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Does Visibility Mean Anything Anymore?

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The other day I was sitting in my local Barnes and Noble when I noticed the mural above the café. It featured a line of famous male authors in a café setting. I scanned for some famous female authors (hey, they like coffee too!), but only saw faceless female companions to the guys.

Now, I’m not the kind of gal who usually writes to companies, because I get busy and forget. But then I thought – “hey! I’ve got a blog now! I’ve got to do stuff like this and report back!” I wrote the following email to fine folks at Barnes and Noble:

Hey there,

Today I was in one of the cafes of Barnes and Noble in ******. I am really glad there’s a bookstore in *******, because I am a book nerd and bookstores are a dying breed.

That said, I noticed something odd when I was there. Above the cafe was a beautiful graphic of famous authors sitting together in a cafe. The image stretched along the whole cafe, and featured the names of the famous authors along the bottom: Hemingway, Orwell, Nabokov, Joyce, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Steinbeck, and Elliot.

Notice something off? They’re all men. And they’re all European. Now, to be fair, I found Woolf around the corner, against the wall (hidden from plain view). Now, I totally get it that it’s impossible to represent all of literary greatness on one silly mural, and I understand that it’s impossible to please everyone — none of these great authors should be left off. BUT,and it’s a huge one, there are three women depicted at this cafe sitting with the male authors. Faceless, unnamed women. Why in the world wouldn’t they be one of the many phenomenal female writers (and writers of color) that make up our literary heritage? How about: Allende, Oates, Rowling, Bronte, Austen, Shelley, Dickinson, Walker, Atwood, Morrison, or Angelou.

If there wasn’t enough room on the image, that’s one thing – but to pointedly include several faceless women, while excluding the many talented female authors out there seems absurd.

You can do better. Inclusion isn’t about excluding deserving and brilliant authors who happen to be white or male, it’s about creating an accurate picture of the diverse population of writers who have been recognized for capturing our world on paper.

I know it will be easy to write this off, and say it’s just a graphic, or no harm was intended – and I believe all of that is true to some extent. But visibility can be power, and continually reinforcing a very small, very white, very male picture of literary history does indeed create a skewed canon. I am writing because I know B&N to be a great company who does represent female authors in other places (tote bags, etc) – why not the wall too?

Thanks for listening,

Dr. Lisa *********

I threw in “Dr” because I was hoping they’d think I was some kind of hot shot. It’s worth a try! Here is the response I received from Barnes and Noble:

Dear Customer,

Thank you for writing to us about the author mural in our cafés.  We are happy to provide you with some background about these murals.

Our goal for this mural was to portray a specific time and place in literary history: a Paris café filled with 19th and early 20th century authors who probably frequented a similar café during that time period. Unfortunately, the mural initially excluded many great women and minority writers.  We responded to our customers feedback by asking the artist to redesign the mural to include more women, African-Americans, and other writers from abroad.

The complete mural currently depicts 30 literary figures, including  seven women (Mary Shelley, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Dorothy Parker, and Zora Neale Hurston), two African-Americans (Langston Hughes and Ms. Hurston), two writers of Jewish descent (Franz Kafka and Isaac Bashevis Singer), Pablo Neruda from Chile and Rabindranath Tagore from India.

These murals are cut from a roll of wallpaper, and depending on the size of the café, the entire scene cannot always be displayed.

We hope this resolves any concerns you may have and look forward to your next visit.


Customer Service Representative
Barnes & Noble

I thought her response was pretty great. I mean, they fixed it! They included so many great writers! But then some remaining doubts crept in. Whether or not they have bigger wall space at other locations to include all these other writers, they didn’t where I live. And there’s still the issue of the faceless women taking up real estate. I find it hard to believe that our mural was coincidentally cut from the part of the paper that only featured white males, so it seems that they fixed the issue, but not at my Barnes and Noble. That’s sad, and I wonder how they decided which locations got the new-and-improved diverse mural. Was it only locations they felt to be diverse? Or just locations being remodeled? Hard to say, but it still triggers me to think quite a bit about the ways invisible ideals and codes are made visible in sneaky ways. I just hope when my daughter is old enough I remember to point this out to her when I can – I’d hate for these things to be invisible to her, too.


2 responses »

  1. I think your idea to write to corporate was both brave and necessary, and I’m glad you got a personal (as well as satisfactory) response rather than a pre-written spitout for all complaints. Yet the point you raise—the idea of where women fall on the diversified wallpaper, and where those wallpapers have been hung—is an interesting thought indeed. Your line about them possibly being hung only in areas that are “diverse enough” really got to me. While some areas of the country are undeniably “white” (I grew up in one of them), one would think that women are pretty ubiquitous regardless of geography. It seems, perhaps, that the wallpaper has been updated, but the corporate attitude still needs adjustment. I’ll have to pay extra attention next time I’m in my own local B&N Starbucks (I assure you, I’m there enough) to see if we get the “diversified,” or “first edition” mural. And perhaps I’ll have to write corporate as well.

  2. Neal – I want to know what you discover!! I too wonder what they consider diverse enough…I live in a primarily white, very conservative area of the country. It’s scary to consider, but perhaps corporate has an impression of this community that the women here wouldn’t notice or care about something like that? Some might not, but that’s entirely beside the point. Diversity in representation isn’t a privilege, it should be a given.


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