Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sunday Salon: Reviewing POC Literature: Are Our Standards Equal?

It’s Sunday and that means query time. I want to talk about how critical we are when it comes to our own ethnic/racial/national group. This topic has come up a few times for me when talking about politics or world affairs. I want to ask you specifically about literature so today’s query is:

Do you judge writers of your own ethnicity, race or nationality differently? If you were black, would you give an AA writer a pass for some element you would judge differently if the writer wasn’t black? If your answer is ever yes, in what instance do you alter your standards and in what way? What about POC writers of a different group? Do you judge their work differently than you would your own group or white writers? If you are a white reader, do you feel pressured or uncomfortable holding POC writers to the same standards you do for any other book you’d read? Is there any fear of coming off too critical?

Now being politically correct is nice but is it always honest? Can we have a frank discussion about how we review and how we perceive other readers' reviews of books by POC writers? What question(s) did I miss? I didn’t want this to be too long but the issue is complex so I hope many of you will share your opinions.

I will tell you what I think later. At the moment, the kidlet is anxiously waiting for me to make breakfast.


Zetta said...

it's a tricky situation...I wrote about this over at Justine's a couple of weeks ago:

April (BooksandWine) said...

To be honest, I think I do hold books to the same standard. I mean, if I was reading a Hotlanta novel, I'd judge it the same as I would a Gossip Girl novel, but I don't really care for that sort of thing, so I don't read those types of books. I guess, I've read a lot of quality PoC books, so maybe I'm not actively seeking out crap, as it looks like my reviews of PoC novels are all positive, but well, I can't help that I enjoy the writing and I look for books which I know will appeal to me.

I don't know if that diatribe made sense, but I don't think I rate/read PoC books differently than white-authored books. I mean, yes I try to be aware of the cultural experience which may have shaped the book, but like, I try to read books for the story and afterwards come back and see if I can glean anything out of it, i.e. how does this relate in context of feminism, racism, societal constructs. I don't delve too deep, because I just want to get to the next book, though. I'm sure that's a fault, but I can't help it, so many books are enticing right now.

Color Online said...

For some I'm pointing out the obvious, but I read everything Zetta writes so maybe I should have linked to Zetta's post in the introduction. However, Zetta's post isn't the first time neither she nor I have had this conversation. Thanks for adding the link, Zetta.

I encourage all to regularly check out Zetta's new column at the Huffington Post.

April, I don't know if we need to assign fault but I do know I have asked myself these questions before and like Zetta said it get's tricky.

I have read reviews of POC by white readers and sometimes I've wondered if they either held back in some instances and in others if they've missed relevant cultural markers.

Like you I don't read books like Hotlanta so I don't review them. I will say though I have been asked by black and white readers about books by AA writers and the questions implied that I would have some opinion on these books. And in my head, I've thought just because the author is black doesn't mean I'd read the book nor that I would enjoy it. And there are few POC authors that I am really quite critical of. Like you, I typically review what I enjoy but there have been POC books I've read and at length I wrote about why I took issue with the book.

April (BooksandWine) said...

It's interesting that people would ask you your opinion on black authors, like you are the token reader, when I never really get my opinion asked about white authors, despite being white,I've never been put in the position of being a token reader.

I think the best we can do is read with integrity and review with integrity.That said, I follow Color Online, Black Eyed Susan, Reading In Color, The Happy Nappy Bookseller, GALNovelty, White Readers Meet Black Authors, so it's almost like the books I read are vetted prior to my reading them, however, I still read and try to seek out books by POC authors/pertaining to POC that I haven't seen reviewed by those sites.

Seriously though, I could build a house out of my TBR pile, and those blogs don't help me cut down on the TBR one bit :-)

Lee Wind, M.Ed. said...

I think in some ways we're more willing to let a member of a group explore the stereotypes more fully without instantly labeling them as self-hating. I'm thinking that if "the absolutely true diary of a part time Indian had been written by a white guy, there would have been more outrage over the depicions of native Americans that aligned with the negative stereotypes (like alcoholism.) but ulimately, it would still have been an amazing book, whatever Sheman Alexie's background. And it's possible he DID get flak from his own community for being willing to present negative images of native anerican characters. But if everyminority character is "perfect" you don't have much of a story, do you.
Good questions, all around.
Thanks and Namaste,

Mrs. Pilkington said...

Great question! I don't review online. But in terms of critiquing art in conversation and/or a community, I agree with a lot of what Lee says; I think that sometimes the artist's 'membership', POV, perspective, etc. informs what I might look for in a work...and I also think that we are sometimes harder on group members or perceived allies because we want them to do something more or different with their work that may or may not be a part of their focus or agenda.

Vasilly said...

Like Lee said I'm willing to let a writer explore a stereotype, but I'm willing to let any writer do the explore and see where it goes before commenting. I read a lot of crappy books last year so I'm pretty harsh on what I'm willing to read and how long I'm willing to read it before sitting it down for good.

Jodie said...

Interesting. I think like Lee I'd be more inclined to judge a white writer writing stereotypes, than I would be of a black author writing stereotypes. I think I try hard now to abide by the kind of advice Zetta hands out, that those outside of a community are less equipped to judge the authenticity than those within a communinity. But then do I have to question the authenticity sometimes (like not all female writers are immune from creating female stereotypes, surely not all black writers are immune from creating black stereotypes) or should I try to seek out people within that particular group who have identified a stereotype and support them?

Kate Halleron said...

One of the primary reasons for reading at all is to explore places I'll never go and people I'll never be. Show me your place, culture or people in an enjoyable and preferably realistic way, and I'll enjoy it and recommend it to my friends.

Do I hold POC authors to either higher or lower standards? Absolutely not. I judge the writing - character and story, that's all. Unless the ethnicity of the author is obvious for some reason, I may not even notice. Unless it's pertinent in some way to the writing itself, I won't even care.

The only writers I might give a pass to are dead ones - I try not to hold writers from other eras to the standards of ours. The best way to learn about other eras is to read books from those eras, without trying to 'translate' them into modern sensibilities.

Eva said...

I hold all the books I read to the same standards, depending on the 'type of book it is, and I wouldn't fudge a review on a book that happened to be by a 'minority' author. By standards I mean, the type of writing I enjoy, believable characters, a plot that makes some kind of sense, vivid setting, etc. etc. Knowing the ethnicity/orientation/gender of an author doesn't affect how I judge all of those aspects of a book.

Oddly enough, since I've posted about deliberately adding POC authors to my reading, I worry that readers might think my gushy reviews might be me exaggerating. So I'm more self-conscious giving a super-postive review than a 'meh' one! Of course, I still do gush about the great books. :) (Also, in my reviews, I never point out if an author is POC or white, or even what race the characters are most of the time.)

But I do give an author more leeway re: characters that she has experience with. For example, I'm more skeptical of women characters written by men, of POC characters written by white authors, of GLBT characters written by straight authors, etc. But it's not so much that I go in skeptical, as that if a character is feeling stereotypical or unreal to me, and the author's from a different 'group,' I go with my instinct and doubt the character could be a real person. Does that make sense? It's happened most frequently for me when I'm reading books by Chinese men and the women characters just feel 'off'.

Color Online said...

Ethnicity/race aside, are you hesitant in judging the writing quality, the storyline?

What if you simply don't like a character or the story? Do you hold your tongue?

Steph Su said...

This is a great question, Susan, and one that has come up for me before. I'd like to think that I hold all authors up to the same literary standards. Unfortunately, I've read some works by some POC authors where the strongest recommendation point is in its POC characters and "non-issue" story. The writing was unfortunately only mediocre. Then I feel bad because when I'm compiling lists such as my 2009 book lists, and put my favorite books up there--favorites being that they were well-written, original, enthralling, etc.--I notice that I have few POC authors, and I wonder why. I think there definitely needs to be more POC books out there, but I'm also unwilling to give some of them "free passes" for only average writing.

On the other hand, I always feel SO awkward when a non-POC author writes about a POC character, particularly if the character is a secondary one, such as the MC's best friend. I've been reading some books lately written by, for lack of a better term, "white" authors where their POC characters are just so...flat. Unlively. Then I wonder whose fault is it that the characters are so. Is it the author's for failing to flesh them into completeness? Is it mine for judging too harshly: "you're not Asian, so you can't possibly write a realistic Asian character"? Or is it simply an impossible task, to have a non-POC author write an accurate POC character? At the same time, I'm also a little shaken (although not as much--interesting) when a POC author writes a white MC. White is not the absence of race, and I think some POC authors might not be aware of that when they choose to make their MCs white.

And then I go and feel bad again for being so critical and unlenient, lol.

I had this problem earlier in the year when I read The Help by Kathryn Stockett. In the book, 2 of the 3 narrators are black women, maids to the Southern gentility. The author herself was raised in the South and had black help. I thought she did a great job with the women's different voices, but at the same time I couldn't help but think: how can YOU really know how a black woman thinks and talks, particularly when YOU have never been in a position anywhere close to how they are?

But is that intolerance on my part, for being resistant to authors writing characters with races different than theirs?

Sorry for the rambling. It's a lot to think about. :)

Color Online said...

Ramble on, friend.

Steph, there are plenty of POC books being reviewed here and elsewhere. Have you read books mentioned here or Happy Nappy Bookseller for example and only found them average? Do you review average mainstream titles on your blog? If yes, why would it be hard to include POC of the same calibur? What holds you back from saying what doesn't work for you in a POC book?

Do readers need to give POC titles a pass or just a fair review?

I read Off-Color by Janet MacDonald, a respect AA author. I didn't like the book and said so. I didn't think I owed the author anything more than an honest review.

I also didn't think much of She's So Money, a hugely popular book. I wrote at length why the book didn't work for me and it didn't work for me because of ethnicity but because of messages and scenes I find objectionable period.

Eva said...

Ethnicity/race aside, are you hesitant in judging the writing quality, the storyline?

I'm not hesitant to judge; I think that's my job as a reader!

What if you simply don't like a character or the story? Do you hold your tongue?

No, although I try to express my dislike as diplomatically as possible. Especially in the age of Google Alerts, when authors could conceivably read what I've written!

Color Online said...

"Especially in the age of Google Alerts, when authors could conceivably read what I've written!"

I think writers and readers deserve more than an expressed like or dislike. I don't know if I'm concerned with being diplomatic but I am mindful to be respectful and honest. I respect a writer's right to write as they are moved to and I want to be respected in accepting or rejecting a work.

Ultimately, I want an exchange. I believe writers write to be heard. I respond to say I am listening.

Anonymous said...

I read and review with the same eyes for books by anyone of any ethnicity. Where I'm more discriminating is in genre. I steer completely away from urban fiction, which we've discussed a number of times. I also steer clear of books about POC characters written by non-POC authors. I know that I'd be very critical reading those books because of the concern with authenticity. So basically, I play it pretty safe so that I can focus on the writing.

Mel u said...

One of my objectives on my blog is to increase awareness of Filipino literature-if I were to use a lower standard in evaluating that literature it would be very patronizing and would in the end defeat my project-I have attempted to explain why in honesty there are few world class Filipino novels (very few)-this is partially the result of the loss of identity caused by some 400+ years of colonialism-

Aarti said...

I am not sure, really. I actually think I hold Indian writers up to higher standards than others, particularly if they are writing about the "immigrant experience," which I think is written about far too often. I do not CONSCIOUSLY hold authors up to different standards... but I'm not sure what I do subconsciously!

Unknown said...

I'm with Eva on this one. I review from a more academic standpoint, I think, and I don't have a different standard for POC authors. I try to look at what a book is trying to do and what I think a good book should do and go from there. I'm big on "this is what the theme is" and how well that's explored through the novel.


susan said...

"this is what the theme is" and how well that's explored through the novel.

This is what I was taught in school. Do you think this is approach is the norm in the book blogsophere?

Doret said...

My expectations are always the same. I refuse to say I liked something because its written by an author of color.

Last year I read Matt de la Pena's YA novel We Were Here. The novel feature 3 male protagnist. Miguel, Mong and Rondell.

I found Rondell, the black charcter to be a one dimensional stereotype I didn't like him

Because the author wasn't White, I wasn't so quick to anger. I gave the author the benefit of the doubt. Maybe Rondell will develop

Finally, I realized that wasn't going to happened. I couldn't pretend not to be bothered by Rondell simply because the author wasn't White.

I 've included the link to my review of We Were Here

Eva said...

>>I think writers and readers deserve more than an expressed like or dislike.

I'm confused!

Neesha Meminger said...

Great question, indeed! I hope authors of colour, LGBTQ authors, and any other authors who fall outside the margins would be judged using the same standards for excellence that ANY author would be. At the same time, it is important when we're looking at *issues* brought up in novels that we look at CONTEXT. And the author's background is exactly that. It provides the context within which a story is told. That has much to do with how a story is received, how characters are handled, what is brought to the understanding of issues, etc.

Wonderful discussion, Susan!

Color Online said...


I mean I think as readers, we should say more than simply, "I liked it" or "I didn't like it." I wasn't criticizing a point you made but reiterating something I've said a hundred times, "Say what you like and concerns you and why."

It especially bugs me when a reader doesn't say why a work doesn't work for them.

Unknown said...

I don't know if the entire book blogosphere does the thematic approach, but the blogs that I read and enjoy do more than just "I like this!" or "It's good!"