Discussing Race/Sexuality in Reviews

In the last year or so, Kirkus reviews changed their review policy to try and better identify diverse books for readers. In an article by Vicky Smith from last may, (https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/unmaking-white-default/) she writes “But as the conversation surrounding diversity in children’s literature has heated up, I’ve felt more and more that naming race and identity is one of the duties of a reviewer.” I understand her point. Covers and plot descriptions of novels are not necessarily indicators of race or sexuality, and for those who are seeking books with diverse characters, this makes discovery a challenge. On the other hand, I also think that there has to be a measure of how relevant or important those details are to the story, and whether or not it’s necessary to call attention to it.

Recently I read a young adult novel that dealt with the suicide of the main character’s sister, and the impact it has on her and her family. The reviewer, (likely in line with the magazine’s policy) specifically mentioned that the protagonist’s best friends were a gay white boy and a well-to-do girl with cocoa skin. The reviewer also pointed out that the grief counselor had olive skin, and that the boy she ends up romantically involved with is white.

Quite honestly I don’t remember the author even offering many details about the protagonist’s appearance. There might have been some indicators that she wasn’t white, but as the story had nothing to do with race or sexuality, I likely didn’t pay any attention to or care what colour skin supporting characters had. Oddly enough, the review also never stated what race the protagonist was, implying that she wasn’t white by calling attention to the fact that the boy was.

Some of you might suggest that my being jarred by these descriptions is due to the fact that I’m white and the majority of books are about white protagonists. That’s possibly true. I don’t bring the experience of being a minority to my reading, but I still feel like making such a deliberate effort to point out that the main character is probably white isn’t changing the narrative or calling attention to a need for diversity- it’s simply making race an issue where it isn’t. Does it really make such a tremendous difference to identify every minor character by race/sexuality? And for that matter, if the main character is white, or implied to be white, is that also a detail that needs to be pointed out? As a reviewer myself (though not for Kirkus admittedly) I’ve always focused on the big themes and ideas, and unless race/sexuality is important to the story, I’ve never pointed it out.

Reviewers definitely have a responsibility to their readers to fairly and appropriately evaluate the books they review. There is an obligation to point out the quality of the writing, the quality of the story, suitability for the intended age group, and whether or not it is perpetrating stereotypes.

Quite some time ago I read an editorial about how offensive it is to state that someone in a book “just happens to be….” but the author of the editorial also acknowledged that we still haven’t come up with better language to identify these characters when we talk about books. As an industry, I think there is still work to be done in finding a way to identify diverse characters in literature without having to make such a deliberate and obvious effort to do so.

13 Responses to Discussing Race/Sexuality in Reviews

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Apr 12 2017 at 6:03 am #

    Rule number one: Show, don’t tell. Getting hit over the head with it in a review would be as jarring as it would be in the story, if the author made a point of specifying the race and/or sexual orientation of a character when it made no difference. If it does, show me how it does, and spare us both the extra words. Going on about it as some kind of political nut-point is just a turn-off to reading the book.

    • doozy donegal Apr 12 2017 at 8:45 am #

      Thanks Mark; When the cheap filler becomes the topic for review, the story must be week.

      • Marc Vun Kannon Apr 12 2017 at 10:31 am #

        The topic for the review should be the story. If the diversity of the character plays into that story, via his dialog and/or actions, then by all means mention it. If the diversity of the characters is just in name only (which is poor writing rather than real diversity) then put that into a header box (Diversity: 10%) rather than waste time on it.

  2. Raili Taylor Apr 12 2017 at 6:09 am #

    Thanks for an interesting piece. As you say, I suspect that your gut reaction is that of a white reader. The default setting for most of us is to assume that our normal is the norm. I’m also white but my children have a black father. When my son was small and we were buying books for him he was frustrated because all my suggestions featured a black character. When I asked why he didn’t like them he explained that black children in books always have such a hard time and never have any fun. This was back in the 1970s. I believe things have improved and that my grandchildren have a better choice of reading matter. Personally, I always feel more comfortable if the characters in my books – as in real life – reflect the diversity in which I like to live. Therefore, if I know a book has more to offer than an all white cast I’m definitely interested to take a closer look. It is not the main duty of the reviewer to list all the character attributes in a book but I think it is good to give a fair flavour of what to expect. It can be done subtly, of course, rather than waiving a flag.

  3. Anna Eleanor Jordan Apr 12 2017 at 8:39 am #

    This policy has been very frustrating to people in the industry. Kirkus has on more than one occasion made proclamations about race in books that aren’t especially correct either because illustrators created characters that are ambiguous on purpose or writers left space for readers to imagine themselves in the character’s place. I’m torn on the policy which ideally helps parents, librarians, and educators curate a more diverse collection of books.

  4. J W Apr 12 2017 at 9:09 am #

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you said you’re white and that’s why you don’t see the need for this. Readers who are not white or straight or default/”normal” are ALWAYS looking to find themselves in books because it is STILL SO RARE, so listing the different characteristics of ALL the characters, though cumbersome, allows readers (or librarians/adult book buyers) to easily discover books that will give readers the representation they’ve been missing. And, if a character’s race/sexuality/gender “doesn’t matter” in the story, then its possible that the characters haven’t been created with an eye to how that description (be it skin color or sexuality or religion) affects their life experience and their actions in the book.

    Perhaps seeing “white” in reference to the majority of protagonists will finally make the industry realize just how unrealistically “undiverse” the worlds of published books are.

    • Marc Vun Kannon Apr 12 2017 at 10:16 am #

      “if a character’s race/sexuality/gender “doesn’t matter” in the story, then its possible that the characters haven’t been created with an eye to how that description (be it skin color or sexuality or religion) affects their life experience and their actions in the book.”

      Exactly. It’s a flaw in the writing that can’t really be fixed by throwing in words like ‘black’ or ‘gay’. If it was written better they wouldn’t be needed.

      • J W Apr 12 2017 at 11:16 am #

        I would say that in a review (which must be brief) these descriptions for the characters ARE necessary as they allow the reader of the review to understand characters and dynamics within the story (if the story is written with consideration of how those characteristics affect said dynamics). Plus, reviews help guide purchasing/reaching choices, so knowing these details drives decisions as well. If the review doesn’t include these details, then representation and tropes and stereotypes are not always clear.

        I do agree with you that if, as the writer above says, these characteristics don’t affect the story, then it’s a flaw in the book’s writing.

        • Marc Vun Kannon Apr 12 2017 at 11:55 am #

          I said something similar in a reply to another comment on this thread.

  5. Elizabeth Torphy Apr 12 2017 at 9:57 am #

    Bravo!

  6. Ela Bell Apr 14 2017 at 9:35 pm #

    I write romance, some pretty steamy. I did dissertation work for my phd on race, particularly mixed race identity. One of the conclusions in my research is that we have such an obsession with race that we have a difficult time accepting one another without it. Race allows us to rank others. It’s a totally invalid way of viewing individuals. So I’ve made my characters’ racial identity vague. However, some of my relatives of color objected and craved a character who loved ones like them. I played with that notion and n my last book, Engaging Passion. (Ela Bell) However, I doubt that concession will matter to readers who are looking to raise their libido.

  7. Ela Bell Apr 14 2017 at 9:38 pm #

    I write romance, some pretty steamy. I did dissertation work for my phd on race, particularly mixed race identity. One of the conclusions in my research is that we have such an obsession with race that we have a difficult time accepting one another without it. Race allows us to rank others. It’s a totally invalid way of viewing individuals. So I’ve made my characters’ racial identity vague. However, some of my relatives of color objected and craved a character who loooked like them. I played with that notion in my last book, Engaging Passion. (Ela Bell) However, I doubt that concession will matter to readers who are looking to raise their libido. (Posted twice due to typos, apologies.)

  8. Miss Daisy Jun 5 2017 at 3:47 pm #

    When describing a book, what do we talk about? Genre, number of pages, author, audience… Any of these elements could be left out and still provide for a good introduction to a book. But we’d never leave out the topic or the title. That being said, what are the identifiers of characters, and of what importance are those identifiers to the work? If an author identifies the race or height or sexual preference of a character there’s probably–hopefully–a literary reason for doing so; I’d mention that in a review if the character is important to the story, and the feature is important to the character.

    Having said that, I agree that members of majority cultures may not have an inherent awareness of how diversity matters to others. Pointing out the diversity of characters doesn’t have to be preachy at all, just an acknowledgement that this book may be responsive to a reader’s desire for diversity.

    Diversity is important for diversity’s sake, but mere diversity does not a good read make. Let’s make sure that whichever way we go with this, we don’t create either stereotypical fillers or plain vanilla diversifiers. Race and gender and eye color and birth order…are important as c-h-a-r-a-c-t-e-ristics.

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