Sunday, 29 January 2017

Discussion: Are There Certain Books a Privileged Person Shouldn't Review?

Are There Certain Books a Privileged Person Shouldn't Review?

There's something that has been worrying me for a little while now. Are there certain books that privileged people just shouldn't read?

Back in November, Jay Coles tweeted a thread as he was reading Lies We Tell Ourselves, a book by Robin Talley - a white author - set in 1959 about the integration of black students into a previously all-white school, and the racism they face. Coles discussed how much was wrong with this book - do go and read the thread and then come back. I originally raved about this book in my review, I absolutely loved it, but I missed these problematic elements due to my privilege. This was on my mind as I read The Steep & Thorny Way. a Hamlet retelling in prohibition era Oregon, when the KKK were still active, by Cat Winters, another white author. I've not seen anyone have any issues with that book, but I did look for reviews before writing my own.

More recently, I read and loved Our Chemical Hearts by Krystal Sutherland, which features Grace as the love interest, who is disabled due to an accident, and walks with a cane. Then just last week, I saw a review of Our Chemical Hearts on Disability in Kidlit, which discuss some issues around Grace's disability, which I, again, missed.

Of course it goes without saying that we should have more people involved in the publishing process who would spot these things - more people of colour, more disabled people, more LGBTQ people - and the same for those who judge books when it comes to awards (Lies We Tell Ourselves has won, was longlisted, and shortlisted for numerous awards), so that problematic books are found to be problematic before they're published/win awards. This absolutely has to happen. But, obviously, we're not in a great place when it comes to diversity in publishing, so some books slip through.

This isn't about whether white authors should write about racism, or if able-bodied authors should write about disability - that's a discussion for another time. This is about me, as a book blogger - as a privileged white, cis-het, able-bodied book blogger - and reviewing certain books. As a book blogger, reviewing a book leads to promotion - even when reviewing negatively, I've had people tell me my review has still made them want to check out the book. If there is the possibility that I may miss out on problematic elements because of my privilege, should I be reviewing it, and, therefore, promoting it? I did think Lies We Tell Ourselves was amazing, because of my privilege, I didn't notice the problems with it. Because of my privilege, I didn't realise that there were issues surrounding Grace in Our Chemical Hearts.

I'm very much aware of my privilege, and I'm very open to learning and being educated. But I also know, because of my privilege, I may miss things, and I don't want to be part of the problem by promoting books that are problematic. What's the solution here?

Like with A Steep & Thorny Way, I could try to find reviews for the books I'm reading before I write my own, but I've been doing that recently, and not finding reviews in reputable places, like Disability in Kidlit. If there's no way of checking, at the point of finishing a book, if the book is problematic or not, should I simply not review the book? Write a review maybe, but don't post it until I'm sure about the representation? Or should I simply stick to #OwnVoices novels, to be certain the rep is going to be the best it can be? Part of me doesn't want to do that though, because I could miss out on really good, well-researched books, where the author has gone to great lengths (like all should) to make sure there is good rep in their books.

What do you think? What's the best way around this? How would you make sure privilege doesn't get in the way of reviewing?

18 comments:

  1. I actually think it'd be very damaging to the book world if bookworms only reviewed books that they personally identified with. I mean, I would hate for my blog to be white-washed because I am white. I think that'd be worse than me not reviewing books with POC casts!

    And I have to admit...not everyone's opinions are the "only right opinion" too! Like just for example, I've read a book about social anxiety (which I have) that I thought was a completely inaccurate and offensive rep. But someone else with social anxiety reviewed the same book and loved it. So we have to be careful right?!? Just because one person (who identifies with the minority) doesn't like a book, doesn't mean someone else who identifies with the same minority will have the same thoughts.

    Of course it's good to listen and put disclaimers if one feels it is necessary! But I believe all books are for everyone to read, review, have opinions over, and enjoy. :)

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    1. Ooh, of course! I didn't mean I should only read books I identify with, I meant those by an #OwnVoices author. Then I would know it's the best rep.

      But that's a great point, that everyone has different experiences, and so what is great rep for one person isn't great rep for another, and vice versa. That has really made me feel a lot better about reviewing books featuring people from minority groups I'm not a part of.

      Oooh, thank you for commenting Cait, you have made me feel better about raving about books and then finding out the rep isn't so great! Thank you!

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    2. I absolutely agree with the idea of disclaimers. I don't think you should refrain for reading anything you feel like reading.

      I understand your concerns with reviewing though, and with books that include things I may not be able to judge correctly, I acknowledge in my post that I'm only sharing my opinion about what I know I can judge. For example, in my review of the Sun is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon, I stated I couldn't give any insights on the Jamaican or Korean-American representation because I come from neither of those backgrounds.

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    3. I think I might go with disclaimers from now on, where I think it's appropriate. Thank you!

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  2. This is an interesting and good point, but I still think we should all get to share our opinions about books. If nothing else, your review, even if it misses the problematic things, could bring the book to the attention of someone else who *will* notice the problematic things and can then point them out in their review, and now there's an even better range of reviews out there and there's more chance for people to understand those problems now that they've been pointed out.

    And anyway, *any* book can be problematic, not just ones about race, disability, etc. So basically you'd just have to stop reviewing all books period just in case you ever missed any issue if you were worried about that. There'd be no reviews for anything!

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    1. That's a really good point, that my review could bring the book to the attention of someone who may find the problematic elements.

      And I guess that's true, about any book being problematic. I feel so much better about this all now!

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  3. This is an interesting thought, and one that I personally haven't experienced. I don't read a ton of books that even approach the levels of diversity you're discussing here, and so there are rarely minority/disabled characters in the spotlight.

    I do, however, think this is something to consider about ANY book. There are themes in everything we read, and sometimes those themes might not be comfortable for all readers, or feel appropriate.

    That said, I think it's important for us reviewers to be open and honest about our thoughts, our likes, our disliked. And maybe that means we caveat that we can't relate to certain aspects from a personal experience or connection or whatever, but I don't think it means we should stop reviewing those books.

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    1. A lot of people are saying similar things, and they're all really great points. So thank you! I feel a lot happier about writing reviews now.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  4. I understand the problem as I'm in the same boat. I do a couple of things, several of which you do already but...

    -Research other reviews. Avoid books that have already been called out as problematic by people I trust.
    -Disclaimer "as a white person"
    -If you found out it's problematic later, update the review to link to who & what they're saying about it.
    -I label all non-inclusive books as Status Quo to track and illustrate the problem

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    1. These are all such great ideas! As you said, I do some already, but there are others I've never thought about. I love the Status Quo idea, and may start doing that, too. So thank you!

      Thanks for stopping by.

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  5. I think one of the fundamental beliefs of the book community that books are for everyone. To tell someone that they should not read a book, should not have thoughts on the book, or should not voice their thoughts on the book, goes against everything I believe about reading. There is also the issue that books are supposed to expand our boundaries. To say we shouldn't read about things precisely because we don't know about those things yet sounds counterproductive.

    I think everyone is allowed to and should review whatever that way. In the end, reviews are often simply personal reactions to the book, and everyone's is different. If you disagree with someone's interpretation or reaction or think they missed something, sure, mention it and engage in a conversation. But that conversation will never happen in the first place if we're censoring who gets to read and review which books.

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    1. You make some really great points here! You know, I never thought of it as censoring, because I was thinking of me making choices about my own reading, rather than a blanket rule, if you like. But of course that's exactly what it is. It never occurred to me that through trying to work out what the right thing is, I was suggesting censoring myself. I'm so glad you stopped by!

      And I get exactly what you're saying in your first paragraph, but I wasn't exactly talking about not reading books about people who aren't like me, but reading books about people who aren't like the authors - like the example of Lies We Tell Ourselves, a book about racism written by a white author. Whether or not authors should write about people unlike themselves is a conversation for another time (I personally think they should, but maybe there are some stories I think it would be unwise to write about, but not that they shouldn't be allowed.), but it was those kinds of books I was referring to. I'm all for reading diversely and seeing all of us represented in books.

      Thank you for stopping by!

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  6. I don't think I can add anything that others haven't, but I'll say it again in case repetition helps. Reviews are opinions, and yours is just as valid as anyone else's no matter what you're reading. A disclaimer might help if you're worried, but honestly, I like reading different points of view on books. It's always helpful to me.

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    1. Yeah, I'm starting to get it now. I just worried that I was potentially being part of a problem, and didn't want to be. But I can read these books, share my opinions on these books, and if they are problematic, have people point that out to me, and edit my reviews with links to where problematic elements are discussed. And it's a way of educating myself, I guess; if I haven't read a problematic book - either before or after hearing it's problematic - I may not fully understand what people are talking about.

      Thank you for stopping by!

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  7. I can relate to your feeling of, "Oh MAN I didn't even THINK of that" and the resulting embarrassment/guilt. Most recently, I'm thinking of Raina Telgemeier's "Ghosts," which I was so excited to get for my middle school classroom. Kids love her work, and it features a Mexican American family, which reflects the majority of my students. But there's been a lot of feedback about cultural appropriation and misrepresentation. BUT my students STILL like the book, and I am a big believer in not telling kids what they "should" read or what they "should" think about what they read. I think I went in and added some comments onto my positive review, because I do want others to be aware of the issues and I want to acknowledge the blind spots in my privilege.

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    1. This is so great to hear, that I'm not the only person to have thought guilty about missing things! But I do love your point about not telling kids what they should think about what they read; because even though I've read all the comments on this post saying I should read and review whatever I like, I still feel bad for the fact that I enjoyed a problematic book. I know it's ok that I enjoyed it when I read it, as I know better now, and my views have changed, but I still feel kind of uncomfortable about it. It doesn't exactly fit with your point, but I'm allowed to have thought what I did. I know differently now, and I guess that's what counts.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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  8. You make some really good points here, but I think it comes down to the fact that we do all have our own personal viewpoints and our own perspective on the world so every book touches each reader differently. I was going to make the same point that Cait made---even when you look at two people in the same underrepresented group (whether it be racial, sexual orientation, disability, etc), those two people won't automatically have the same viewpoints on a book. I remember I went to a diversity panel at RT a couple of years ago, and an Indian author told us that some Indian people complained that her book didn't represent her own culture well. She had to raise her eyebrows at that a bit. She felt like she represented it well based on her own life experiences, so how could anyone tell her that her life experiences were wrong? So she just made the point that no matter WHAT, you will always find people will alternate viewpoints. The best you can do is keep learning and growing and do your best to accurately portray diversity. I think that applies with our reviews too. We will each see the books we read through a slightly different lens, but we can learn from each other that way!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

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    1. Aaah, I get it now :) And I love your point on learning from each other. I guess I'll keep writing my reviews, and give disclaimers where necessary, or link to alternate reviews when I discover a book is problematic.

      But how interesting that the authors was told she wasn't representing her own culture accurately. That just seems completely bizarre. But it has made the point sink in a little more for me. Just because someone has found a book I have reviewed problematic, doesn't mean other people from that marginalised group will do, and if that's the case, then I can just review as I would any other book.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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