Write what you know. What what you feel. What what you want. As writers, our creativity frees us in expression and sensation. Yet, we to write what we want, we must remember to write a good story equipped with an awareness of our limitations as writers. Despite our best research, we will miss nuances we’ve never explored or had to explore, especially if we write a character of the opposite sex, gender, race, religion or sexual orientation. No matter our best intentions, we must realize the impact one false move creates.
While this aspect’s drilled into our minds before we jot our first word, the publishing world exempts reviewers and critics. Who gets to review stories from another perspective, and often, why do they get to miss subtle and overt clues while defining the story’s existence without challenge?
Should book reviewers critique what they know, feel, or want, and at what cost? Bix Gabriel’s article, We Need Diverse Books But We Also Need Diverse Reviewers pushed me to examine the need for not only diverse stories and authors, but also diverse reviewers.
I use Goodreads daily and come across a myriad of readers, reviewing stories. While some reviews represent gushy fangirl moments, a phenomenon occurs when reviewers clearly miss the mark of which they read and one starring titles they misunderstood or chose to misunderstand. Take, for instance, Zinzi Clemmons’ debut novel, What We Saw. Many reviewers shared their like for the book, but a smaller number shared one-star reviews discussing their inability to “get into the book”. Dog whistle for black/brown/yellow female protagonist, negating the white default and, “Sorry, I can’t relate” excuse often cited for not grasping a clear as day coming of age story. With a typical roll of the eyes, I found myself steering towards one reviewer’s (Name omitted for their lack of self-awareness) post about not liking the story because “race stories are becoming “trendy” and I don’t want to read about them.”
- Did she or she not read the story’s blurb, if they read the book at all?
- What was she or he expecting Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm?
- Stories about race are not trendy because people of color and their stories exist and deserve to exist.
- One look at her reading list and I laughed. #SorryNotSorry
Flip the story’s character and she might have loved the story, given her mindset.
Color me cool, calm, and collected. Color me expectant, which works as a sad state of affairs when one expects ignorance, rather than intellect, from one’s fellow citizens. Thankfully, other reviewers spoke to her of her shameful lack of awareness and foolishness, but she gifted one-star, not because the book’s bad (Nope. I four-starred it), but because the protagonist happened to be black (biracial, really). How audacious!
But, common and sad.
Therein lies the problem. If your reality shapes your mindset, how can you review books regarding diverse characters without putting in the work? How can you spot societal isms and their complexities, if you’re not schooled in how they present themselves in overt and covert fashion?
In other words, if your worldview’s tiny and centered in a bubble, can you trust yourself to review a book where you’re ill-equipped to handle intricate subjects?
WAIT! I’m not implying that white, male, straight, and cis reviewers cannot review books written by diverse authors. Do not write or email me about boxing people into clueless entities. Of course, they – you – can, and as magazines, websites, and newspapers demonstrate, many do. Many review stories about sexuality, race, gender, womanhood, and the like. Imagine those reviews written by white, Cis, straight males. Many more than often miss the mark completely and threaten the survival of said books, pushing them farther from booksellers’ list and into bookstores’ back shelves.
Yet, often we find slivers of that aforementioned Goodreads “reviewer”, making or breaking a book because she or he decided the book’s not worth a read because she or he deemed the book “trendy” or convoluted. What I’m saying is that diverse reviewers need to be included to make sure the books are properly explored because, unless trained to reach outside comfort levels, some of the former miss nuances desiring discussion and exploration. Hence, reviewers and critics of color (including women of color) published less than their white male counterparts.
Am I indicting book reviewers? Yes. Do I want them to push themselves? Yes. Step out of your bubble, get some fresh air, and see the beauty of diverse stories, no matter the group.
Consider Toni Morrison’s words about the anti-P.C. backlash, not far from this argument, “What I think the political correctness debate is really about is the power to be able to define. The definers want the power to name. And the defined are now taking that power away from them.”
If you define a book as unreadable, can you get upset when others point out your inaccuracies?
As Gabriel writes about “imagining a cultural exchange on Giovanni’s Room between Roxane Gay, Alexander Chee, Saeed Jones, Rebecca Solnit, and a new, brilliant writer or critic we’ve yet to discover. Imagine a discussion between this same set on The Argonauts, or Swing Time, or literally anything else. Imagine a back and forth on The Underground Railroad or The Round House by Kiese Laymon, Claudia Rankine, Chang-Rae Lee, Porochista Khakpour, Teju Cole, Junot Diaz, Garth Greenwell, Noviolet Bulawayo… the list is long, and these are just some of the best-known names. Imagine deliberately centering this type of critical exchange in the public sphere among thinkers who bring their identities and their acumen to the conversation. And imagine this taking place, consistently, for the next five, ten, fifteen, twenty, years, so that for a whole generation of people, this is the norm.”
Imagine indeed. Imagination leads to realization as long as the opportunity creates itself. Maybe as we seek stories written by those closer to them. Maybe we need to seek reviews studied in these stories.
Maybe book blogs – not reviews or status quo publications – will lead the way.