Perceptions of Diversity in Book Reviews

This essay was originally posted in four parts on Tumblr.

By Malinda Lo

For the past few years, I’ve read hundreds of reviews for Diversity in YA. I read them to determine whether a young adult book has a main character who is of color, LGBTQ, and/or disabled, and thus is appropriate to include on DiYA. Sometimes the book’s cover copy reveals this, but often it does not — or it deliberately obscures it — and then I have to read reviews to figure it out.

The reviews I read range from Goodreads reader responses to blog posts to mainstream reviews (like from the New York Times) to trade reviews. Trade reviews are brief reviews published in trade journals such as Kirkus or Publishers Weekly, and I usually start with these for several reasons. First, they’re short, and because I do DiYA in my spare time, I don’t have the luxury to read lengthy critical essays on every single potentially diverse book that’s being published. Second, these brief reviews pack in a lot of detail including spoilers, which are often key to determining if a book has diverse content. Third, they’re edited by the editors of those trade journals, which means they should have been fact-checked. Sometimes trade reviews do contain errors, but generally speaking I believe they are reliable about the facts of a novel’s plot.

If a trade review only hints about race or LGBT or disability issues, then I turn to blog reviews and Goodreads to confirm my suspicions. But more often than not I find that trade reviews do include details about the book’s diversity, and lately it has become increasingly common for trade reviews to state a character’s background quite plainly. I appreciate this because that’s why I’m reading these reviews, and I think an up-front statement that a character is gay is much better than an insinuation that the story has something to do with sexuality. It removes some of the stigma from historically marginalized identities, and it helps those of us who are seeking out these books to find them.

Of course, not all reviews discuss diversity in a skillful way. Frankly, it’s hard to do it in one paragraph, and I recognize that. I’ve encountered reviews that reveal broader assumptions about race, LGBTQ, and disability issues, and sometimes those assumptions are based in unfortunate stereotypes. Over the past several months I’ve been keeping track of reviews that I felt did a disservice to a book’s diverse content, and revealed latent racist, heteronormative, or ablist beliefs.

These reviews reveal a few specific issues or perceptions about diversity: the idea that diversity in a book is contrived; the critique that a book contains too many issues; the question of believability; the demand for glossaries; and finally, unsupported assumptions relating to race. Before diving in, a few caveats:

  • While these issues emerge in all kinds of reviews, I’m focusing on trade reviews of young adult novels because I read them more than other kinds or reviews, and also because they carry a significance that Goodreads and blog posts do not. Booksellers and librarians often rely on trade reviews to determine whether they should acquire the books for their stores and collections.
  • I quote from several trade reviews as examples, but I’ve chosen not to identify the individual reviewer. While each review is written by an individual, each review is also edited by an editor, and trade reviews are generally attributed to the journals rather than the individual reviewer. Kirkus doesn’t even publish the names of its reviewers, so all Kirkus reviews are essentially anonymous. That doesn’t mean that individual reviewers don’t have responsibilities to inform themselves about their assumptions relating to diversity; it means that the review editor also has a responsibility. Trade reviewing is the professional critique of books, and I think it’s important to examine how the profession sees diversity.
  • As an author writing about reviews, I understand I am entering a particularly fraught area of discourse. That’s why I want to be clear that I am not writing about any reviews of my own books. Honestly, I don’t remember if any trade reviews of my own books have included these issues, and I have refrained from looking them up again for these posts. I have no beef with any individual reviewers, and as I said above, my main purpose is examining how the book profession sees diversity.
  • I’d also like to disclose that I do know some of the authors of the books whose reviews I’ll be discussing, and I’ve even discussed their books with some of them, either in person or on social media. However, none of them know I’m writing this post. My intention isn’t to defend anyone I know; it’s to comment on perceptions of diversity in the reviews.
  • Finally, my goal isn’t to critique any individual reviewer; that’s why I’m not naming them. These are issues that go far beyond individual beliefs or biases, and are representative of much broader perceptions of diversity.

1. “Scarcely Plausible”

One perception that has cropped up in several reviews, generally of science fiction or fantasy novels, is the idea that a diverse cast of characters is contrived. Here are some examples:

“Some humans remain “Norms” while others are “Changed,” and therein lies the only prejudice; no one looks askance at homosexuality and all races are appreciated. Some elements appear contrived and slightly pedantic: there is exactly one gay couple and one lesbian couple…” — School Library Journal review of Stranger by Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith

“While any caper involving such a perfectly ethnically and sexually diverse team of teenagers, all blessed with genius-level skills, is scarcely plausible, it is nevertheless praiseworthy.” — Kirkus review of The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi

“Effort has clearly been made to diversify this cast, including a smart Dominican female lead. The supporting characters are less fleshed out.” — School Library Journal review of On a Clear Day by Walter Dean Myers

To “contrive” means to make something in a skillful or clever way. This is, hopefully, exactly how writers work. However, “contrive” often has a less positive connotation. In the review of Stranger, the critique that the novel is contrived suggests overt and clumsy manipulation; in other words, it reveals the actions of the man behind the curtain. In a novel, the writer’s goal is to cause the reader to lose themselves in the story, so anything that knocks the reader out of the story’s world may appear to be a flaw. When a diverse cast is criticized as “contrived,” though, it’s a bit more complicated.

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.

There are numerous problems with the critique of diversity as implausible. First, this critique reveals a lot more about the reviewer’s assumptions than it does about the book’s quality. It suggests to me that these reviewers live in homogeneous peer groups and have little personal experience with diverse groups of people. The problem with this should be obvious: One individual’s personal experience is not universal. There’s nothing wrong with a reviewer recognizing that to them the book’s diversity felt jarring, but that doesn’t mean the book’s depiction was flawed. That means the book’s depiction of a diverse group of characters is different than the reviewer’s personal experience. In fact, if a book depicts something that a reviewer is unfamiliar with, I would hope the reviewer might take a moment to consider what that means.

The book industry, from editors to publishers to reviewers to booksellers, is overwhemingly populated by straight, white people. Stories about non-white characters face an uphill battle from the beginning because they have to explain themselves to gatekeepers who may not be familiar with the issues involved. In the real world, there certainly are peer groups who are homogenous, but there are also peer groups who are diverse. The existence of a diverse cast of characters is simply not unrealistic — ever. Even in real-world communities that are largely white or segregated into racial enclaves, interracial friendships and relationships exist.

I admit that sometimes I’ve encountered folks on the internet who object, “But in some small towns the people would not be diverse!” To them, I say this: A novel is not reality. The books that are critiqued for implausibly diverse casts have generally been science fiction or fantasy. These are books that depart from reality on purpose. These characters are not randomly diverse; they have been intentionally developed and placed in the narrative for a reason. For example, in The Doubt Factory, this “perfectly ethnically and sexually diverse team” of characters is purposely assembled by a lead character in order to pull off a heist that is an intervention into capitalist inequality. The diversity is a feature, not a flaw. An all-white cast would have been a flaw, as it would have resulted in a white savior story line.

I understand that some reviewers won’t agree with this argument, and I understand that books are personal experiences that differ from one reader to another. 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. For example, take this review:

“Fairy-tale–telling Hale tackles straight-up science fiction in a tale seemingly tailor-made to forestall complaints about lovelorn teen heroines and all-white casts of characters. Maisie Danger Brown (really), smart, home-schooled, one-handed half-Paraguayan daughter of scientists, has always dreamed of being an astronaut.” — Kirkus review of Dangerous by Shannon Hale

This review blithely ignores and ridicules the real-world inequalities behind “complaints about lovelorn teen heroines and all-white casts of characters.” This review is offensive, and if I had been the Kirkus editor, I would not have allowed this line to stay in the final review. 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.

It should be blindingly clear that I disagree with this belief. It’s frustrating to see it crop up again and again, coded beneath reviews that criticize diversity as “scarcely plausible” in one phrase while describing it as “praiseworthy” in the next. Diversity is not “praiseworthy”: It is reality. Reviews that deny this fact of life are well behind the times, and they do a massive disservice to the majority of children in the United States who are not white.

2. “So Many (Too Many?) Issues”

Realistic young adult novels, especially those that portray nonwhite, LGBT, and/or disabled characters, face a unique burden when it comes to being reviewed. They are always forced to confront the specter of the “problem novel.”

This term was first used in the 1960s to describe a new subgenre of realistic fiction for young adults that dealt with problems such as drugs, pregnancy, mental illness, and other social issues including race, homosexuality, and disabilities. These novels were typically structured around solving the problem at hand, had a moralistic overtone, and were often critiqued as formulaic and poorly written. However, teens have long been drawn to these novels, and even I remember reading them as a teen because I enjoyed the gripping and sensationalistic plots.

Today’s realistic YA fiction often skirts the line between problem novel and literary fiction, which is praised for elegant language and complex characterizations, but also often addresses a host of social problems — because that’s what novels do. Examples of the fine line between problem novel and literary fiction are easily found in reviews of books that reviewers believe have transended the genre of problem novels:

“The Latino cultural milieu adds a richness and texture that lifts this up above many problem novels.” — School Library Journal review of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

“It is J’s authentic voice that keeps this challenging story from simply being a problem novel.” — Publishers Weekly review of I Am J by Cris Beam

“While the narrative is chock-full of issues, they never bog down the story, interwoven with the usual teen trials, from underwhelming first dates to an unabashed treatment of sex, religion, and family strife.” — School Library Journal review of Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero

“The big issues of school desegregation in the 1950s, interracial dating, and same-sex couples have the potential to be too much for one novel, but the author handles all with aplomb.” — VOYA review of Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Behind the praise for overcoming the limitations of the problem novel genre seems to be an assumption that social problems create roadblocks to good storytelling, and the more of these problems a book engages with, the more likely it is that the book will fail. For example, while VOYA praised Lies We Tell Ourselves for handling many issues well, not all reviewers agreed:

“It’s a beautifully written and compelling read; however, Lies takes on so many topics—racism, sexism, gender roles, homosexuality, child abuse—that the issues overwhelm an otherwise strong plot.” — School Library Journal review of Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Similarly:

“There are so many (too many?) issues going on here: bullying; wealth versus poverty; class; sexual orientation; changing family dynamics; a ‘cheating’ triangle—all play a part in this story. The main characters are not likeable, however, so there is less chance of readers being invested in their stories.” — VOYA review of No One Needs to Know by Amanda Grace

“Although high school teens may well be hooked into the story’s murder mystery, which is introduced immediately, Sharpe’s first novel seems to have a bit of an identity crisis, taking on too many angles for a single story. Elements of a love story, a love triangle, drug dependency and recovery, as well as additional subplots of a mysterious disappearance and pregnancy, are a great deal to untangle cleanly. Throw in a series of flashbacks from very different times in Sophie’s life, and there are too many threads to weave smoothly.” — VOYA review for Far From You by Tess Sharpe

What I find interesting is that the three books critiqued above are all about lesbian or bisexual girls who face additional challenges — dealing with racism and segregation in Lies We Tell Ourselves; coping with class and infidelity in No One Needs to Know; and disability and drug addiction in Far From You. I can’t help but get the sense that there’s an invisible ceiling on the number and type of issues deemed suitable for inclusion in a realistic YA novel, and typically sexuality is such a huge one that adding additional issues such as race, disability, or class sets up a book for a “too many issues” critique.

This review presents this critique especially bluntly (emphasis added):

“The topic of intersex individuals and those with gender identity issues is receiving much attention lately, in news as well as in young adult literature. Alex’s story is certainly distressing, and teens need more resources on these topics. This novel, however, is overwrought and comes across as a cautionary tale of worst-case scenarios. Limiting the book to a few core issues would have made it more genuine and heartfelt. Sadly, it comes across as an afterschool special. Recommend this title to teens requesting books on gender identity issues only if they have read everything else in the collection.” — VOYA review of Alex as Well by Alyssa Brugman

I don’t have any definitive proof that there’s an invisible ceiling on the number of issues a YA novel can contain, but reviews such as those above do police the boundaries of what is acceptable in a realistic YA novel. I have talked to many authors who feel that this invisible ceiling does exist; it is basically common knowledge among minority authors that including more than one minority identity in a book is a huge risk for your career.

In the real world, plenty of individuals deal with more than one minority identity at the same time, every day. Obviously a novel is not reality — often, reality is too unbelievable for fiction — but YA fiction that seeks to deal with real-world experiences must be able to address the lives of teens who check more than one minority box.

The number of YA books that include characters with more than one minority identity — intersectional identities — is very small. I would guess that the number of book reviewers who have intersectional minority identities of their own is also very small. I don’t think it’s a stretch to hypothesize that the majority of book reviewers are white, and when they encounter a character with an intersectional minority identity, they must make an extra effort to understand them. What I see when reading reviews like those above, however, is majority reviewers deciding not to make that extra effort; instead, they are demanding that the books be simplified for readers who are not minorities.

This demand for simplified narratives with threads that can be “smoothly” tied up in a “genuine and heartfelt” manner is an insult both to people who have intersectional minority identities, and to young adult fiction as a genre. In the real world, identities and lives are complicated. In the YA world, every time anyone critiques YA for being simplistic, there is an upswell of indignation combined with numerous declarations that YA is complicated and every bit as literary as adult fiction. How does one square that with reviews like those above that demand greater simplicity?

I don’t deny that some books are more skillful than others at presenting complicated characters and stories, and that level of craft should certainly be addressed by reviewers. However, I think that reviewers and readers should be cautious to dismiss a book as including “too many issues” when those issues are about minority identities. I hope, when reviewers encounter a book that might fall into the “too many issues” camp, that they will take a moment and consider whether it’s the book that has too many issues, or the reviewer who is unwilling to engage with them.

 3. “A Lot to Decode”

When a YA novel is about a non-white and/or non-Western culture, it must negotiate the line between accessibility for white/Western readers and over-simplification for readers who are familiar with the cultures depicted. Reviews about books like these reveal, once again, that reviewers are typically white, but also that they are aware of the ongoing discourse on diversity in children’s and YA literature. Unfortunately, that awareness often seems to be superceded by a desire to cater to white readers. For example:

“It is no secret that, more often than not, ethnic diversity is lacking when it comes to teen literature. With Pig Park, Martinez uses diversity to her advantage, showcasing Masi, her family, and all of the people living in this town. Food is one of the ways this is shown, with descriptions of the Burciagas’ breads and pastries throughout the story. It would have been more effective, perhaps, if Martinez had delved deeper into the culture with more description.” — VOYA review of Pig Park by Claudia Guadalupe Martinez

“Dimple’s narration transforms mundane details into something more meaningful if less comprehensible—laced with the languages and cadences of India and set in the maze of Bombay (never Mumbai), there is a lot to decode and no glossary or map to help (a lack perfectly in keeping with the novel but frustrating nevertheless).” — Kirkus review for Bombay Blues by Tanuja Desai Hider

“While the previous book engaged and informed readers about the protagonist’s bicultural angst, this work assumes a familiarity with Hindi terms, Bollywood references, indie music and musicians, and street-art culture that may perplex less knowledgable teens.” — School Library Journal review for Bombay Blues by Tanuja Desai Hidier

“The story, fueled by the controversial title, holds cross-cultural appeal, although the sprinkling of undefined Spanish phrases can be distracting.” — VOYA review of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass by Meg Medina

“Extensive explanations of Maori culture and mythology occasionally bog down this mysterious and promising premise, and unfortunately, the glossary does not include sufficient entries to prevent the reader from searching elsewhere for definitions.” — VOYA review of Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey

The primary assumption behind these critiques is the belief that readers are predominantly white and therefore are unfamiliar with the cultures described in these books. While hypothetically this could be true, it ignores the fact that minorities now outnumber whites in American public schools, and that not every book is right for every reader. A “sprinkling of undefined Spanish phrases” is only “distracting” for someone who has never encountered that before; for another reader, those “undefined Spanish phrases” might seem entirely normal.

These reviews also suggest that novels about non-white/non-Western cultures should be tasked with informing white readers about those cultures. However, novels are not meant to be nonfiction educational texts, although they can broaden readers’ horizons and introduce them to new concepts and experiences. In fact, novels are often assigned by teachers in order to increase students’ vocabulary and reading comprehension skills. In 2015, teens in the U.S. are extremely likely to have access to online sources to help them look up concepts they’re unfamiliar with. If they don’t have internet connections at home, they probably have access to a school or public library, which has both internet and paper dictionaries — and may be where they got the book to begin with. When readers encounter unfamiliar non-English words or non-Western cultural concepts, they have the choice to look those up in a dictionary, guess the meaning through context, or forget about it and move on in the story — just as they do with unfamiliar English terms. Critiquing a novel for not being a dictionary is not a valid critique; it is lazy reading.

The idea that books about non-white/non-Western cultures should educate white/Western readers is rooted in white supremacy and Western imperialism. It is rooted in the belief that there is a dominant culture — white/Western culture — to which all other cultures are subordinate; that these Other cultures bear the burden of clarifying themselves to the dominant culture; that they must render themselves intelligible to the dominant/white reader. This is an offensive and racist stance.

For white readers who are unfamiliar with the culture depicted in a novel, it may be true that “there is a lot to decode,” but I’m unconvinced that “searching elsewhere for definitions” is a flaw. Adding a glossary to a book about a non-Western culture may be a useful shortcut to white/Western readers, but it’s important for white readers/reviewers to understand that glossaries are highly politicized. Including a glossary situates white/Western culture as dominant. It immediately renders the culture depicted in the book as unintelligible and foreign. Simultaneously it tells a white/Western reader that this foreign/unintelligible culture can be easily understood through a few definitions found at the back of the book. Including a glossary creates a reading experience that codifies white/Western culture as central and simplifies non-Western cultures.

One could argue that a novel is flawed if it contains so many new or unfamiliar concepts that it fails to connect with a reader. I think this is a valid issue for literary criticism, but it’s loaded with a lot of cultural baggage. The question is: Who has the right to determine how many unfamiliar concepts are too many? When authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien are venerated for inventing entire fantasy languages and not explaining to readers what they mean, it is ridiculous to judge a book as lacking simply because it includes “Hindi terms” and “Bollywood references.” There must be a more nuanced analysis — one that acknowledges the reviewer’s own limitations.

Most importantly, plenty of readers come from non-Western cultures and/or are not white. Book reviews that assume readers will be white end up erasing the readers who may be able to best connect with these stories. 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.

4. “Readers May Be Surprised”

Every so often I encounter a line in a book review that makes me pause and think: What? These aren’t necessarily offensive lines; they simply jump out at me as unsubstantiated or particularly revealing about the reviewer’s perspective. Each book is a personal experience, which is part of the wonder of reading, but sometimes I find that people forget this and wind up making assumptions about a book as well as other readers. For example:

“The summer before Maya and Nikki’s senior year of high school brings new challenges as their previously all-black neighborhood becomes attractive to other ethnic groups. … Readers may be surprised to find this multicultural story set in Portland, Oregon, but that just adds to its distinctive appeal. ” — Kirkus review of This Side of Home by Renée Watson

The full review is very positive, and I appreciated the fact that the reviewer didn’t skirt around the characters’ race. When I reached the sentence, “Readers may be surprised to find this multicultural story set in Portland, Oregon,” however, I paused. In this case, I was surprised by the review. I actually had to think: Why would readers be surprised? The answer, of course, is that this reviewer assumes that many readers don’t know that black people live in Portland.

This reviewer may be correct. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with them stating this in the review, and clearly they believe the location “just adds to its distinctive appeal.” It startled me, though, to realize that the reviewer believed readers’ ignorance of the fact that black people do live in Portland was important enough to mention in such a brief review. Is that belief really so widely prevalent? And if readers don’t believe that black people live in Portland, where do they think they live? To me, that one phrase is the tip of the iceberg, and beneath the water is the massive structure of beliefs about race in America.

Take this review of When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds:

“There is much to love in Reynold’s book, notably its authentic language and introduction to black ghetto culture, but characters’ voice and development surpasses all.” — Children’s Literature* review of When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds

Reynolds’s novel was published in 2014. The phrase “black ghetto culture” leaped out at me as stuck in the 1960s at best. While the reviewer clearly enjoyed the book and I’m glad it opened their eyes to “black ghetto culture,” I couldn’t help but wonder how this reviewer could have lived all the way to 2014 before finding their “introduction” to it via Reynolds’s novel. Trade reviews are short, though, so maybe that’s not what they meant. Maybe they meant the book was praiseworthy because it could provide that introduction to other readers. To me, there seemed to be an implicit belief in this review that most readers of When I Was the Greatest would be white; that black people obviously live in the ghetto; that white readers — or at least non-black readers — would need an introduction to that world. There was no sense of surprise that black characters would live in this kind of community.

It’s hard to put your finger on facts when it comes to interpreting representations of race. So much of the discussion about race is about lived experience and gut instinct. I can’t know for sure what any of these reviewers intended; nor do I know anything about who they are as individuals. (As I mentioned earlier, trade reviews are often unsigned and thus anonymous, anyway.) I can only read these reviews in the context of what I know about the broader culture of race in America. The two reviews above, though of different books and from different review sources, suggest to me that there is still a widespread belief that African Americans usually live in the inner city, not in a place like Portland, Oregon, which is currently known for its white, hipster culture. The problem with this should be obvious: It’s not true! African Americans live all over the country; they are found in many kinds of communities, even hipster ones. But incorrect assumptions continue, and not only about race.

For example:

“Alek never thought of himself as gay; but it is clear, as he spends more time with Ethan, that this is where his feelings are leading him. Pal Becky, after her initial disappointment that Alek is not interested in her as a girlfriend, supports his choice. His straight-laced and very strict parents also support Alek’s gender preferences, although their walking in on Ethan and Alek gets things off to a very rocky start. Even his nerdy and annoying older brother, as well as the DO crew at school, all seem to take Ethan and Alek’s relationship in stride. This is all very touching, but not terribly believable. Given that the author is Armenian and gay, one would conclude he has some solid experience on which to draw; it all just seems a bit too good to be true.” — Children’s Literature* review of One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva

When I saw this review I was so taken aback I had to read it again. The idea that coming out as LGBTQ always results in homophobic reactions is a bit old-fashioned; these days in many places it is truly OK to be gay. That is a wonderfully positive development. Part of my surprise with this review was simply encountering this old-fashioned attitude again, which reminded me that acceptance of LGBTQ people is still uneven.

However, “Given that the author is Armenian and gay,” yes, one would conclude he knows something about the issue, but the reviewer clearly doesn’t believe that’s enough to counter their own beliefs about LGBTQ people. It’s also clear from their usage of the term “gender preferences” that they are uninformed about LGBTQ issues. People have gender identities (e.g., male, female, nonbinary, and other kinds of gender identities), and people have sexual orientations (e.g., gay, straight, bisexual, asexual, and other kinds of sexual orientations), but “gender preferences” (does that mean that one prefers one gender to another?) are not relevant to this situation. This makes me wonder why this reviewer is reviewing this book in this way. What makes them think that they have the experience or authority to judge whether a representation of a gay character is believable?

Here’s a different example of this same issue:

“Gentle, unintrusive exposition clues readers into Iran’s political and social realities, and the characters’ choices about how to wear head scarves or how openly to talk about same-sex attractions are refreshingly and believably diverse.” — Kirkus review of If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

This is a very positive review, and it’s clear that the reviewer enjoyed the book. The question is, what is the point of mentioning believability when it comes to representations of diversity? Is there something inherently unbelievable about diversity that this reviewer felt they needed to counter? It seems to me that I’m back at the beginning: unpacking the idea that diversity is “scarcely plausible.”

Conclusion

Book reviews are a vital part of the book industry. They help booksellers and librarians make decisions about which books to acquire. If they’re positive, they’re printed on book jackets with the hope of convincing readers to read and/or buy them. And overall, I think that book reviews are doing a fine job, especially given the massive number of new books published each year. I know I am truly grateful for the work that reviewers for all these trade journals do, especially in bringing attention to books with diverse content.

And the problem isn’t with an individual review. One questionable or potentially offensive line in one review isn’t the problem. The problem is that there’s never only one. There are many tiny instances of racism, heteronormativity, or ablism — microaggressions. These are like knocking your elbow against the edge of a desk, or getting a paper cut, or accidentally bruising your shin against the coffee table. If this happens once in a while, you’re fine. But if it happens repeatedly, you wind up bruised and battered and kind of afraid to move.

The book review landscape is littered with these microaggressions. All of these microaggressions add up to support an environment in which particular beliefs are held as given: that readers are predominantly white; that books should explain their diverse content to those white readers; that too much diversity is unbelievable. These beliefs act to limit representations of diversity. They create a palpable feeling among writers — especially minority writers — that writing diversity is risky for their careers. They reinforce an industry that also, unfortunately, generally shares these beliefs. There are always individual exceptions, but it’s hard for individuals to push against the tide. Additionally, some people aren’t entirely conscious of holding these beliefs; others don’t wish to admit they hold them. Book reviews are one visible place where it’s possible to see these beliefs written in plain English.

When I talk to writers about writing diversity, I always tell them that the most important part of writing is to be aware of what you’re doing. Think about the words you use; think about them carefully. Words are powerful — all of us involved in the book business understand how powerful they are. I hope that when a reviewer encounters a diverse book, they will think intently about what they mean if they are tempted to describe the book as, say, “believable.” What are they truly getting at? Because there are better words to use: well-executed, daring, honest, real.

 


* These reviews are included with the other trade reviews for the novels at Barnes & Noble. From what I gather, reviews identified as “Children’s Literature” come from a trade review source that feeds into databases such as the Children’s Literature Comprehensive Database. Thanks to @misskubelik and @debreese for the info.)