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Barnes & Noble halts "diverse" covers for classics after backlash

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Following a backlash, Barnes & Noble said it's suspending a diversity effort to reissue 12 classic books with new covers depicting main characters as black. Critics called the new editions a form of "literary blackface" given that the books — such as "Moby Dick" and "Peter Pan" — aren't about people of color and most of the authors are white. 

Barnes & Noble said in a statement on Wednesday that it was suspending the promotion, called "Diverse Editions," which the bookseller said was "created in part to raise awareness and discussion during Black History Month." Aside from Alexandre Dumas, the author of "The Count of Monte Cristo," the authors of the reissued books are white. 

Barnes & Noble's misstep is the latest to roil the literary world's efforts to promote diversity, and comes on the heels of the "American Dirt" controversy. In the latter case, "American Dirt" — a book about a Mexican migrant that was picked by Oprah Winfrey for her book club — was criticized over what some saw as the book's stereotypes and "trauma porn." Some also questioned why Latino writers' novels weren't given the same hype.

As the book industry tries to become more diverse, it's finding the line between inclusivity and profits isn't easy to manage. In the case of Diverse Editions, Barnes & Noble relied on classics that are in the public domain, which means it didn't need to pay the authors for their works. But books in the public domain also stem from about century ago or earlier, when most published authors were white and wrote about white characters.

"Black people are not centered in these books. They are not of any consequence in these books. And if black characters are even present, their place in the story is relegated to the farthest of margins," wrote writer Rod Faulkner on Medium about Barnes & Noble's Diverse Books. 

Barnes & Noble didn't immediately return a request for comment. 

The bookseller relied on artificial intelligence to comb through 100 books to find those that didn't explicitly define their characters as white, according to the New York Times. From that analysis, 12 books were chosen to reissue with new covers. But it created for some awkward juxtapositions, such as the colonialism of "The Secret Garden." In that novel, the main character views her Indian servants in racist and negative stereotypes. 

The realm of romance novels has also faced its own diversity firestorm. Romance Writers of America, an organization of romance authors, editors and publishers, recently canceled its annual awards and accepted the resignation of its top officials after a backlash. In that case, a romance writer was suspended from the group for describing another author's work as racist for her portrayals of Chinese characters. Many romance authors took offense at the author's suspension for her critique of the depiction of people of color. 

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