Inclusive Reviewing: A Discussion
By Samuel R. Delany, L. Timmel Duchamp, Fabio Fernandes, Andrea Hairston, Alex Dally MacFarlane, Sofia Samatar, and Aishwarya Subramanian
24 March 2014
This round-table discussion was convened as a further discussion of some of the issues raised by Nisi Shawl in her essay, "Reviewing the Other: Like Dancing About Architecture." A longer response by Samuel R. Delany, sent during this discussion, can also be read in this week's issue, here. The discussion took place by email in March 2013.
Sofia Samatar: This is an enormously important conversation, but I do want to start by saying I'm not entirely comfortable with the language of "_____ the Other." To me, it suggests a level playing field, as if the problem is simply that people are different from each other. But actually—as Nisi points out—there is a dominant paradigm, and this dominance is the problem. I think of a groundbreaking work on the criticism of African literature, Towards the Decolonization of African Literature, by Onsucheka J. Chinweizu, Onwuchekwa Jemie, and Ihechukwu Madubuike. That book came out in the '80s, and these three Nigerian critics really tear up Eurocentric criticism, pulling no punches, but it's Eurocentric criticism they're fighting, no matter who's writing it. In fact they point to the problem of African critics who believe African literature should conform to the standards of European modernism. So, all this to say—reviewing across difference is not our problem. Our problem is Eurocentric criticism, or, depending on the situation, heterosexist criticism, ableist criticism, and so on.
That said, I love Nisi's point about isolation and stasis. We should all make an effort to avoid those baleful assumptions. Like Nisi, I tend to do more research when I review translated works: when I reviewed Dung Kai-cheung's Atlas last year, for example, I read interviews with the author as well as, of course, the translator's introduction. Always, always read the translator's introduction, if there is one! The transfer of meaning across difference is a translator's daily bread; their introductions are often full of crucial information about the work, as well as reflections on the choices they've made in rendering it into English.
In addition to going outside the work—go in. Go in the way you would with any book. I write reviews because it's an intensified form of reading. Don't give that up just because you're reading in translation, or outside your experience. Play with the work, and don't be afraid to get dirty. What's this work doing? What does it want from you? Don't give us some nervous, sweaty, ultra-cautious review, full of caveats and laments about your own ignorance. Like those translations peppered with footnotes that make you feel like you're going to get an exam afterward. Deadly.
Andrea Hairston: Confession: I don't really write reviews. I write essays on science fiction and fantasy or speculative narratives. I usually have the luxury of several thousand words and for the most part choose to write on a particular piece or topic. There's got to be a spark (of some sort) between me and the work. I won't waste my precious writing time if there isn't a spark. If I am not thoroughly engaged, I'll just go back to writing novels or writing and producing plays. My choices of what to review are personal and political. Editors (like Nisi Shawl) know that I indulge my writer spirit. They make offers I can't refuse.
When writing, I engage in a conversation with the work of art. The film, play, or story evokes a flood of response. The artistic choices call to major passions/issues/questions on my mind; the author, filmmaker, playwright riles me up, pisses me off, delights my mind/body, and I must write about my experience, investigate it, understand what the work is doing to me and perhaps to others.
So despite having published several reviews (one recently on Africa SF), I'm actually more of a cultural critic—trying to understand the nature of representation and power and possibility in our world. I'm a professor—so I contextualize, historicize, and theorize. Critical discourse as defined by Enlightenment Western Intellectual traditions grants/offers the illusion of abstract objectivity—a disembodied state achieved through rational analysis of observable facts based on invisible axioms that are "universal." Which, loosely translated, means some dude (the rational subject) has the God's eye view of the rest of us objects and can pass judgment on our value/worth, meaning, and brilliance. Despite assaults on the logical fallacies of this intellectual system, we are still up against this master narrative every time we utter a poem, play, novel, or review. The persistence of the old regime is fierce!
The Hopi say the one who tells the stories rules the world. The master narrative is the story, the ideological script that the powerful make of the world. Writing this from Florence, MA in 2014, I struggle with a patriarchal, Eurocentric master narrative, but think of the English devastating the Irish, stealing their land, food, labor, and language and defining them as less than human in narratives and law. The master narrative is an empire narrative, consuming diversity as fuel for its mono-cultural reign, often reign of terror which, through the magic of brilliant art, is eventually normalized. The terror and violence become mundane: the poor, the women, the colored folks, the disabled, the queer Others, the Untouchables deserve their fate.
As Nisi writes we must check ourselves when reviewing. I've internalized this master narrative, so as a so-called reviewer, I must seek out the invisible workings of this anti-diversity system in me and in the art. I'm doing that as much as I am trying to evaluate a piece of work so that others can decide whether it's part of the good stuff or the not so good stuff or the dreck. All of our values are in the context of the empire master narrative. This practice of "checking myself" is something I bring to any essay I write—whether it's about an Octavia Butler short story, Peter Jackson's King Kong, Neill Blomkamp's District 9 or Eleanor Arnason's Big Mama Stories.
I don't believe in objectivity. Getting to know and understand my own subjectivity takes serious work. Most of what we think is hidden from our conscious minds. I don't censor my responses—they are an embodiment of the invisible narrative I inhabit. Nevertheless I edit those responses and supplement them with research and debate and theatre games. Theatre is all about playing other selves—type-casting is a relatively recent phenomenon. As Anna D. Smith says, acting is about the travel from self to other. That travel includes reading author/filmmaker interviews, other reviews, contextual material, and also tracking down history and cultural references, and listening beyond a circle of comfort. For King Kong, I had to admit that I wasn't the target audience. For Octavia Butler article, I had to leap the chasm between theatre and film (performing arts) and literature. Activitating empathy kicks my butt! Getting the theatre of the mind beyond the master narrative default setting for who I should love, worship, value, devalue, ignore and despise takes every bit of me. So writing in that sense is a sacred task, not something I undertake lightly.
L. Timmel Duchamp: Andrea's discussion of her awareness of the master narrative resonates powerfully with me—as writer, editor, and reviewer. I never stop parsing the politics of the narratives I read. (This makes watching most television shows and movies hard to stomach.) It's the reason that one of my key strategies as a writer is to structure many of my stories so that they evoke resistance to narratives of dominance in the reader. Awareness of the normalized presence of narratives of dominance in the work I review is always kicking me in the head. The question then is: how does this impact my reviewing of work that in some way or other departs from master narratives? I can think of at least two ways, and there are probably more.
First, most importantly, it helps me recognize narratives that are either new to me or are interesting variations on those I've encountered before—something that is always exciting for me, personally as a reader. I love resistance to political dominance, and especially to dominant narratives, and my emotional self will immediately seize on any traces of resistance it picks up on and works to assemble a reading that will deliver a big shot of that pleasure straight into my veins. When I'm reading outside my own cultural experience, how I assemble readings is a bit of mystery to me, so I can't offer any advice about this, except to develop master-narrative radar. (I suspect my own developed from 40 years of reading theory.)
Second: intersectionality. I sometimes find when I'm reviewing a novel that offers new narratives or interesting variations that depart from master narratives that it is all too likely to include some of the old ugly narratives as well, complete with stereotypes. Let's face it: very few writers, of any culture, are gifted enough to be able to avoid clichés and stereotypes altogether. What is the reviewer to do with work that challenges certain master narratives yet retains others? My own response is to draw attention to the new narrative ventures and then mention my reservations. How strongly I express reservations will probably be determined by how far the new narrative ventures have blown me away (and how much the retention of stereotypes riles me).
Anent Nisi's mention of Alberto Yáñez's story, written for the week I taught at Clarion West and subsequently published by Strange Horizons: I was impressed not only with how deftly Yáñez handled the gender identity issue, but also with his beautiful departure from USian clichés about macho Latino culture. I think this departure from the clichés was the chief stumbling block for his classmates' reading of the story. Expectations for how characters are "supposed" to act and react, depending on how they've been identified for the reader, is one of the biggest problems we all face reading fiction about anyone but elite white males. When I bought Andrea's Mindscape for Aqueduct Press, she told me that a major publisher, rejecting the novel, had complained that black people don't speak German (which some of the black characters in Mindscape do—as Andrea herself does). Such unspoken expectations (which have long been known to be a constant problem for writing/reading women characters) exist in readers' minds as "common sense" that, in the naïve reader, goes unquestioned. I'd like to think most reviewers would think they have a responsibility to overcome naïveté, but I know that's wishful thinking.
Alex Dally MacFarlane: I'm coming at this conversation from the perspective of someone reading reviews and encountering the "unspoken expectations" and mis-placed "common sense" that Timmi talks about, with one specific example in mind: the inability of some reviewers to understand non-binary gender and pronouns. There's a peculiar resistance from some people to the use of "they" as a personal pronoun, despite its long history of use in many forms of English as a generic singular (it flows a lot nicer than saying "he or she"). Some people say that it's a plural pronoun only and for anyone to use it as their own pronoun, replacing (or supplementing) the "she" or "he" that doesn't fit them, is grammatically incorrect. This leads to the following reviews for a story—"Annex" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew—in which a person uses "they" as their pronoun:
Carl V. Anderson at SF Signal: "Two alien entities wage a surreal battle to save an alien world from absorption by powerful hegemony . . . A multiple-entity known as Esithu . . . "
Lois Tilton at Locus: "Unfortunately, the author has chosen to distract readers with a lot of unoriginal Lookit! We're in the Future! stuff that I find more irritating than interesting, especially Esithu's plural pronouns."
A reviewer finds a pronoun that real people use "irritating"—or, worse, sees that pronoun and thinks a human is an alien because they cannot comprehend a person being a "they". It's frustrating, not intellectually (although it is that, too) but in the gut-punch of erasure: the reviewer turning a person like me into an alien.
This belongs to a broader issue of ignorance, and the importance (as Nisi says in her essay) of striving to understand the context and content of the work without isolating it at an Othering distance—but there are people who will not or cannot understand what they read. Some won't make the effort. Some will, but will fall short. The consequence can be the same: Othering or erasure. I'm not saying this to discourage trying, only to point out what difficult work this is.
Aishwarya Subramanian: Doing research on a book's context is important to me—as an outsider it's possible that I'm never going to understand every nuance, but I'm not absolved from trying. I think a lot about my own subject position in relation to the book, to where it comes from, and to what my review is going to "mean"; I know, for example, that certain books are going to be less widely reviewed than others and so my voice will have more weight than it would otherwise. All of this affects how authoritatively I want to present myself. I do think it's useful to know where a reviewer is coming from and what they don't know. But I'm also wary of the sort of over-cautious, caveat-filled review that Sofia warns against. Particularly when such a review ends up centring the reviewer's lack of knowledge rather than the book itself.
The amount of context that needs to be included in a review is a different question entirely—however much research the reviewer has done, the book (or books) should still be the focus of the piece. How much context is necessary depends on audience; but there's a point beyond which a reviewer needs to let the audience do some of the work because reviews should not be Other Cultures 101.
All of this is a bit idealised. I've been very lucky in having a regular column in which I get to review what I want, but even then the realities of resources, deadlines, wordcounts, and (as Nisi points out) basic things like available technology get in the way.
I've spent a lot of time recently being annoyed at well-meaning reviews that champion "diversity" as a concept without any clear idea of why or what that entails. I felt that certain reviews of Fabio and Djibril al-Ayad's We See a Different Frontier, for example, didn't get much further than the introduction and contents pages; more words were spent on the fact that a diverse range of authors had written things than on the things they had written. There's a sense, I think, of diversity as inherently noble that can be frustratingly superficial, and that ignores a lot of the real complexity of interchanges between cultures. What Chip says about the assumptions of power inherent in "the only useful response to another culture is awe, curiosity, or nothing", for example, articulated for me something that has made me uncomfortable for a while.
Another reviewing pitfall (does the above paragraph count as a pitfall?) I've seen is the one where the reviewer forgets that both science fiction and the internet can have a wide and varied readership. It's useful for a reviewer to know their audience, but the assumption of a "we" that doesn't include members of whatever non-mainstream group the reviewed work comes from is merely another iteration of the assumption that straight, cis, white men are the default.
Fabio Fernandes: Following Andrea's footsteps, I have a confession to make as well: I don't write reviews, not anymore—neither do I write essays, except for the occasional academic paper. This was a conscious choice on my part, for two reasons: I want to focus on my fiction, and I don't want to be misinterpreted while writing in a language that is not my native one.
I've been thinking about the concept of unspoken expectations Timmi mentioned and found myself in a similar situation: as a Latin American non-hispanic mixed race man, viewed as a PoC in the Northern Hemisphere but considered a white man this far south of the border, a writer in my country and my language for 25 years but in another country and another language for just half a dozen now, I'm still scratching the surface, in many respects. And I would like to add to this discussion something that struck me as very powerful from my years of writing reviews and stories in English: different cultures entail different ways of thinking, and different ways of thinking might entail different modes of writing and reviewing. Also, there is not only one Western Culture, but several different Western Cultures. As I wrote years ago in a guest post for Jeff VanderMeer's blog, I am also an American—but a South American. North American traditions and South American traditions are completely different things, although these days we might mingle in a crowd, wearing the same kind of clothes and listening to the same kinds of music as we often do.
Speaking as the Other myself, I marvel at the possibilities created by the linguistic gap. Say you are a Mexican, a Venezuelan, or a Brazilian; which reviewer, trying to write in English, will write the truest, honest-to-God English text? There is no right, accurate answer to this (it would be an unspoken expectation), but maybe the Mexican would have more knowledge of English due to geographical proximity to the US, while the Venezuelan and the Brazilian wouldn't have this advantage. But the Mexican and Venezuelan are Spanish speakers, while the Brazilian is a member of the only people in Latin America who doesn't speak Spanish, only Portuguese. For all three of them the conundrum is the same: every time they start writing in English, they will almost necessarily—at least in the first draft—add totally different cultural baggage. This might seem obvious but nobody seems to think that might generate an entirely different review and that's where the Other really enters the stage.
I can remember an occasion when I had to review a book by a white male American author and I wrote that said author was a bigot, and this wasn't a matter of mistaking the character for the author. I mentioned a situation in the book and pointed the readers to his website—but that was to no avail; even though almost half of the people who commented on the review site understood what I was trying to say, more than 50% decided to "call my B.S." and one of the things they decided to do besides calling me an idiot (which doesn't count really count) was try to deconstruct my review, saying it was badly written and full of logical loopholes. After a few days doubting myself (this deconstruction tool can be very powerful in the othering process) I talked to a few friends and decided that, even if I could have written a better review (we always can), that wasn't the point: I just wasn't writing a typical Anglo-American review! Instead of pointing to the link I should have written at least a paragraph accurately describing the subject. In time I have come to understand that this is pretty much the same in English and American reviews—the reviewer must cater to his readers guiding them by the hand, step by step, avoiding non-linearity. This is not wrong at all (I happen to find it elegant) but is not necessarily right. The Brazilian Western Culture drank deeply from the French literary tradition in the 18th and in the 19th Centuries, and the Gallic worldview still affects deeply our literature until today, which makes me prone to write blog posts and reviews in an elliptic fashion—a fashion North Americans maybe call wrong, and I've been doing my very best to correct myself even though I don't think I'm necessary wrong, but I agree that many of my English-language readers might have a little trouble to understand what I'm trying to convey. This is a huge case of cultural gap and that is where we can enrich each other's languages instead of trying to force them to stay apart and enclosed in their pens. One of the things I tried to do with the anthology We See a Different Frontier was to raise awareness to this cultural and linguistic gap—but I wonder if, as Aishwarya just said quoting Chip, the majority of responses we're getting will be labeled as nothing. Is the Other remaining invisible?
Andrea Hairston: Wow! Reading everyone's powerful responses, I am struck by the arrogance, hostility, and vitriol we face in public spaces. It is not just a negative barrage, of course. And I do know my brain is set to notice the one bad thing in a sea of good, still . . . If we, as artists, reviewers, or readers, express ourselves and engage with folks in public spaces to the fullest degree, we run the risk of being assaulted, disappeared, reconfigured. The public space in the USA is not my home. Humility, respect, and compassion would not be words I would choose to describe contemporary public discourse in this country. We wage war with one another, we do battle, draw blood. I would love another metaphorical landscape for critique and debate. How did wise yet humble get a bad rep? The rage at sharing the center (the fear of losing oneself in that sea of difference) is profound. I have felt this rage many times, coming at me, coming at others.
How do we practice the art and craft of translation of text and context?
Sofia Samatar: I am also really blown away by these responses. What strikes me most is the call to compassion that runs through so many of them . . . compassion for ourselves and others in the midst of "fear and awe"; openness to changing our language, to engaging with others, to seeing. When we started I thought well, we're going to tell people to get to work, and some of them won't like it—and I was thinking of "work" as research. But I think we're asking ourselves and others for a much more difficult kind of work. "Humility, respect, and compassion," as Andrea says, in a competitive and often hostile public space.
It's so necessary, though, because if we don't do the work, we dismiss things, either through excessive fear (the contemptuous review) or excessive awe (the fetishizing "ooh diversity!" review). Like Aishwarya, I'm always cast down when I read a review that doesn't say much of anything beyond "there's a diverse group of authors represented here." As if diversity is its own reward, as if what people are (a thing to be consumed) is more important that what they say (an invitation to intellectual and emotional engagement). To listen, to see—that's work. Research is important, but it can't take the place of the deep involvement in the work that I think of when we say "compassion."
Samuel R. Delany: The position I start out from falls between Andrea's and Fabio's. I'm an academic, but I don't write many reviews—for all the reasons Cyril Connolly cites in Enemies of Promise. (Full-length essays are fine, he says. But forty or fifty under-fifteen-hundred-word snippets, collected in a book twenty-five years on, most about novels by then nobody remembers, make deadly reading—no matter how good the reviews seemed at the time. The only writerly form more ephemeral is blurbs.) I read reviews, of course; I enjoy them. But I don't read as many as I should. I haven't had a regular reviewing venue for thirty years—and I don't particularly want one. Like Timmi, I can't encounter any narrative without parsing the political emplotment, and almost always I find it wanting. But one thing I've discovered is that almost anything with a richly textured enough surface, if I take the time to look at it again, will come off a lot better than it first did, and it will have things I overlooked before that now are useable. (Probably that's the important thing that the eight pages I shot off at first boil down to.) Fundamentally, that's an aesthetic rather than a political approach.
I would hope here, however, all of us have read anthropologist Laura Bohanan's essay "Shakespeare in the Bush," which is her account of several West African tribal elders critiquing—and correcting—her account of Hamlet over a rainy summer. It's widely available on the Internet and very funny. It's insight grows out of our ethnocentric cultural relativism that lets most readers see what we become as soon as we attempt to interpret works from any other culture—even works from different parts of our own. Regularly I have used it as a teaching text, and my graduate students who are unfamiliar with it up till then often take it on for use in their own classes.
L. Timmel Duchamp: Thanks, Chip. As a matter of fact, "Shakespeare in the Bush" came into my mind as I was reading your first post. This piece often comes to my mind when I'm thinking about narrative, and of course it's a classic example of why the notion of "universality" of certain stories as well as the notion that there are only a handful of stories that can be told are arrogant presumptions. The piece also reminds us that any narrative depends on a host of largely invisible assumptions (and, yes, expectations) that holds it together. Narratives depend, as poet Lyn Hejinian says, on community. (It's sometimes said that stories create community, but it's really a chicken-and-egg relation.) Nisi mentioned the complexities of reviewing translated work as well as the limitations imposed by length and format, and Fabio mentioned the difficulties for someone trained in reviews in other cultures to write reviews intelligible to most US readers. These difficulties are all the result of the crucial relationship between community and the narratives it shares, supports, and creates. What, then, reviewers conscious of reviewing "the other" aim to do is, perhaps, to stretch the parameter of that relationship and implicitly invite their readers to do the same. Laura Bohannon warns us that there often can't be real narrative equivalence. And Chip uses the apt metaphor of facing "a huge hall of mirrors." When, I wonder, is it appropriate for reviewers to mention this problem?
Fabio Fernandes: A very quick intervention: I'm thinking of Homi Bhabha's The Location of Culture and how we can relate our locations in culture to the Great Conversation of SFF without pigeonholing ourselves. Do we insert ourselves in the conversation as the Other (I'm painfully aware of Chip's earlier caveat that we are always othering as we are othered)? Remembering my punk days of yore, I'm tempted to say yes, fuck all that. On the other hand, how do we insert ourselves in the conversation as belonging to it (I'm using the verb in purposeful opposition to the noun Other) not having to bargain nor beg our admission?
Andrea Hairston: Community is a narrative—but it's a non-linear relationship. The stories I tell, tell me—a hall of mirrors, but not identical reflections to infinity. We are changed by the stories we tell. So indeed, I think we need to tell stories that are not bargains, that are not about begging for admission to the communities we already inhabit and define. I think it a good idea to make the invisible visible. "Shakespeare in the Bush" is about the travel we need to do to get to one another, through the invisible lands. That travel is an amazing, difficult journey, but necessary. No text without context—the reviewer and the reviewed.
Samuel R. Delany is the author of numerous novels, including Nova, Dhalgren, and Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, and critical works including The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, Starboard Wine, and About Writing: 7 essays, 4 letters, and 5 interviews. His work has won four Nebula Awards and two Hugo Awards, and in 2013 he received the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award.
L. Timmel Duchamp is the author of Love's Body, Dancing in Time, the five-volume Marq'ssan Cycle, and a lot of short fiction and essays. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and Sturgeon awards and short-listed several times for the Tiptree. She lives in Seattle.
Fabio Fernandes lives in São Paulo, Brazil. He has stories published in Everyday Weirdness, StarShipSofa, Kaleidotrope, Scigentasy, Steampunk Reloaded, and The Apex World Book of SF 2. A two-time recipient of the Argos SF Award (Brazil), he co-edited (with Djibril al-Ayad) We See a Different Frontier, an anthology of colonialism-themed speculative fiction for The Future Fire magazine, and has translated Neuromancer, Foundation, Snow Crash, and Boneshaker into Brazilian Portuguese. Fernandes was a alum of the 2013 Clarion West Writers Workshop class.
Andrea Hairston is the author of Redwood and Wildfire, the 2011 Tiptree Award winner, and Mindscape. Her collection Lonely Stardust: Two Plays, a Speech, and Eight Essays will be published by Aqueduct Press in May. A performer, playwright, and the artistic director of Chrysalis Theatre, she's also a professor at Smith College. She bikes at night year-round, meeting bears, multi-legged creatures of light and breath, and the occasional shooting star.
Alex Dally MacFarlane is a writer, editor and historian. Her short fiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) in Clarkesworld Magazine, Strange Horizons, Solaris Rising 3, The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2014 and other anthologies. She is the editor of Aliens: Recent Encounters (2013) and The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (forthcoming in late 2014). She runs a column on Post-Binary Gender in SF at Tor.com.
Sofia Samatar is the author of the novel A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press, 2013). She is Nonfiction and Poetry Editor for Interfictions Online. You can find her on Twitter, and at www.sofiasamatar.com.
Aishwarya Subramanian is an editor and freelance writer from New Delhi, India.