Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Friction Fiction (#17): The Challenge of Reviewing Through a Feminist Lens

These posts are meant to bring about some conversation, discussion, and perhaps even a debate. These discussion posts can occur at varying days of the week, mostly depending upon what's scheduled on the blog and what I feel like discussing.

If you don't already know, I also blog on two other blogs. One of the them is Feminists Talk Books, where we review books through a feminist lens, exploring and analyzing books based on how representative and diverse it is. As we've begun to really settle into this blog, I've also begun to think about how I want to review the books that I do on this blog. This particular dilemma came to me when I was writing my review for Nil. In that review, I talked about how the author, Lynne Matson, did a great job with on-the-surface diversity, and then I also said that I wished for more--maybe some characters with disabilities or something. And it got me thinking about how I've been reviewing on this blog and how I want to analyze the books we review here.

At the very basic level, I'm always going to be talking about the female characters, regardless. That's how this blog came about after all. I know I'll always talk about female representation and how the females in a book are written as compared to the males. Along the same vein, I'll be talking about complex characters, gender roles and stereotypes, diverse representation (are females being treated as humans, or are they all roughly the same?), slut shaming, etc. At the very basic level, that's what we started this blog with, and I know it's what brings this blog together.

But as we've noted, feminism is about more than how the characters are written and how they may be treated differently because of their gender. It also includes us seeing more diversity of characters as a whole. We don't just want females to be treated as humans, we also want people of other marginalized groups to be treated as humans in the books we read. We want to see all types of people represented in books.

I will almost always comment on what a book does well in terms of diversity--mental illness, disabilities, race/ethnicity, LGBTQIA, experiences, etc. But at point do we ask for more? At what point do we say the book has done a great job? Is it bad to keep asking for more of a book/author, even if a book already does much better than most of what's out there? Is there a point at which a lot is too much?

This was my problem when reviewing Nil. There was already a lot of diversity and there was a good gender balance, with each character having equal treatment in that they're all real and human and have flaws. But I wanted more. Certainly, I don't think asking for the central characters to be more PoC rather than the PoC being secondary characters is too much too ask. But is it right for me to say that I was hoping for disabilities to be represented, even if it's just asthma? Should I be happy that the author tried to do something great in terms of diversity already? Because I don't hold all books to that same standard (expecting there to be some disabled characters), so is it fair for me to add that for that book/review?

And sometimes, I can't tell what's realistic. Is it realistic that most people in the midwest are white? Probably. Certainly there are non-white people living there, but can I fault a book that takes place there for lacking racial/ethnic diversity? My school has a great program for students with mental disabilities and learning disabilities, but I don't hang out with them. Should I ask for authors to represent such people more if they're not a huge part of everyone's lives? (Of course, if the character or someone close to the character is, I would hope it's well represented in the book.) Is it reasonable to ask for a little bit of everything or is that too overwhelming? How can we represent everything, as we can find in our actual lives, without overwhelming the books? I know disabled people, people with mental illnesses, people with anxiety, people of different/multiple races/ethnicities, LGBTQIA people, etc, but I find that often, when authors try to have all of these in a book, it becomes too much and perhaps even begins to cause other problems.

I don't want my reviews to be inconsistent, but I can't help but wonder if that's the only way to review books here. Each book should always be taken on a case-by-case basis, but again, I have the issue to not being sure what to do about a book such as Nil. There are books that certainly manage to address multiple areas that I like to look for, such as Lies We Tell Ourselves, but what about the rest?

It's these questions that have become challenges for me when I'm reviewing. I don't think there is one particular answer. I don't think there is a right way to do this. I hope that I've explained my dilemma/challenge well enough for you all to understand my conflicting thoughts.

This post is cross-posted from Feminists Talk Books. Check out the post there for some insightful comments/discussions as well.

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