• Talia Basma

The Indoctrine for Reviewing Books

Let me preface this with the fact that I stayed up until 3 AM one day reading negative book reviews and just freaking out. Some reviews are just the person not liking the book which totally happens, others are calling out the racism, xenophobia, homophobia, or some other problematic content that I never saw at all which reading said book. Reading those reviews and being up way past my bedtime was a bad combination, but then the days after a similar issue kept coming up about how we as a society review books. How I review books.

It’s actually insane how someone could hate like absolutely hate a book you love and vice versa but that is why opinions exist and everyone has a right to like a certain color or not, just as we have the right to like or dislike an author's writing. The issue that really concerned me as I kept reading reviews and having a montage of my reading life flash before my eyes was, a lot of books are super whitewashed and I think I’ve just become numb to it so I don’t even care or realize when the author or the characters are being racist or some kind of genuinely bad type of person. I'm not talking about a character who is bad for the sake of satire or critique upon that character; I'm talking they straight up have toxic beliefs that we are supposed to accept and move forward with.

I used to write stories as a child and all my characters were "Annabell" and "Josh" and White. I never even considered making them POC or even Muslim, despite that being my own background. We really (as a community) look at White characters and forgive them so easily. For example, it's endearing when a White man finds out he has a secret baby that he wants to now take care of, but there's a more negative connotation associated with Black men for the same issue. We have really found animals and fantasy creatures (witches, vampires, etc.) more relatable than BIPOC, LGBTQ+, etc. characters.

This isn't just a "White Reader" issue. There are a lot of White readers who are dragging diverse books down, but I think we all play a role. We are all trained to think a certain way. Additionally, diversity is intersectional. I might be Muslim, but I'm not 100% familiar with Queer issues so there is definitely an underlying bias for me; just as some non-Muslims will face an underlying bias when reading books with Muslim MCs. Sometimes the fatphobic comments or sexist comments happen so fast I don’t even realize they happen until someone is literally quoting it in their review. There was a book that I had read and liked, but there was a line that referred to a side character as fat and so when they walked, they waddled. How do I like books with sentences like that?

I agonized over this question for days. I'd like to say I'm NOT this person who is fatphobic or racist or whatever, but I'm not perfect. Of course, I'm only me and I only know my own experiences or those I read about. I can't be aware of a book that's being passive-aggressive to Indigenous people when I have minimal knowledge on the topic. I can't be aware of these things when as a Black person, I'm missing slights being made towards my own community. We all need to make a conscious effort to listen to each other and do better.

Lots of books I read like to say the main character(s) (especially fantasy/dystopian) have tan skin or glowing skin and I think of a brown-toned person–a person of color. But then the author is some random White woman who is actually having White characters but with a tan. Like if Barbie just stood out in the sun for a little too long and instead of sunburn, she had this "earthy glow" allowing her to have a POC color, but the privileges of whiteness.

Studying English most of my life made me really good at objectively reviewing books I didn't like. We are all taught these books from the "literary canon" and they are 90% by White cis-men. They never really talked about race or feminism and if they did, it was hardly ever from a perspective that matched mine. Of course, teachers say you can write about why you didn't like a book if you argue your point well, but how often do students take that route? It was easier, for me at least, to find the good in those books. Even if they had things I didn't like, even if the writing didn't appeal to me, I would find chunks of the work that were enjoyable and focus on that. Focus on the good.

So even now, when I read an average book that I don't really relate to, I look for the good and roll with it. I read books that have a POC side character and cheer that character's existence, forgetting that the main character is terrible to them, or that the author describes the POC character in a stereotypical or toxic way.

I'm not trying to ruin all White authors (cue comments about #CancelCulture), but I'm trying to raise the bar here now. If you are on Twitter you may have heard of the #publishingpaidme hashtag which I could write a whole other post on. But in its essence, it is monetary proof that this way in which I, and probably many more people of color, treat reviewing books is one-sided. We give White authors the benefit of the doubt, we let things slip through the cracks. Yet, White readers do not offer that same courtesy to colored authors.

Lots of books by people of color lose stars to "It wasn't relatable" or for flaws that would go unnoticed when White authors make similar (and sometimes worse) mistakes. I didn't relate to so many books in my life, but yet, I still found things to enjoy about them. I feel like I've always been into reading HEA books because I'm only reading to be happy and be in a perfect world, but I should be a pickier reader until this indoctrination has faded away.

For now, I’m going to try knocking stars down for books that are insensitive to race, sex, and other diverse topics (ex. 3 🌟 —> 2 🌟). I will make note of why the book is losing a star and see if that works. Otherwise, I’m thinking of going big and dropping my rating from whatever it was to 1 star (ex. 4 🌟 —> 1 🌟).

Did anything I say make sense? Do you agree? Let me know your thoughts below!

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