Daily Reads: Malinda Lo on perceptions of diversity in book reviews

Glasses Journal

Today I was reading author Malinda Lo’s wonderful series of articles entitled Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews. Her goal was to discern and critique the way reviewers think about diversity in fiction, and how that informs their opinions. Lo focuses on the shorter trade reviews of YA books, but the issues she raises can be applied to all kinds of reviews of books in any genre.

 

Part 1: “Scarcely plausible”
The first post includes the introduction to Lo’s topic and some notes about her methods, but the main issue is the way reviewers sometimes criticise a novel’s diversity as being “contrived”. This seems to be a fundamental problem, so I pulled a few quotes from Lo’s article (emphasis in bold is my own):

The critique of The Doubt Factory‘s “perfectly ethnically and sexually diverse” cast as “scarcely plausible” reveals a deep-seated belief that a group of people are unlikely to be ethnically and sexually diverse. As in Stranger, this diverse cast is read by the reviewer as contrived — as something constructed in a less-than-subtle manner by the author, and thus as unrealistic. In the review of On a Clear Day, the statement that “Effort has clearly been made to diversify this cast” suggests that this diversity would not have existed naturally; it needed effort.

 

What disturbs me more than a review’s denial that diversity is realistic, however, is the belief that purposely creating — contriving with “effort” — a diverse cast is pandering to the diversity movement that has been simmering for decades, and has exploded in YA and children’s literature over the past year.

 

It reveals a belief that simmers beneath all those critiques of diversity as implausible: the belief that nonwhite, LGBT, and disabled characters are simply unnecessary; that adding in these perspectives derails a story; that “reality” is white and homogenous.

 

Part 2: So many (too many?) issues
This post addresses the idea that including too many issues gets in the way of good storytelling. Reviewers often want things to be simpler and easier, but one of the problems with this is that it excludes people who have to deal with multiple minority identities (e.g. black, gay, Muslim).

 

Part 3: A lot to decode
This is a particularly interesting issue, which I’ve struggled with more than the others – if a book is written from the POV of a non-dominant culture, to what extent should it cater to those outside of that culture (typically white or westernised readers)?

Lo finds that many reviewers criticise diverse books for not explaining unfamiliar cultures to readers, and for using unfamiliar slang and non-English words. The underlying assumption here is that most readers are white and westernised, and thus it is of utmost importance to cater to them, rather than anyone else (who might not need or want all those explanations). As she politely suggests, you could just try harder – if you stumble at something unfamiliar, look it up, figure it out from context, or ignore it and keep going. Just like you would do with any other word or concept you don’t know.

And maybe take a moment to consider the validity of your opinion as a reviewer:

Instead of demanding glossaries and criticizing a book for including non-English words and non-Western cultures, reviewers who find these kinds of novels “frustrating” should consider whether they are culturally informed enough to review the book properly. Not all books are meant for white/Western readers. This is not a problem, and I hope that reviewers and review editors will realize this.

 

Part 4: Readers may be surprised
This one addresses cases where the limited or bigoted perspectives of reviewers affects reviews. For example, a reviewer might criticise a minority character for being unrealistic because they do not fit the reviewer’s idea of that identity. Or, a reviewer might express surprise at the existence of a certain community, because the reviewer’s understanding of the world is pretty narrow.

 

Overall, these articles have me thinking about how I’ve handled issues of diversity in my own reviews, and how I should do so in future. On the one hand I do want to highlight diversity and related issues for readers, to spread the word about more diverse books and capture the interest of those who are looking to read more widely. But in doing so, am I also portraying those books as non-standard, with dominant cultures as the norm? Or is it fair to argue that that’s just the way things are anyway, so it helps to single certain books, characters or themes out in the hope that the literary scene as a whole eventually becomes more diverse?

Mind you, I often feel a bit odd when pointing out diversity in novels, as if I’m pointing at someone and going “OMG look! This guy is black and gay! Isn’t that just wonderfully exotic and therefore awesome?” There have been a few occasions when I was treated as kind of exotic or weird (How can you be (South) African, your skin is [the wrong colour]! Oh, you speak English!), which I found ridiculous and annoying if not offensive. Still, I think it’s ok to say that you find someone’s identity new and interesting and you’d like to know more about them. I suppose it’s a matter of approaching them with respect rather than just curiosity?

Then I got to thinking about books with a lot of unfamiliar content – words, cultures, etc. I see no problem with looking things up, but having to do it too often really is going to get tiresome. But if I don’t know enough about the context, should I be writing a review? Well, I think there’s a loophole here – make it clear that your opinion comes from a position of general ignorance, and don’t automatically turn your failure to understand something into a criticism of the book. Trying to read out of your comfort zone is admirable, but it doesn’t lend any kind of authority to your opinion.

Anyway, I’ve blathered on for long enough now. Does anyone else have any thoughts on discussing issues of diversity in reviews? Or is it something you feel safer avoiding?

 

Daily Reads helps me organise my online reading and share my favourite posts with you. If you know of any good SF/F and other literary articles, link to it in the comments.

Photography for this post is courtesy of Ruth Smith. You can view or buy her work here, or contact her at photobunny24@gmail.com.

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6 thoughts on “Daily Reads: Malinda Lo on perceptions of diversity in book reviews

  1. About an inability to deal with unfamiliar terminology: I think there are types of readers/media-consumers that don’t have the energy (or perhaps the interest) to learn new things, and other types who simply haven’t been exposed to enough horizon-expanding material to know how to handle it. I’ve had this discussion before regarding sci-fi TV, because I have some coworkers who aren’t sci-fi fans but got into some of the recent SF procedural shows yet didn’t know how to watch them — how to let the show explain the SF concepts to them, instead of trying to guess what was going on in real-world logic terms. A lot of written SF is about picking up context clues so that you can be immersed in the new world, rather than having everything explained to you; some people just aren’t built for that, or need to expend a lot of effort to adapt. In that context, it feels like a mix of unfamiliarity and perhaps willful ignorance to slate a book because you weren’t able to engage with it in the manner intended.

    As for discussing diversity in reviews, it’s probably a toss-up. On the one hand, you may better engage readers who are looking for those specific stories; on the other, you may turn off those who feel it’s being ‘pushed’ on them, who might otherwise enjoy the book if they picked it up without knowing. One of my friends often opines that if she knows within five minutes that a character is gay, it annoys her, because it feels forced. (This is in regards to community role-playing games, and she herself is gay, so it’s a personal touch-point but still a valid pov.) I think you need to consider your intended purpose and audience. Do you want your reviews to serve as a spotlight on books that display and discuss diversity? Do you want to review a more generalized selection of books and occasionally comment on comparative diversity? Or do you want to stick to the literary bones of what you review and not discuss the specific coating of flesh that the authors have put upon their works?

    It’s a personal choice, and I think each reviewer, like each writer, has their niche and their followers who enjoy that niche.

    • The sci fi issue you raise is one that I also struggled with when I started reading sci fi, and one that I still have to think about when reading hard sci fi or any other kind of book where I feel that my lack of familiarity with the style or content is a problem. There’s nothing wrong with saying you’re not built for reading sff or whatever, or that an unfamiliar culture has you baffled, but I do feel that if you’re going to write a review, you need to admit to your own shortcomings or biases.

      On discussing diversity: YES, these are exactly the kinds of things I worry about too. And I can understand your friend’s aversion to certain books with gay characters. I’m also wary of books that, for example, address the racial politics of my country. When it’s something that you experience as a natural part of your everyday life, its depiction in fiction could easily seem forced in comparison.

      “Or do you want to stick to the literary bones of what you review and not discuss the specific coating of flesh that the authors have put upon their works?”
      Well, in same cases the diversity issues would be an integral part of the “literary bones” of the work, in which case I’d feel free to discuss it in detail without worrying about whether I’m making too much of it. Otherwise I’d go for option B – occasionally discussing diversity.

    • I’m answering this one from very limited experience since I don’t read widely in all genres, but my assumption is that it probably wouldn’t be a big problem in all genres (e.g. gay romance is already about one kind of diversity). Still, I imagine that reviewers’ perceptions of diversity could be an issue in any book with a diverse cast of characters, regardless of genre (e.g. if the protagonist of a gay romance was also black and disabled). But I think it would be more of an issue in genres were many readers are less accustomed to being challenged and tend to get comfortable reading the same sorts of stories. Diversity issues are inherently political, and though all fiction is political in some sense, it’s when political issues are brought to the foreground that some people get uncomfortable. So if your preferred genre is the kind of genre that offers easy escapism and comfort, then you’re more likely to baulk at a book that’s more diverse than the others.

      A recent example that springs to mind is Kameron Hurley’s epic fantasy, The Mirror Empire. Epic fantasy can be pretty conservative, but Hurley’s book has a whole range of sexual identities and social structures. One reviewer criticised this (and the book’s violence) as Hurley trying too hard to give the book “shock value”, as opposed to seeing it as imaginative or innovative.

      Incidentally, that’s also a book where I really struggled to adapt to all the unfamiliar content, and didn’t enjoy it that much as a result. I should go take another look at my review…

  2. With regards to diversity in the perception of book reviewers, I think reviewers have to be given a pass. If the reviewer doesn’t experience diversity in their daily life, it’s hard for them to accept it in a book. If all you see in your daily life are straight, white people who don’t have any physical disabilities, then a story which presents an entourage of diversity will be perceived as a unbelievable coincidence. It has to feel natural to the reader or they’ll object.

    Population percentages in a community also play a role. If X% of a population is a certain ethnicity or sexual orientation, then a reader will have a hard time accepting a character cast that strays too far from it. As population samples are not evenly mixed anywhere, it’s hard for some people to accept it in a book.

    On the flip side of the diversity coin, a story that takes place in San Francisco that doesn’t contain LGBT characters will be perceived as unbelievable. The same could be said for a story in the southeastern US that doesn’t have any black characters or southwestern US that doesn’t have Latinos.

    One TV show that I feel has done a decent job with diversity is “The Walking Dead”. For those unfamiliar with the show (or the comic it’s based on), it’s a zombie apocalypse story that takes place in Georgia (a state in the US south). Over the show’s seasons, the cast has been almost evenly split between whites and non-whites. Gender equality is standard. I can’t say there are any gender or racial stereotypes either. While the leader is a white guy (Rick) who was a sheriff before society fell apart, one of the strongest characters is a black woman named Michonne. And at one point when almost everyone was held prisoner by a bunch of cannibals, a solitary middle-aged white woman (Carol) created a diversion that enabled her friends to escape. But at no point in the show has the diversity of the cast ever felt forced.

    • Hmm, I don’t think I’d be willing to go quite that easy on reviewers. Granted, you can’t change the circumstances of your birth and no one could be expected to travel to more diverse locations for the sake of writing book reviews. But if a book is set in a location you’ve never been to or in a community you’re not familiar with, don’t just automatically assume that its diversity is contrived. Even if it feels distinctly odd to you, at least acknowledge the fact that there are people out there who live lives completely different from your own, and that the many other places in the world don’t all look like your own. So I’m totally fine with a reviewer who says the diversity in the book felt very strange to her because the people she interacts with are all very similar, but I’d be wary of a reviewer who was quick to say a book was contrived because she’s never seen such a diverse group of people hanging out together.

      On the flip side – admittedly, I probably wouldn’t notice any lack of diversity in the locations you mentioned, simply because I don’t know much about the populations of specific areas in the US, and books without any kind of diversity are very common. I do assume that certain well-known locations are very diverse or not diverse at all, but that isn’t necessarily the whole picture. For example, the TV show Girls has been criticised for having an all-white cast despite being set in New York. However, I’ve heard New Yorkers say that communities in that city don’t mix very much, so it’s not unusual for a group of friends to be composed of only one racial type. The writer’s decision to stick to that kind of segregation is another issue, but it’s not an implausible scenario.

      But you make a good point, and I guess it’s a matter of knowing the place. If I read a book in South Africa without any black characters, it would have to work very hard to justify it.

      Hmm, sometimes I wonder if I should give The Walking Dead another chance. I didn’t like season one much. I read and enjoyed the first comic though, so maybe I should try that instead.

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