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.

Daily Reads: 19 January 2015

Hey everyone! Apologies for my recent blog silence, but I have finally moved back to South Africa from Ethiopia (YAY!) and I’ve been extra disorganised as a result. But I’m slowly getting back into my routine, and I’ve got some cool stuff planned for Violin in A Void. This includes lovely professional photography by my sister Ruth (contact details at the end of this post).


I’m currently reading The Just City by Jo Walton, and Sister Sister by Rachel Zadok, whose gorgeous cover Ruth captured in the picture above. You can get a better look at the artwork on the publisher’s page here, and several people have been telling me that Zadok’s novel is just as wonderful.

But before I go and curl up with that again, here are some daily reads for you.

In “A Matter of Gaze” Foz Meadows offers some practical ways of thinking about the male gaze, and formulates a companion test for the Bechdal as a way of assessing the way women are portrayed in film. A very useful article especially if, like me, you feel strongly about these issues but sometimes struggle to think about or discuss it in a clear, analytical way.

Following his article on why you should write in your books with a pen, Tim Parks wrote an article on how to read critically. I’ve already found it quite helpful in turning my attention to little details that I might not otherwise have noticed, and appreciating writing that seemed lacklustre at first glance. A fantastic tool for writing reviews!

Speaking of which, I recently read some articles on negative reviews, which, as regular readers may have noticed, I have no qualms about writing. Some people don’t like them or don’t like posting them, but these articles argue in their defence.

The G from the blog Nerds of a Feather invited other reviewers to give their opinions about the positive value of negative reviews. If you want to see me get a little ranty about this, check out my comment below the article.

Litreactor also has a post about why readers don’t owe it to writers to finish books they don’t like and how it’s ok to review a book you didn’t finish (provided you review it honestly as a dnf – did not finish). Although I usually slog through books I don’t like, and sometimes get a bit annoyed with dnf reviews of books I loved, I have to agree here. A dnf review can’t offer a valid assessment of a book as a whole, but readers still get a worthwhile opinion from a review that says a book was so bad/slow/boring etc. that the reviewer couldn’t bear to finish it.

What do you think? Is it ok to write dnf reviews? Do you find that opinion helpful? Do you read/write negative reviews, or do you think it’s better to either be more diplomatic or simply keep snarky opinions to yourself?

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.

How personal should book reviews be?

Image by debsch

In a recent comment, a reader stated that s/he would have preferred the review to be more objective, as it was too biased by personal taste. In reply, I stated that yes, my reviews are very subjective, but that’s the way I want them to be. I still feel that way, but the comment got me thinking – how personal should book reviews be? What do you consider subjective and objective?  Who are you writing them for, and how does that influence your opinion in the objectivity/subjectivity debate? A reviewer for a literary magazine, I imagine, should be as objective as possible. At the other end of the spectrum, a blogger writing simply for enjoyment and mostly sharing the blog with friends can make it as personal as they please.

To me, Violin in a Void falls somewhere between these extremes. It’s entirely my own initiative, no one expects or pays me to do this, and thus I have the independence to do and say as I feel.

On the other hand, this blog is not simply a means of sharing my thoughts with people who know me and are familiar with my preferences. For that I have sites like Goodreads. Here, there are readers who I have never spoken to and who, I presume, are looking for useful reviews, insights and information. I want to be able to give them that, and to increase my following, which would mean maintaining interest largely through the quality of my reviews.

At the same time I can’t and don’t want to ignore the fact that reading, and reading novels in particular, is normally quite a personal thing. We all bring our own experiences and preferences to a book, and when I’m reading I’m very aware of how taste influences my opinion of a text.

As a result, my reviews tend to be fairly subjective. And as I said, I want it to be that way. To suppress my biases is not just to avoid saying something negative and potentially mean about a book, but also to avoid speaking passionately about books that I loved. The former might be frowned upon at times, but the latter is always encouraged. In my opinion, reviewers should be free to do both.

But with that freedom comes responsibility. In being candid and subjective, I feel that I should explain myself, that I should say why I feel the way I do. After all, I am writing book reviews that are available to everyone, to people who know nothing about me and my tastes. My blog is not particularly noteworthy or influential, but I take it seriously, and I take reviewing seriously. Consequently, I need to give readers a means of judging whether or not they would agree with my opinions on a piece of writing. So if I say that a novel is boring, then I explain that it’s because there’s too much romance. That way, romance fans will understand that they might feel differently, while those who dislike the genre know they would be more likely to feel the same way I do.

At times I also try and imagine what other readers might think of a book. A sci fi novel that I loved might bore some of the genre fans because it focuses on characters not technology, so I point that out. Such suggestions can be especially useful when writing a negative review for the kind of book I don’t typically enjoy – it’s a way of saying “this is how I feel, but the people who this is written for would probably disagree”. A more objective review would probably take this point of view as often as possible, with the reviewer putting themselves in the shoes of the intended reader. I’d rather not attempt this. I think it’s essential to judge a book based on what it’s intended to be (don’t expect a literary masterpiece from an escapist crime novel, for example), but I feel it’s disingenuous to try and insert yourself into a different persona for the sake of a review.

That’s more or less been my strategy thus far, but it doesn’t work for everyone, so I’m throwing a few questions out there, because I’m curious to know what others think and it might be good to reassess my reviewing style. How personal do you think book reviews should be? Is it ok to let out your personal tastes show? What do you consider subjective and objective? If you review, who are you writing reviews for, and how does that influence your opinion in the objectivity/subjectivity debate?