JAY CASPIAN KANG
The Reductive Practice of Assigning Book Reviews by Identity
Oct. 28, 2021
Every once in a while, it might be healthy for progressives to stop, look up from the work of making the world a more equitable place and ask, “Wait, is this specific thing we’re doing right now really going to help?” It’s a good rule for life, generally, and it may just save the world from unpleasant outcomes that embarrass us all or, in some cases, produce the exact opposite of what we intend.
In 2017, Kirkus, an influential book review outlet, published a review of the young adult novel “American Heart.” The book, written by Laura Moriarty, a white woman, was set in an alternate America in which Muslim Americans are shipped off to internment camps. The protagonist, who is white and non-Muslim, helps a Muslim woman escape to Canada. In accordance with its policy on young adult books that touch upon what it calls “diverse subject matter,” Kirkus had assigned “American Heart” to a Muslim author, who gave the book a coveted starred review.
When “American Heart” was published, a somewhat predictable controversy about white savior narratives and whether a white non-Muslim woman was allowed to write about the plight of an Iranian Muslim character erupted on Twitter and Goodreads, a social media site that functions as a Yelp for books. Readers expressed their disappointment and asked why Kirkus would promote a work that they said fell into such harmful tropes.
Much of the conversation around “American Heart” eventually turned to Kirkus’s unidentified reviewer. (Kirkus reviews are unsigned.) A statement on the Kirkus website regarding reviews for young adult books read that because “there is no substitute for lived experience, as much as possible books with diverse subject matter and protagonists are assigned to ‘own voices’ reviewers, to identify both those books that resonate most with cultural insiders and those books that fall short.”
In other words, Kirkus threw the Muslim reviewer and the supposed authority of her identity in front of the controversy. But that wasn’t the end of it. That reviewer ultimately rewrote her review, according to Clay Smith, the editor in chief of Kirkus at the time. And the star was taken away.
This decision, along with the phrase “cultural insiders,” brought into question exactly what was happening at Kirkus: Did the editors want someone to report faithfully on what Muslim people thought about the book (a fraught exercise in itself)? Or did they expect all “cultural insiders” to think in the same, acceptable ways? Whatever the reason, this imbroglio had the strange effect of both reducing the unnamed Muslim author to her identity and appearing to dictate what that identity should say.
In the four years since, the authority of “own voices” and “lived experience” seems only to have gotten stronger. This comes at the same time when more and more minority authors are being published by the major houses. While change is slow, there have been some other encouraging developments pushed by authors and readers who are fed up with the homogeneity of the literary scene. In 2010, Vida, an organization that supports women in literary arts, began an annual count that includes the identities of the authors of the books that are reviewed in major publications and the reviewers who get the assignments. Last year, the National Book Critics Circle — a network of nearly 800 book reviewers, journalists and publishing industry professionals — released an “antiracism pledge” that decried the stifling power of “white gatekeeping” and promised to promote diversity within its ranks.
This shift should be regarded with a generosity of spirit: editors trying to bring new voices into the field, as authors and reviewers. It wasn’t so long ago, after all, that new books by nonwhite authors were hard to find. The few that did make it through to the mass market were covered, oftentimes in a clumsy, patronizing manner, by white male reviewers.
A more diverse literary landscape seems to have created a demand for reviewers who may have those “cultural insider” insights. These things are hard to quantify, but in my experience, this has put the small number of existing writers and critics of color in the fortunate yet dispiriting position of being called on to review the latest Black or Latino or Asian book. In 2019 the author Victor LaValle tweeted, “Reviewing books while Black often means being given books with no relation to your field. You & the author are both black so … good enough! That [expletive] gets tiring.”4
For the first 10 or so years of my career, I was asked to review only Asian books. I would usually agree, even though I assumed that my identity was why I had been chosen. After a while, I stopped taking those assignments because I felt as if I had been pigeonholed and also because I didn’t think my personal background really brought any particular insight to the book. When I would pitch reviews of books by non-Asian authors, I would usually be ignored.
It should also be said that review segregation does not take place across the board. Many reviews are still written by critics, especially those who are on staff, whose identities don’t necessarily match up with the characters’, subject matter or authors’. I have been a close observer of this phenomenon for years, and from what I can tell, identity pairing seems to happen most often with books that are young adult fiction or memoirs or are about race.
Perhaps the dutiful pairing of authors who breathe a sensitive word about race or gender with writers who look like them can all be seen as a small price to pay for progress. But I wonder if there is a far less sympathetic reason behind the shift to review segregation. Are editors, cowed by the potential for social media outrage, making what amounts to a hedged bet? If you hire reviewers who look like the authors or have lived through the experiences they detail, your chances of facing a tide of criticism on social media are probably far lower.
My book “The Loneliest Americans” came out this month. It is part memoir of my Korean family’s journey to America and part immigrant history that explains how, for example, Flushing in Queens became a dense Asian enclave. It is, without question, a book about race, but it also is a history of immigrant neighborhoods, food and economies. I am not surprised that most people who have reviewed the book for a major publication have been Asian. (The Times has not reviewed my book but did include it in a list of recommended reads. It is not the paper’s policy to assign books on the basis of race or gender.)
I have no interest in litigating the specific reviews I’ve gotten or the capable writers who wrote them. My interest lies more in how segregated reviews and, by extension, a prescriptive vision about race in art, has placed an obstructive framing across the face of work by minority writers.
Today’s instances of review segregation seem to me to be pretty reductive. Is an Asian American, for example, seen as fit to review another Asian American’s book with the full assumption that those very important “lived experiences” match up in some meaningful way? If so, I think that is nonsense. No people are a monolith.
There is certainly value in having reviewers who have gone through something that may inspire a deeper, more impassioned review, but in my experience, the rules of review segregation rarely ask any questions beyond “What box did you check on the census?” As the Kirkus example shows, the discourse around a book must be reflective of those symmetries. It seems not to take into account whether the reviewer, the author and the book object to such narrow classifications. When Kirkus writes that it wants the scoop from “cultural insiders,” what it’s really asking from reviewers is to represent their entire community, even if they’re just freelancers looking to apply their trade without such ridiculous expectations.
With this thinking, the review becomes a referendum that announces whether or not the book and, by extension, the author are acceptable to outsiders who just want to be allies with the right opinions. This isn’t the fault of the reviewers. They, even more than the authors, are turned into unwitting participants in this mass act of moral interpretation.
My friend and colleague Wesley Morris described the inevitable products of this process in an essay for The New York Times Magazine in 2018:
A disagreement over one piece of culture points to where our discourse has arrived when it comes to talking about all culture — at a roiling impasse. The conversations are exasperated, the verdicts swift, conclusive and seemingly absolute. The goal is to protect and condemn work, not for its quality, per se, but for its values. Is this art or artist, this character, this joke bad for women, gays, trans people, nonwhites? Are the casts diverse enough? Is this museum show inclusive of enough different kinds of artists? Does the race of the curators correspond with the subject of the show or collection? Increasingly, these questions stand in for a discussion of the art itself.
One of the first lessons a writer is taught is that the specific is the universal. We may not fully understand the filial dynamics of the 19th-century Russian households depicted in “The Brothers Karamazov,” but we do know something about bad fathers, irredeemably broken men and undying crises of faith. A good reader, then, is able to occupy two modes at the same time: We can engage with the form of the work while feeling those jolts of excitement that take place when we can identify the great truth that has been revealed and then apply it, however clumsily, to our own lives. This requires a good deal of rigor and curiosity, as well as quite a bit of generosity to ourselves: Maybe I haven’t lived through everything that’s going on in this book, but I feel what the author is saying.
Review segregation presumes the opposite because it says that only those who have lived through some approximation of the author’s life should have any license to comment on it publicly. But if we believe that the specific should be the universal and that we learn about ourselves not from broad edict but through other lives that reflect certain truths onto our own, the public conversation around books should be filled with possibility.
In the weeks since my book came out, I’ve received quite a bit of feedback, both good and bad, from readers of all backgrounds. I do feel a great intimacy with many of the Asian readers, but they certainly aren’t the only people who have responded and whom I’ve connected with. Some of the most illuminating conversations I’ve had have been with Black, South Asian, Latino and Jewish readers who take the book for what it is and then forcefully argue their own reads. These talks have been about a wide variety of subjects and even include some pointed disagreements, but the baseline has been the understanding that there is a universality to the immigrant experience, whether your people came to the United States last year or three generations ago.
I am not calling for all books to be reviewed by some multicultural panel but rather for editors to think beyond the defensive matching game and take a few risks on odd pairings that might push the conversation around the book into unexpected places and new audiences. If the National Book Critics Circle, for example, wants to promote diversity, the result can’t involve editors’ just taking up-and-coming minority writers and sticking them right into the work of exclusively reviewing “own voices” books.
A more sincere commitment to diversity requires a breadth of intellect not only from the editors of the review pages but also from readers in the public. Right now, the book landscape seems to have migrated into dozens of caravans plodding along on separate identity tracks. There’s a question that’s rarely asked: Where are we going?
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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”