see here). It is a pretty effective visual aid to see a quiet and consistent trend in publishing, including one of my favourite books, Wizard of Earthsea, a brown-skinned magical genius:
There’s a lot to explain about that cover, quite beyond the whitewashing. But it highlights a concern in the industry. More than anti-ginger sentiment–and even more than when they want C.S. Lewis’ green naked gigantic etherial aliens to seem more human so they make their faces white–the publishing industry, like so much of visual culture, seems content to take the colour out of things. I suppose it’s no wonder that so many stories look so pale.