Relative Reviewing

Yesterday Strange Horizons posted a number of articles on the subject of “Reviewing the Other”. The lead piece is this one by Nisi Shawl. I suspect that a lot of reviewers will skim or skip it on the assumption that it doesn’t apply to them. This would be wrong.

I’m not going to address Nisi’s contention that it is a good thing to seek out books by writers from marginalized groups to review. I happen to agree with her, but whether we are correct in that assumption or not is irrelevant to the fact that what she has to say actually applies to all reviewing.

Back when I first started reviewing, I learned that I was supposed to be impersonal and objective. No one would be interested in my personal reactions to a book, what they wanted to know was whether it was any good or not, and I needed to make that assessment impartially.

The more reviewing I did, the more I came to realize that objective reviewing was a load of hogwash. That in fact my liking a particular book often meant little more than, say, my liking a particular dress because the cut and color happened to suit me.

There are standards that you can apply, of course. You can’t hang around a lot with authors without picking up an appreciation of the craft. You learn to tell who has a mastery of words, and who just dumps them on a page as quickly as possible. You learn who constructs intricate plots, and whose books meander aimlessly. You learn whose characters will tug at your heartstrings, and whose are cliches and stereotypes.

Even that, however, won’t save you from readers. If I were to quote some magnificent piece of Cat Valente prose in a review, I am pretty sure that somewhere there will be a reader who will think me an utter fucking moron for praising what he sees as a steaming shitpile of overblown, pretentious intellectual wankery, and will want to tell me so. What he’ll mean by that, of course, is that Cat’s prose isn’t to his taste, and my championing of it is such a gross insult to his ego that he is moved to violence, and least in language.

More generally, there are types of book that I like, and types that I don’t. I once mentioned that I didn’t review military SF in Emerald City because I didn’t much care for it and didn’t think it would be fair of me to do so. I got email calling me a bigot. I don’t much like romance either, though I appear to have ruffled fewer feathers over that.

When Nisi talks about reviewing books originating from cultures other than your own, she gives the following list of questions you should ask yourself:

  • What was this book trying to do?
  • Who was the book’s intended audience?
  • How did I relate to that audience?
  • How did I relate to authors/editors?

My contention is that those rules hold good no matter what book you are reviewing. The intended audience for a YA romance is very different from the audience for hard SF, is very different from the audience for historical mysteries. Which is not to say that the same person can’t enjoy all three types of book, just that they are trying to do different things and not everyone has hugely catholic tastes.

We all tend to laugh at Amazon reviews when the reviewer clearly hasn’t understood the book at all, but a supposedly objective review written by someone who clearly has no sympathy for or interest in the type of book he’s reading can be just as bad. And yes, in that category I do include male reviewers who approach books by women from the starting assumption that they won’t be any good, and are therefore looking for faults from the first page.

Nisi is quite right in saying that books by people from other cultures may be doing very clever things that we don’t notice because we lack the cultural reference frame to spot and understand them. Books by people like Karen Lord and Sofia Samatar don’t work for me in the same way that books by, say, Liz Hand or Seanan McGuire do. But, as Samuel Delany says in his companion article to Nisi’s piece, “Look, we are all ethnocentric. There’s no way we can escape it because we are all born into an ethnos from which we learn how to live.” The only major difference is that members of marginalized groups are generally forced to learn to appreciate works produced by the dominant local culture. So girls have to read books by men in school, whereas boys can often avoid books by women; and people of color in white-majority countries have to read books by white people in school, but may never see books by people from their own culture except at home.

Learning to appreciate books by, say, African women, or Chinese men, might seem a little daunting. But there are plenty of little steps we can take. We can read outside our favorite subgenres, read books by people of different genders, read books intended for readers of different age groups. The more we stretch our reading habits, the easier it becomes, and soon reading outside of our own culture doesn’t seem so challenging after all. We’ll also write better reviews as a result.

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2 Responses to Relative Reviewing

  1. Erica says:

    This article is very timely, because there’s one of those threads about tropes we think are cliche in speculative fiction in an online writing forum I frequent. It’s pretty clear that there’s some frustration over the under-representation of non-white, non European world views in modern fantasy and SF. It’s also clear that some people are decrying “tired old cliches” that are other people’s bread and butter reading.

    I don’t think anyone can possibly be harmed by their being more variety out there, though, and the best way to encourage variety is to step outside our comfort zones as readers sometimes.

  2. Martha says:

    Brilliant essay that encompasses much of what I believe about writing. I think that as a reviewer, if I only read / review books by ‘safe’ ie.. white male authors, I limit my own growth experiences and of those who read my reviews. I think Erica (above) makes a good point. We don’t have to ‘put down’ another genre, style of writing, whatever – to promote a widening of readers’ interests.

    One question that we can also try to answer when reviewing books from other cultures is: How was I challenged, changed, benefited by reading this book? As reviewers, we should be bridge builders between our own cultures and the fascinating wider world out there.

    Later, when I’ve finished my torment for the day (I have to go to the tax office) I will read Nisi’s article and some of the others.

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