Reviewing the Other: Like Dancing about Architecture

By Nisi Shawl

This essay is part of a discussion of culture and reviewing in this week's Strange Horizons. You can also read Samuel R. Delany's "Escaping Ethnocentricity?", and the round-table discussion, "Inclusive Reviewing", featuring a number of critics, editors and writers responding to and developing some of the points made below.


What I'm Talking About

Slowly, the imaginative genres are surrendering to the tidal pull of diversity. Never as monocultural as advertised, these days the literary kin group known to us Anglophones variously as "science fiction, fantasy, and horror;" "speculative fiction;" "sci-fi;" and, austerely, "SF," is richer than ever in work by authors differing from the dominant paradigm (white, male, cis, straight, physically able, etc.). It is also now more consciously inclusive of characters differing from this paradigm. Within the Anglophone world, work from outside the self-referential purview of the U.K. and U.S. commands growing attention, and in translation non-Anglophone work does too.

(I'm not going to try to prove any of the above assertions. That's outside the scope of this essay. I note at this article's end related material that backs them up [1], but basically I believe what I've written is true because I've spent much of my life attempting to make it so. Please take what you've read thus far as axiomatic and read on.)

As the diversity of the pool of genre tales being told widens and deepens, more of us want help accessing it. Where do we find the good stuff? How do we know it's any good? This essay intends to address ways in which reviews, and thus reviewers and reviews editors, can help, rather than hinder, based on my experiences on many sides of this question. It's born of controversy, and will probably live and die breathing, drinking, and eating it.

Homework

Afro SF coverLet's start with a probable success. I reviewed Ivor Hartmann's groundbreaking anthology AfroSF (StoryTime, 2012) for the Africa SF edition of the journal Paradoxa. First, I had to read it. This turned out to be quite a challenge. Getting a copy I could take to bed with me—a necessity due to a chronic medical condition—proved difficult. A reviewer's difference from the dominant paradigm may make the work of conscientious coverage harder. Also, the publisher's protections against theft made printing pages of the electronic version they sent impossible; finally, however, I was able to download the book to my phone. Upon doing so I discovered that the text was distractingly full of errors in punctuation, grammar, syntax, and so forth. In some instances they seemed to stem from typos and insufficient proofreading, and in others from the authors' inability or unwillingness to use the forms of language I considered standard. I, who had been arrogantly correcting my elders' speech since third grade, had to put aside my prejudices for the sake of doing this work, and read the book sans that familiar filter.

Next I had to summarize what I'd read for my audience. What would they want and need to know about Afro SF? What could I truthfully tell them? Those are the basic questions I ask myself when writing any review, but I realized several other questions had crowded in front of them. I believe these to be particularly important lines of research when Reviewing the Other, so I'll bullet point them:

  • What was this book trying to do?
  • Who was the book's intended audience?
  • How did I relate to that audience?
  • How did I relate to authors/editors?

To answer these questions, I needed to do research. My initial assumption that AfroSF had been published to demonstrate to non-African readers the genre's viability on that continent was totally wrong. Self-involved, too. As I learned from an online interview with Hartmann [2], the anthology's mission was actually to support its contributors in stretching their authorial abilities, and to rouse other African writers to SF's potential as an expressive form. That changed what I thought about the book, and what I wound up thinking changed what I wrote.

As for how I related to that audience and the overlapping set of those who'd created AfroSF, this, too, had bearing on my review. There were differences between us: I'm not African, nor knowledgeable about any African cultures, nor familiar with African SF. There were similarities: most of my ancestors were African, and I, too, am an SF writer. I acknowledged the former, took advantage of the latter, and proceeded. With caution.

Pay Attention to Your Reactions

An oft-cited expert on representations of the marginalized, I'd already looked into the many ways such representations could fail for my workshop and book on Writing the Other. At the same time I had learned a little about how perceptions of representations of the marginalized could fail just as badly.

Joanna Russ, the feminist SF author and critic, wrote many important works of fiction and nonfiction. My favorite nonfiction title of hers is How to Suppress Women's Writing (1983). In it Russ describes screening MA program candidates with two male colleagues. Blinded by their inexperience with the realities of women's lives, they gave short shrift to a poem about a 15-year-old girl's grueling ordeal of a date. Russ explains in detail how it happened that they didn't understand the deepest significance of the references—roses, refrigerators—the poet used. And this blindness showed itself between members dwelling securely within the boundaries of white academic culture in the U.S.

Filter House coverMatthew Cheney, a Strange Horizons reviewer who covered my 2008 collection Filter House, was incredulous that Samuel R. Delany, a writer he deeply admires, had praised my work. For Cheney it was "lifeless" and "a waste of time." It's generally thought a bad idea to respond to negative reviews; it was another black woman SF writer—who was also a juror for the award Filter House won—who commented to an online discussion group about the gender and racial disparities between reviewer and author. She noted that the one story in the collection he found of mild interest could have been said to center on a white male. Delany is black, too, and though male is gay and so departs from the dominant paradigm sexually, as I do. Perhaps our shared othernesses made certain elements in my work more vivid for him? Yet Cheney's also queer, so my theory is suspect.

Another, less personal example: sitting in a Clarion West class, I saw a story meet with incomprehension from nearly 90% of its first readers, the author's classmates. Suggestions for ways to fix what wasn't broken came from all sides as the author's fellow students contributed their critiques. At last instructor L. Timmel Duchamp explained why none of these changes were necessary for the story to do what it was intended to do. The meanings imbued in its culturally significant markers did work that was visible to her despite these markers' unfamiliarity, but that had to be translated into visibility for the class's majority. The story, "Recognizing Gabe: un cuento de hadas," was subsequently published by Strange Horizons, and very positively received by readers of all backgrounds.

Reviewers from one culture are inevitably going to miss some things, and apply different standards to others, in their readings of literature from another culture. We won't always get everything. Better to expect such mistakes, be open about them, admit to the high likelihood of them happening. Best of all to develop enough sensitivity to be able to point out in one's own efforts when and where they've probably occurred. To read carefully and note your reactions as accurately as possible.

Duchamp's successful analysis of a story draft using symbols from outside her personal experience is heartening, though, and I don't mean to say that "Reading the Other" can't really be done. I attempted to do it with AfroSF, and I have no plan of giving up any possible future attempts. Reading the Other sometimes gives one a lovely universe-warping shift of perspective, the thing devotees of SF are always searching for, the nerd's Grail: Sensawunda. Reading the Other is rewarding work. Yet it is work. A lack of engagement, a push into unknown territories that encounters no resistance, is most likely a clue not that something is missing, but that something is being missed. Easy conclusions are suspect. As reviewers we are charged with passing them by.

When I found that the majority of AfroSF's stories dealt with evil bureaucracies, I was reminded of this theme's prevalence in stories appearing in U.S. and British-centered SF 50 to 60 years ago. I noted that resonance but resisted accepting it as indicative of African SF's backwardness:

"It's tempting to see these many negative depictions of officialdom as derivative . . . But the history of influence is too complicated for such summarizations. Influence flows in several directions at once, arising spontaneously from similar inspirations at disparate locations. It ferments. It mutates. As a non-African . . . I can only speculate that frustrating firsthand encounters with bureaucracy are too fresh for Africans to ignore in their writing." [3]

There is no way to do the work of Reviewing the Other well without wondering if one's best efforts at doing it are good enough. Post-publication feedback may be the only reliable indicator. If you really believe your coverage won't do the book or the general subject justice, there's no shame in admitting this and withdrawing from the task—if your working agreements permit that.

Wordcounts and Formats Can Affect Your Efforts

Right before the U.S.'s Thanksgiving weekend I sent off two reviews to The Seattle Times. They were each about 250 words long. That's shockingly short: roughly a single manuscript page's worth—double-spaced. Of course these were "briefs." More typically the Times allows me twice as many words. I had 500 to cover lesbian and noted author Nicola Griffith's new Nebula-nominated novel Hild, which works out to less than a word a page. I managed to mention its authentically medieval racial diversity but not the heroine's bisexual nature.

Paradoxa's suggested reviews length is a generous 2000 words. This allowed me to do more than merely mention otherness, more than just summarize differences by way of nuance-flattening shorthand terms. I could reflect on AfroSF's stories' actual qualities, as well as how these qualities related to those deemed standard. I could consider the history of themes I found embodied in the anthology: catastrophe, totalitarianism, dystopia. I could take into account the interplay of economics, technology, and individual choices manifested in its contents.

Several times a year I send the Times what we call a "column." In the space of 550 words I cover two to four books with something in common—they're children's fantasies by authors who've previously written for adults, or they're "risky" ventures from small presses, or they're varying extrapolations of what it would be like to be immortal. Or something along those lines. Again, at approximately 110 to 140 words per book, there's not much room for thoughtful reflection on any otherness they may present. And these columns focus on rotating themes, themes I choose. Many reviewers aren't as fortunate; their themes may be unchanging and assigned. Or they may be charged with covering, within a given number of words, a sizeable portion of the genre's output, as in the case of many of Locus's reviewers. Unless their actual remit is to Review the Other, they won't be able to do so more than sporadically. Restricted by bailiwick, theme, and length, they'll stick to what's expected and well-known. A change in reviews editors' emphases could help increase reviewers' opportunities to cover more diverse material. Questions and challenges posed by reviewers feeling hampered by their editors could speed this change. I'd like to see both.

Not all length limitations are externally imposed. Bloggers publishing their own reviews must keep in mind the acronym "tldr" ("too long; didn't read"). Whether on a laptop or a phone screen, for many readers electronically delivered texts need to be much shorter than their print counterparts. These formats do make it possible to link to references, and that expansiveness compensates somewhat.

Posting a review isn't the same as getting it read. Nor, however, is it a guarantee of privacy; in fact, it's pretty much the reverse. Knowing this can make a reviewer on a standalone blog avoid subjects they might think of as controversial, such as translated books or books by minorities. I urge resistance to controversy-avoidance, which has the unfortunate effect of suppressing growth and knowledge on the part of potential participants.

Editors Can Help

Having an editor and submitting to a professional magazine doesn't mean never having to say you're sorry. It's not like Erich Segal's Love Story. But it does provide a reviewer with some protection. Anger at any mistakes will be shared between a review's author and the magazine's staff.

Of course there are also ways editors can reduce the likelihood of mistakes.

CSZ coverDuring my three years with The Cascadia Subduction Zone I've overseen the publication of more than 80 reviews. CSZ is a feminist periodical; we review works of interest to readers of feminist science fiction. Right away that puts our bailiwick outside the dominant paradigm. Thirty-three of the books we've covered come from authors and/or editors differing from it in additional ways—race, sexual preference, and age. That's well beyond a third of them, even ignoring gender. So with all these Otherish works to cover, how do I deal?

As CSZ's reviews editor, it's my task to find the best person to take on the work of reviewing a particular book. I have binders full of reviewers—no, actually, I have a spreadsheet—two spreadsheets. On the first I track who has covered what, and on the second I list potential contributors.

If, like me, you're an editor able to draw on multiple reviewers, I can share some advice. Again, I'll resort to bullet points:

  • Keep your eyes open for marginalized authors to cover
  • Keep your eyes open for marginalized reviewers to do the covering
  • Keep your ears open for titles your marginalized reviewers may suggest
  • Seek congruences between the reviewers you assign and the materials you assign them

Though there have been complaints in prominent quarters that international SF and SF by queers and POC is hard to find, it's really not that difficult. A bit of judicious web surfing and attention to forthcoming title announcements from interesting presses pay off well. Joining the list serves of pro-diversity organizations such as the Carl Brandon Society also helps with the search, and will give you access to reviewers, who in turn will be able to suggest suitable titles.

When assigning books to reviewers, I've never gone for an exact match. By the "congruence" I recommend above I mean similarity, not identicalness. Too close a fit and the reviewer may not consider—may not even notice—which elements of the work being reviewed a more mainstream reader will need help grasping.

When reviewing AfroSF, I came to understand that Hartmann's intended audience wasn't the one I'd visualized, the prevailing majority of white, Anglophone, Euro- or U.S.-centric SF readers. But that was a part of who my venue was trying to reach, which may be one reason why I was chosen for the job rather than someone more closely associated with the book's origins. Similarly, for CSZ I asked Ebony Thomas to review Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death, and Uzuri Amini to review Okorafor's YA novel, Akata Witch. Both women are of color, yet neither is the daughter of African immigrants as Okorafor is. Amini is a priest in a West African religious tradition, which I thought might be useful in analyzing a book whose heroine is taught to practice magic while living in that region. Victoria Garcia, a bisexual Latina, has reviewed work by Delany and Geoff Ryman, both gay. She shares with them a divergence from our society's default state of heterosexuality, but it's not the same divergence. Her ethnicity marks her as Other for many whites, but not as the same Other as Delany is because he's African American or Ryman is because he's a Canadian living in Britain. With each assignment I looked for the ways in which reviewer's and author's differences from the dominant paradigm might connect.

Of course a reviews editor's job isn't over once the assignment's made. For me, at least, there's some back and forth with the reviewers. The revisions I ask them to accept or reject combine proofing, line edits to clarify their points, and at times more fundamental changes that could be termed developmental editing.

I may ask them to explore aspects of a book's difference they'd typically be expected to downplay. Is the protagonist of the story they're critiquing trying to solve her dilemma with the aid of her family, or is she instead acting in accordance with Western precepts of individualism? And what's the rationale for either choice? I may coax them to draw on areas of knowledge they're accustomed to disregarding—their experiences of racial discrimination, of minority culture, and so on. Is there a tie between a character's acceptance or rejection of criticism and her attitude toward the critic's traditional place in her community? If so, what's that place, and what has the author chosen to show through this interaction? Is there culturally specific significance to the food an author depicts characters eating? If so, how can we make sure the uninitiated have at least a clue about what they'd probably miss?

Besides getting reviewers to put things in, I sometimes have to ask them to take things out. Unintentionally problematic references do appear. Often it only needs my fresh eye to spot a reviewer's equation of darkness with badness, or an unfortunate resonance between a reference to monkeys ("more fun than a barrel of—") and representations of blacks as subhuman primates, or words such as "gypped" used in ignorance of their origins as racial epithets.

After Publication

Enforcers of the dominant paradigm's values have a landfill's worth of stereotypical clichés at their disposal. These are fairly ubiquitous, and even we conscientious reviewers may find ourselves failing to recognize when we've included them in our coverage of a book. If an editor such as myself misses them, a reader is sure to find them out. This is the exact opposite of A Bad Thing.

Reader responses can come from members of the demographic group represented by the book covered, or from people connected with that group in other ways: friendship, blood, career, or education, for example. Those who simply see themselves in positions analogous to the represented group may have things to say also. Listening to them is part of what good reviewers and reviews editors have to do. Reader feedback can show us essential aspects of issues we've glossed over, underappreciated, or totally misunderstood. Just as they do for fiction, prepublication critiques of nonfiction (including reviews) will lessen postpublication awkwardness; they almost certainly won't eliminate it completely, though.

This essay was born out of an online discussion of how Alexandra Pierce's review for this magazine of Terra Nova, an anthology of Spanish-language SF, overemphasized the Otherness of the book it covered to the point of exoticization. To think and talk about such failures is to learn from them. What went wrong? How do we keep it from going wrong again?

Putting together the analysis that forms the bulk of this essay is one step in this process, and publishing it is another. Here are some thoughts on the specific trigger.

With a Fish in My Ear [4]

I've only edited one review of translated fiction. Carrie Devall's CSZ piece on Johanna Sinisalo's Birdbrain [5] mentioned the name of the translator in the same opening paragraph as the price and page count, and from there went straight into discussing the novel. No additional reference was made to its Finnish language origins.

Three Messages and a Warning coverDevall's review appeared in 2011. I barely remember editing it. But in early 2012 I began work on a review of my own [6] covering Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Short Stories of the Fantastic (December 2011, Small Beer Press), and that experience has stayed with me vividly. Perhaps because I was privileged to steep myself directly in this glorious book's intoxicating pages.

My review of Three Messages begins with a lightly sarcastic question about the relationship between my assumed readership and the special, oft-Othered nature of the anthology's contents: "What has Latin American magic realism done for you lately?" I go on to call out an aspect of the book which its editors highlight: its newness. I mention also its broad range of mood, topic, voice, and genre. A second reference to the hallmarks of magic realism serves to show how the stories in Three Messages stand in contrast with them. Finally, after bringing up the titles of a few of the stories I found most noteworthy, I acknowledged the ongoing part Mexico plays in the current international literary scene: the role of an equal.

Isolation and stasis are primary means of exoticizing people. One way for a reviewer to isolate a book is to divorce it conceptually from the cultural context in which it has arisen ("This unprecedented anthology bypasses the short form's common use of a single narrator …"); another way is to treat that cultural context as isolated from global culture ("Drawing exclusively on the authentic Russian tradition of …" ). Stasis is a method of isolating a people's culture temporally. A review of mainland Chinese fiction comparing it only to mainland Chinese writing from previous centuries ignores—or dismisses as irrelevant—the change that's a hallmark of any living society. I did my best to avoid the distancing created by using either approach.

My review was published by The Seattle Times, which means it ran about 500 words. Had there been more space to devote to covering Three Messages I would have said more about the facts of its translation. Because there are things to say.

Translation is a lens, magnifying what the translator thinks is important, distorting and refocusing both the whole of a written work and its parts. If I don't know that work's original language then translation becomes a filter, too. I can't see what the translator's not looking at. I have to gaze where her glance falls. I can't get asides he doesn't render. I miss subtleties such as code-switching—the differences in tone and vocabulary characters may use in differing situations.

To a reviewer putting all their trust in a single version of a translated work, knowledge of how dependent they are on its translator is daunting. The possibility that another's choices may make a story's crucial elements invisible underscores the need for finding a way to compare what I'm reading to something, somehow. When my lack of education keeps me from reading in the language an author wrote in, I can ask a competent friend to go through at least part of the original text. I can search for other translators' versions of the author's other works. I can read the translator's takes on other authors, looking for patterns, for repeated lacunae, for habitual narrative styles. I can research the translator's output; knowing the work history of a particular translator can help me understand which elements of the writing I'm reviewing to embrace and accept unconditionally, which to ascribe with certainty to the author, and which to suspect as someone else's impositions on the text.

All these tactics are helpful for giving a reviewer information on which to base conclusions and statements about the translation of a translated work.

From the Top

I gave this essay the subtitle "Like Dancing about Architecture" because while reviewing fiction, like writing it, is a form of art, we're best off remembering there's a bit of a disconnect between the two forms. The quotation in full (attributed to many but most likely first said by comedian Martin Mull [7] ) is, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." So, in my opinion, is writing a review of a story or novel categorized as "other." When we review literary works marked as significantly different from more familiar representatives of the field, we have to be simultaneously aware of these underscored differences and of our subjects' similarities—to the writing we're doing, to what we've read and covered in the past, and to what our audiences need, want, and expect to experience in a book. We have to demonstrate—not merely describe—how essential it is to read and understand what the dominant paradigm calls marginal, what it casts as being as peripheral to literary concerns as a set of blueprints.

That's basically all we have to do, and all I have to say on the topic of Reviewing the Other. Keep my bullet points in mind, pay attention to the limitations imposed by format and length, and avoid exoticizing tendencies towards stasis and isolation. Find out what you ought to be saying and say it. If you want more ideas on how to do this kind of thing well, talk amongst yourselves.

Endnotes

  1. Increased diversity references: "The Rise of Eastercon: the SF/fantasy convention with community spirit" (David Barnett, The Guardian, 9 April 2012) and "Beyond 'Game of Thrones': Exploring diversity in speculative fiction (Minday Farabee, Los Angeles Times, 9 June 2013) [return]
  2. De Burgh, Dave-Brendon. "Africa Rising: AfroSF – Science Fiction by African Writers (Edited by Ivor W. Hartmann)", DaveBrendons's Fantasy and SciFi Weblog (5 October 2012). [return]
  3. Shawl, Nisi. "A Brave and Contrary Thing: Review of AfroSF: Science Fiction by African Writer" in Paradox 25: Africa SF, edited by Mark Bould, Vashon Island, WA, 2013. [return]
  4. This is a reference to the "babel fish" of Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide series: a universal translator in the guise of a fish to be inserted in one's left ear. [return]
  5. Devall, Carrie."Boy Meets Girl, Ice Caps Melt" in Cascadia Subduction Zone, Volume 1, Number 2 [pdf]; Seattle, WA, April 2011. [return]
  6. Shawl, Nisi. "'Three Messages': Mexican Stories of the Fantastic" in The Seattle Times, 5 February 2012. [return]
  7. Quote Investigator. "Writing about Music Is Like Dancing about Architecture" [Accessed February 2014][return]

Nisi Shawl is the co-author, with Cynthia Ward, of Writing the Other (Aqueduct, 2005), and runs workshops on the same topic. She has reviewed regularly for 15 years, and is currently the reviews editor for The Cascadia Subduction Zone.

Comments

I regret my review of Nisi Shawl's collection more than anything else I've ever published (which is saying something!), though I think it stands as excellent evidence of what not to do in reviewing for rather different reasons than she does.

Primarily, the challenge for me was writing about a book I had no strong feelings about, good or bad. I had already bowed out of another review for SH at the time, so felt obligated to write that one. Those two factors together explain its insufferable, haughty tone, which derives as much from a desperate reach to "say something" when I had, really, nothing to say. (I expect I was also affected by a few writers I was reading at the time.) It was a pretty difficult time in my life, and that, too, may have affected my reading of the book and writing of the review, I'm not sure. Did my cultural background affect my assessment? Well, yes, to the extent that none of us can escape what we've experienced, including what we've read -- or not experienced or not read. We're situated in our situational knowledge.

It is not a review I have any desire to defend; I simply want to suggest that its failures may have many causes, and most of those causes may be unknown to observers.

Thank you for this thoughtful piece. In the spirit of reader's response that you mention, let me add a translator's perspective on your consideration of reviewing translated texts. I would hope that when reviewing translations, the contribution of the translator would be seen as more than simply an "imposition on the text" or lack thereof. I think it can be helpful to approach translation as a form of performance, and the relation between translation and source text as analogous to that between the text of a play or musical score and its various performances. Just as a performer may "impose" improvisations or purposeful or accidental deletions on the text of a play or piece of music, a translator necessarily transforms any work they translate, by rewriting the whole thing in different words. Not having the original text to compare with a given performance introduces ambiguities in determining the source of any quality being considered (was that the playwright's idea or the actor's? the author's or the translator's?), but it needn't hinder our ability to judge the performance of the text we have before us. Maybe acknowledging that the translator is a creative collaborator with the author can free the reviewer to respond to the text as it is without dwelling on who to credit or blame.

Thanks, Matthew for your revealing comment. I'm sorry you have this regret, and that unfavorable influences in your life caused problems for you. And based on my own personal and professional experience, I totally understand not wanting to have a run of refusing to do reviews.

Your flat reaction to Filter House may have been an instance of what I warned of above as a "lack of engagement, a push into unknown territories that encounters no resistance." But that's not for me to say--and I know that my own similar reactions to other work haven't always led to me questioning their causes. Let's keep thinking and learning and talking.

Lola, your comment is wonderfully helpful. I realize upon re-reading the essay with your remarks in mind that my description of an "imposition" on the text comes across as negative and judgmental. I do believe that translation is a creative act, and can see the performative aspects to it you've pointed out. Thank you for taking the time to do that work.

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