Why book reviewers must push past the white gaze.
In 2020, two months after the murder of George Floyd, I attended an online panel of four distinguished book critics, during which it was suggested that in order to be published in mainstream publications, a reviewer needed to act like a white man.
I was shocked, not because they actually said the quiet part out loud, but because none of them — three were white — seemed to think there was anything wrong with this. I wondered how many aspiring reviewers heard that and decided to direct their talents elsewhere.
As a person who belongs to several marginalized communities — Asian American, immigrant, transracial adoptee, and later-in-life writer — I became a reviewer to highlight books by #OwnVoices authors that are overlooked or misunderstood by white reviewers. I was fortunate to find a home here in the Independent, where I have published almost 100 reviews of outstanding quality. However, when I pitch reviews to better-paying venues, I rarely get the courtesy of a response, much less a yes (thank you, LARB!).
Having endured more than 60 rejections in order to get my debut novel published, I am intimately acquainted with the coded language of gatekeepers who hide behind vague phrases like, “didn’t connect with the main character,” “not sure where the book would be shelved in a bookstore,” and “act like a white man.” Reviewers are the final gatekeepers in the publishing process, yet too often, they seem to be just another cog in the literary establishment’s publicity machine, giving a final blessing to the books that have already been anointed.
Books that exploit marginalized people and cater to a white audience get laudatory reviews, while more authentic voices are ignored because the narratives are uncomfortable, the indie publishing house lacks the marketing clout, and/or the reviewer simply doesn’t have the ability to read beyond his or her own circumscribed perspective.
As a facilitator of writing workshops and a mentor to adoptee writers, I promote reviewing as a great way to get published, hone writing and critical thinking skills, gain knowledge of the current literary landscape, and — why I came to it in the first place — be a good literary citizen. Improving my own practice of the art of literary criticism is a lifelong commitment. But I also think that those of us who are brave enough to be critics are answering a higher calling in the literary community and the institution of literature: Review by review, we’re trying to effect the change we want to see.
Thank you to the Independent for being my book-reviewing home, allowing me to cover the books I want and not what the market dictates, and permitting me to insert myself into reviews when appropriate, as I believe the reviewer’s background is vital information for helping the reader understand the reviewer’s biases and values.
While continuing to evangelize book reviewing to emerging writers, I strive to open the door wider for diverse reviewers so that they may succeed on their own merits and not because they are adept at performing white supremacy.
[Editor’s note: This column is drawn, in part, from Alice Stephens’ application essay for the National Book Critics Circle’s Emerging Critics Fellowship.]
Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, as well as a book reviewer, essayist, short story writer, and a columnist for the Independent.