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?
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