When Reviewing is Political

In a recent (Oct. 23) New Yorker article, Nathan Heller condemned Kirkus Reviews’ response to a controversial book review. American Heart by Laura Moriarty was initially praised by its Kirkus reviewer, but the review was later modified and the book demoted due to public criticism over the apparent “white savior” trope in the novel. The novel tells the story of a white Islamophobe who initially supports detainment camps for Muslims living in America. But after befriending a Muslim woman, the former-Islamophobe helps her new friend escape from persecution. Kirkus has acknowledged that it altered its review of Moriarty’s novel as a result of public outrage over the initial review.

In the article, Heller called Kirkus’ response “insidious”, an attack on the reviewing industry. He argued that book reviewing should always be an individual affair; it should not be influenced by a crowd.  The Muslim reviewer who was assigned American Heart had high praise for the novel, so Kirkus should have accepted her review.

A growing number of review companies, like Kirkus Reviews, have started to assign “Own Voices” reviewers to books featuring minority characters. The demotion of Moriarty’s novel is, therefore, only the most recent development in a new movement in the publishing and reviewing industries. YA readers seem to be the most sensitive to the way minority characters are represented in fiction. The “Own Voices” movement is built on the assumption that the best social justice-themed books are written by authors who have an intimate understanding of the issues they are addressing.

It is clear that from the very start Kirkus was concerned about the representation of Islam in American Heart. The novel’s demotion seems to me to be the next logical step in Kirkus’ “Own Voices” agenda. The “Own Voices” movement considers authors and characters from a political perspective. American Heart should be reviewed by a Muslim because a non-Muslim does not really know what it’s like to be Muslim. The Muslim reviewer, author, or character does not represent herself alone. Concern for good representation stems from the assumption that individuals can represent and speak for the groups to which they belong.

I am still not sure how I feel about the “Own Voices” movement. I am not a YA reader, and most identity-centered books are aimed at young adults. But if we are OK with the practice of assigning reviewers to books based on social identity, we should also be OK with reviews influenced by the judgements of a crowd. Politics always concerns more than one person, and social justice is necessarily political. The Muslim reviewer of American Heart was no traditional reviewer. When Kirkus assigned her to that novel, it expected her to consider the novel through a political and social lens. She was chosen because she was Muslim, a member of a world-wide group. Critics of her review felt that she overlooked the “white savior” motif in the novel. This is a motif that she should have been able to identify because of her identity. The reviewer had forgotten that she represented more than just herself. She had forgotten that she represented a people.

The shift toward reviewing based on the judgments of a crowd began when Kirkus assigned American Heart to a Muslim reviewer because she was Muslim.

4 thoughts on “When Reviewing is Political”

  1. This is one of the best posts I’ve read lately, not just one of your best, but in general.
    You unveil the problem we currently have with this artificial (as opposed to organic) ways of treating literature, books, readers, and reviewers.

    There’s much wrong with that “Own Voices” mess, but I know it’s here to stay. What do I do about it? First, it’s not just me, but a community of people, some I know in person, many more of us that are connected through the Internet, such as YOU. First thing is to learn about it a bit more. And I thank you for writing this and bringing this to my attention.

    I also work this way, it’s not that I deny the problem, but I try to offer to my girls and friends a much broader view of books and reality, one that finds its roots in something deep and real (different to that superficial conflict based on opinions.) I try to live, breath, talk, and write about IDEAS.

    Before we had agendas, before books and reviews were political, we were political beings ourselves, and were not motivated by audiences, by political correctness, but by knowledge. We welcome the radical, the different, the foreign, and before we judged it, we loved it, we were intrigued by it, we stopped and listened.

    You captured this so well, The “Own Voices” movement is built on the assumption that the best social justice-themed books are written by authors who have an intimate understanding of the issues they are addressing. I wish we could take a few steps back, and write than the best books ever are written by invested persons, intimate with life and those around them.

    It’s very 1984, this whole thing. I hope our youth can soar higher than these myopic issue.

    1. Exactly! I am all for literature that represents people well, but why should the identity of the author matter? The youth are beginning to support book censorship, which is really disturbing. If a book is bad, don’t read it. But why should the author’s identity encourage or discourage you from reading a book?

  2. It seems to be primarily an American phenomenon, this politicisation of art by both the artist and the audience. I always wondered if this had anything to do with the fact that the US is a country that was actually “founded” by its people before it started to create a distinct culture, whereas in Europe states were formed out of communities that already had (primitive) arts and culture.

    Granted, I know more about the history of visual arts than literature, but it seems like the ideas of l’art pour l’art and philosophy never really caught on in any art form in America the way they did in Europe. I can’t help but notice that in my immediate (European) surroundings people judge art in terms of aesthetics; it’s only on the internet that I find these reviews that are so very focused on political correctness, even if the art in question is of a different era and/or culture altogether.

    1. It really does seem to be an American phenomenon. I have French colleagues who tell me that it’s illegal to even ask a person his/her race, religion, etc in a questionnaire. I think it has a lot to do with the history of the United States and the way we understand the American identity. I think it’s great that people are concerned about representation, but I hate the tokenization of minorities. Why should the author or reviewer’s identity matter?

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