This fall, author Lionel Shriver blamed identity politics and cultural appropriation for infringing upon an author’s right to write fiction from any point of view. And she inadvertently highlighted a serious issue in the world of literary criticism.
Racism in literature manifests itself in myriad ways: characters whose personalities are reduced to their accents, cultural dress or foods; brown or black characters “rescued” by white saviors; the “surprising” friendship between a white character and a character of color; or, a white character’s journey to a “foreign” or “third world” country in search of enlightenment. These narratives, some of the most common and enduring in literature, exist mainly to service and conform to the white gaze. And yet they are rarely deemed problematic in book reviews. The reason why has everything to do with who is writing those reviews.
Debbie Reese holds a master’s degree in library and information sciences, a PhD in education, and edits the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature. “Given that the center of power in the US is a white or white/European one, that position—intentionally or not—makes it okay for all manner of misrepresentation, bias, and stereotyping to go largely unchecked,” she says. “It is why books like Island of the Blue Dolphins won the Newbery. When looked at critically for its depictions of Native peoples, it fails.”
“Narratives shape perspective,” agrees Paula Lee, senior editor of Panorama, A Journal of Intelligent Travel, and a regular contributor to Salon, where she writes about literature, race, and Asian American issues. “What we typically don’t see, let alone interrogate, are the cultural mechanisms that make those narratives seem naturally given.”
The western or white gaze is unimaginative, misrepresentative, and often harmful. Unfortunately, most white critics, if they recognize it at all, will attempt to disguise its presence in reviews with race-neutral language. This is bad for both author and reader, because it excuses and perpetuates racial stereotypes and racist narratives. Such devices, which serve only to create emotional and intellectual distance, are ultimately failures of craft.
As Pooja Makhijani writes in her review of Kevin Kwan’s China Rich Girlfriend: “We Americans erase layers of oppression by foisting our own frameworks, which reflect the specificity of our culture and history, on others.” “The end result,” says Lee, “is the reflexive default to ‘the western gaze.’”
The lack of critics of color is becoming increasingly frustrating for writers like Porochista Khakpour, a critic and the author of The Last Illusion. “Most book critics are white, and very often white and male,” Khakpour says. “Often those white males are not themselves very well-versed in issues of race, ethnicity, xenophobia, cultural appropriation etc. They are simply trained in reading books by white men, for white men, about white men.”
Literary criticism, like the art it seeks to evaluate, must strive for a wide and varied perspective so that the literature it evaluates is similarly wide and varied. Then there’s the reality that it’s much harder to recognize a problem you’ve never experienced. This level of attentiveness often corresponds to a critic’s identity. “The critic who possesses a consciousness about oppression and white supremacy, and engages in an intersectional dialogue is usually a critic of color,” confirms Valerie Boyd, author of Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston and director of the MFA program at the University of Georgia.
Examples of this phenomenon are everywhere. Poverty enlightenment, a popular theme in narratives about white people traveling to brown or black countries, is similarly problematic when looked at through an anti-colonialist lens. Soniah Kamal, in a review of the Julie Feldon’s Karma Gone Bad (a memoir that proudly evinces its colonialist gaze in the title), notes that the author “sees beauty in the world after meeting a slum family, interacting with an orphan girl, and seeing a little barefoot errand boy. Does Feldon experience the same beauty when witnessing poverty in the US?”
Then there’s Nell Zink’s 2015 novel Mislaid. Critics deemed it “infallibly irreverent,” “profoundly irreverent,” “a high comedy of racial identity,” or a “backwards route to examining oppression.” Given its plot—whereby a white mother and daughter steal the names of a black mother and black daughter and pass as black people in rural Virginia in the 1960s—these reviews seem charitable. Mislaid harkens to blackface and slavery, when whites stripped Africans of their identities and forced them to assume their surnames. And yet only a few critics, including Ilana Masad, seemed alarmed by the severity of Mislaid’s issues: “As if there weren’t enough to be offended and disturbed by, this transformation—the very literal racial appropriation—is so ridiculous that it feels like a mere excuse for Zink to be inflammatory.”
Similarly, reviewers deemed Jess Row’s 2014 novel, Your Face in Mine (which also featured the appropriation of black identity) “nuanced” and “refreshingly self aware,” “bold” and “smart.” Writing for NPR, critic Amal-El-Mohtar was not so generous: “Never before have I read a book that marshaled such a wealth of research and intellectual inquiry to so grating a purpose: portraying the white need to appropriate black culture as an equivalent to the danger and difficulty of living with gender dysphoria.”
This is not to say that white authors cannot attempt to tackle topics such as race. As writer Maria Bustillos notes: “There’s no ‘right answer’ in literature. That’s just exactly how it saves us, by permitting us complete imaginative and intellectual freedom.” But what people like Lionel Shriver can’t seem to understand is that arguing for a more rigorous criticism of racism (or sexism, transphobia, ableism, classism, homophobia) in literature is not an argument to prevent or police it. A critic’s condemnation of an author’s cartoonish or fetishized portrayal of a specific ethnic group is no more an infringement upon the author’s right to write than a critic’s disapproval of a book’s flimsy plot, plodding pace or cliché prose.
There is also the fundamental question of a book review’s primary function. “Historically, plots and characters aren’t judged on accuracy,” says Reece, from the American Indians in Children’s Literature. “They are judged by ‘literary’ merit that has no room for ‘sociopolitical’ critique—not on what a book says, but on how well it is said.”
A reviewer’s perceived duties and boundaries, and the fear of overstepping those boundaries, may make them choose the easier road. “White reviewers have no incentive to comment on race if they don’t have to—if they get it wrong, they’ll get dragged, so why not just tiptoe around it, they’re not expected to cover every single dimension of a book, and hey, someone in some other publication will do it,” says author and critic Tony Tulathimutte. “Many book reviewers are highly reluctant to admit when they are simply not qualified to comment on certain topics.”
The good news is we’re starting to talk about this problem. More and more readers and critics of color are holding authors accountable for books that imitate society’s oppressive systems and reinforce noxious perceptions about historically marginalized communities. We are entering, too, an era when racial minorities will soon become the racial majority.
The shelf life of the white gaze, exoticism, colonialism, and white saviors will soon be passing its expiration date. It’s time both authors and critics took note.