Guest Post: Zetta Elliott on Race & Reviews

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much in February. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Zetta Elliott’s A Wish After Midnight was one of my favourite YA novels of 2009. I still can’t believe no mainstream publisher picked it up and I am hoping the book’s re-realease by Amazon will get this wonderful book into many more hands. Zetta’s blog is also a must read. (And not just because it’s named for the great Octavia Butler’s last published novel.)

- – -

Zetta Elliott is a Brooklyn-based writer and educator. She is the author of the award-winning picture book, Bird (Lee & Low); her self-published young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, was re-released by AmazonEncore in February 2010.

Some Preliminary Thoughts on Race and Reviews

I had insomnia last night and so for hours I lay awake wondering if I should stop writing reviews for my blog. I am an author, so I’m under no real obligation to review other people’s work. Generally I only write about books that I love, and have thus far refused occasional requests from authors who hope I’ll feature them on my blog. Trouble is, even though I was trained to “lead with what I like,” I do often mention the limitations I found in a book. And apparently, for some, this breaks an unspoken rule in the kidlit blogging community: never critique another author’s book. I have some friends who won’t write a review at all unless they can honestly admit they loved the book. Others insist that books by fellow authors must be praised (whether they deserve it or not) in order to preserve professional solidarity (and sales). And then, of course, there is the expectation that when the time comes, your book will be reviewed with equal enthusiasm, so “do unto others”—or else!

I’m new to this particular community and I only follow about a dozen blogs, so maybe I’ve got this wrong. But when I look at some reviews in the kidlit blogosphere I sometimes find a curious lack of rigor. To critique a book doesn’t mean you rip it to shreds. You start with its strengths and then move on to its flaws or areas that could use improvement. And, of course, as a reviewer you are only giving your opinion. So why not be honest about how you feel? Well, because there is a serious power imbalance in the children’s publishing industry, and publicly pointing out weaknesses in a book is, for some of us, like openly criticizing the President.

Right now I’m reading The Breakthrough by Gwen Ifill, and I’m struck by the similarities between the arena of politics and the arena of publishing. Both have unspoken codes of conduct, and there can be serious consequences when you go against the grain or dare to suggest a new paradigm. Both arenas also require people of color to navigate a sea of shifting alliances. Now, I am in no way comparing myself to President Obama (and he’s not the only black politician featured in Ifill’s book), but I think it’s interesting to consider the strengths and limitations of “groupthink” in the 21st century. Do black people owe this particular president their unconditional devotion? Do critiques of the President’s policies strengthen his administration, or bolster the opposition (which has done nothing to distance itself from far-right racists)? Ifill points out that candidate Obama walked a fine line when it came to the issue of race; he couldn’t win the confidence of white voters (and the election itself) by presenting himself as a black man—instead he needed to be viewed as a man who happened to be black. Candidate Obama had to assure white voters that he was neither angry nor bitter about the nation’s history of racial oppression, and no mention was ever made of the unearned advantages that come with being white. Fortunately, I’m not running for political office. And I assure you that at times I am angry and bitter, and I must insist that we talk about white privilege.

The practice of never criticizing another author’s book has particular ramifications for people of color. Since we are already marginalized as authors and seriously underrepresented on editorial boards, a negative review can be devastating—especially if that review comes from another person of color. This is due, in part, to complicated notions of authenticity. Many people (of all races) believe that being black automatically makes you an expert on all things relating to black history, culture, politics, etc. When a black author writes a book that features black characters, there is often an assumption that the story is “authentic” due to the author’s inherent, intuitive understanding of her subject. The same is not true when a white author chooses to write about people of color. Then the assumption is that the author completed exhaustive research in order to “capture the essence” of her black characters. There is one such book out right now that has been getting rave reviews from white bloggers, yet two of my black blogger friends think it’s one of the worst books they’ve ever read. A third black blogger quite enjoyed it. So who’s right? Or, more importantly, whose opinion carries the most weight?

I must confess that lately, the only white-authored books I read are those about people of color. I sometimes feel obligated to read these books in order to ascertain whether or not black people are being misrepresented by white authors who mean well, but don’t really have a clue. I generally expect white authors to get it wrong, but sometimes they do surprise me (Liar would be one example; Octavian Nothing Vol. 1 is another) so it’s important to keep an open mind. Mostly I just wish white authors would leave people of color alone. I appreciate their desire to be inclusive, but statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center show that there are more books about African Americans than by African Americans. This brings to mind a documentary I saw on PBS not too long ago about the white anthropologist Melville Herskovits. His contribution to the understanding of black culture and identity formation was significant and lasting, but this white Jewish man became “the” expert on black people at the expense of qualified black scholars who lacked the same privilege and access to resources. That said, I can imagine how desolate my childhood might have been without the picture books of Ezra Jack Keats. Yet it’s hard to fully appreciate the efforts of well-intending white authors when I know that authors from my own community are being shut out of the industry altogether. And, ultimately, being able to write about anyone from anywhere is a privilege reserved primarily for whites.

So what’s a black author to do? After a decade of rejection, I chose to self-publish some of my books. My young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, is being re-released this month by AmazonEncore. As an immigrant and a mixed-race woman, I often confront challenges to my own authenticity. How could I possibly know what it’s like to be a dark-skinned teenage girl growing up in a low-income area of Brooklyn? When I was pitching my novel to editors and agents, I stressed my years of experience teaching black children throughout NYC; I mentioned that I had a PhD in American Studies and that my research was on representations of racial violence in African American literature. Does that make me an expert on all things black? No. Does it bother me that editors who are outside my community and ignorant of my cultural history get the final say on whether or not my work deserves to be published and/or reviewed? YES. Developing competence in a culture not your own takes time, patience, and humility. I suspect that most white editors have little to no training in Asian, Native American, Latino, or African American literature. They are unlikely, therefore, to situate a manuscript within those particular storytelling traditions. And without a sense of various cultural standards, they wrongly assume their particular standard for what constitutes a good story is “universal.” The same might be said of some professional reviewers and award committee members—a point made brilliantly by Percival Everett in his satirical novel, Erasure.

Of course, you don’t need a PhD to review a book on your blog. And I certainly don’t want to vindicate those timid bloggers who only review white-authored books because they feel they’re not “qualified” to review books by people of color. It’s ok to step outside your comfort zone, and there are lots of great bloggers who can show you how it’s done—Jill over at Rhapsody in Books regularly provides historical and political context for the books she reviews. You can also check in with bloggers of color to see how their reception of a book might differ from yours. That doesn’t mean you can’t trust your own opinion—it means you can strengthen your own position by recognizing and engaging with other points of view.

I’m sorry to say I don’t really have a conclusion for this post. I want to be able to write openly and honestly about the books that I read, though this may not be advisable. I certainly don’t mean to sabotage other authors, and books I found to be flawed have gone on to win major awards so it’s not like my single opinion counts for much. I like to think I can accept fair critiques of my own work, and I feel that thoughtful, constructive critiques can enhance our ability to read, write, and review books. What I want most is excellence and equity in children’s literature, but I feel the current system and codes of conduct aren’t leading us in that direction. And I don’t believe that not talking about the problem will lead to a breakthrough . . .

21 comments

  1. Laura Atkins on #

    Really interesting post and questions here. This is something I face (in a different way) with the various writers groups that I run. On the one hand, every writer is putting forward something personal, making him or herself vulnerable, when submitting work for feedback. And in that case, it’s known that feedback is going to be the outcome. And I think in all of our heart’s, we’d hope the response would be “I love everything about it – it’s perfect!” But that isn’t going to help writers develop and there is always something to contribute – not to mention the many subjective responses you’ll get from one group. And I find that people who are really committed to the writing craft do find inspiration from constructive criticism.

    Of course, there is a whole other dimension when you have people of color trying to tell their stories in a white-dominant industry. So I can understand the concerns about being critical. But isn’t it ultimately patronizing to only review and respond positively to books? I would hope that thoughtful, respectful – but also honest responses would mostly be valued. Yes, they might hurt after a first read, but we all know when something gets at something that feels or sounds right. Or else we have to find the confidence to fully disagree. But it would be a boring world where we didn’t talk about things in full color, nuance and share our rich and varied responses to art. So in the end, I’m for respectful and thoughtful honesty.

  2. Carla Lee on #

    This is an excellent post, and I’m really looking forward to reading A Wish After Midnight.

  3. Alma Alexander on #

    “Mostly I just wish white authors would leave people of color alone.”

    Listen, I fully understand the frustration of the rest of this post – that those people who really DO understand the context through living it would be the BETTER people to write the books about characters of color, and that often those authors cannot do so because of the current undercurrents (and often enough over-currents, perfectly blatantly obvious ones) of the industry, and of the world in which it exists.

    But when the white authors “leave people of color alone” they are immediately slagged for writing nothing else than their own lily white vanilla world and ignoring the POC altogether. And this is ALSO a bad thing.

    On the whole, then, as a white author I would prefer to try and write about the things that are not-me and risk getting things wrong and learning from the experience if I do rather than shut my eyes to everything but my own back yard and pretend that nothing else other than me myself and I and those exactly like me exist.

    No, I haven’t written a full novel about a protagonist who is a person of color, although I’ve had characters in novels who could fall under that description and I’ve written short stories about people who are either overtly or by implication not the pale skinned ancestors who throng my own personal history. I was born white, in Old Europe, but I simply will not allow the rest of the world to be denied to me because of an issue related to the amount of melanin in my skin. I would cheer and applaud to see more books by Latinos, Native Americans, Indians, Filipinos, both African Americans and African Africans (yes, preferably with covers that illustrate same, without the publishers having to be rapped on the knuckles about it) and I’m willing to do what I can, under the circumstances, to make that happen, to make that world dawn. But in the meantime I will write the stories that come to me, populated with the characters who win their particular parts, be they POC or not, as the story demands of me. If I screw up I fully expect to be set straight. But both those people of color and I are equally human, equally people, and thus equally qualified to be written about by me or by other “white authors”. It’s a first step – treating everybody as a human being and not some dark- or white-skinned alien from Planet Prejudice will go a long way towards knocking down walls which are long overdue to be knocked down. “Leaving POC alone”, as you wish that “white authors” would do, would, in my own opinion, build more walls than it would help to tear down. I’d prefer to share this world with the brothers and sisters who might look a little different from me rather than stare at them across barbed wire and high iron bars and back off slowly when they approach so that they might be “left alone”.

    We belong to each other, black AND white. Not to exploit, to insult, to belittle, to demand, to dismiss or to denigrate. But to learn from one another. To care about one another. And to share one another’s visions.

  4. alvina on #

    Such an interesting post. I liked your comparison to politics–as an editor, I do sometimes feel I need to be careful about what I write about authors and books, which is why I decided to stop ranking books on Goodreads. I just never know who I’ll end up working with, or who will end up being published by my house. However, I do think that authors and bloggers should be able to be open about their criticisms about books if they want to be. I hate getting bad reviews for books I’ve edited, but I accept that not everyone if going to love every book. I do think there’s a difference between being critical and being mean, however. If someone was to write a very thoughtful, critical, negative review of a book, it would hurt, but I would accept it. And, in fact, I would learn from it. But if someone wrote a harsh, mean-spirited review, that’s wouldn’t be okay.

  5. Zetta Elliott on #

    Thanks Shveta & Carla!

    Hey, Laura–you’re so brave to lead a critique group! And you’ve always been courageous about speaking publicly on the subject of white privilege in the industry. As you point out, in a critique group there’s an expectation of constructive criticism–and that’s healthier than an expectation of a five-star review, whether you earned it or not…of course, reviews come out *after* the book’s written so corrections can only be made in the next book. I think every reviewer brings different tools to the critique process, and that means reviews can be varied. But again–whose review carries the most weight?

    Alma, I wouldn’t try to stop any writer from writing about anyone. I have my personal preferences, but in the end, I don’t support censoring artists. When you write, “But both those people of color and I are equally human, equally people, and thus equally qualified to be written about by me or by other “white authors”,” I would only ask that you continue to acknowledge we are NOT equal within the industry. So it’s great that you are committed to diversity in your stories, but that commitment (which I and many other people of color share) carries more weight with you b/c of your white privilege. And when/if you opt to write a novel with a person of color as the protagonist, a white editor might respond more readily to your particular way of telling a story and your novel might get chosen over the novel by a person of color. So I just want white authors to know that going in. Maybe your book will be chosen b/c you wrote a better story. And maybe your book will be chosen b/c you have greater access. And maybe your book will be chosen b/c white editors feel more at ease working with white authors. Who knows…I do sometimes wonder, however, if white editors would try harder to find authors of color if they didn’t have a steady supply of white authors ready to act as stand-ins, so to speak.

    Alvina–I don’t rate books on Goodreads either! And I agree–there’s no need or excuse for malicious reviews.

  6. Ella on #

    I think your characterization of Melville Herkovitz as privileged and having access to resources (even mentioning he is Jewish, as if adding to another level of privilege, not only is he White but Jewish) does seem to border on stereotyping and playing the Oppression Olympics. I’m not sure how his work was at the expense of anyone. Jewish people faced discrimination in many colleges and often worked for or with historically Black colleges, leading Jewish scholars going into African studies, as they were shut out of others. Jewish and Black scholars worked hand in hand, and were welcomed. You’re putting todays’ ideas on race on a generation which had different ideas entirely.

    http://www.pbs.org/itvs/fromswastikatojimcrow/relations.html

    Another PBS special which may shed more light on the subject.

    On such a good post on racism, it would be a shame for gentile privilege to mar it.

  7. Rachel on #

    Ella: I’m Jewish and i disagree with you. Ms. Elliott is not attacking Herkowitz. She says that “His contribution to the understanding of black culture and identity formation was significant and lasting.” She’s making an observation that of all the people at that time doing research on black Americans he’s the one who became the most widely consulted expert. Through no fault of his own. Ms. Elliott’s point is that this happens over and over again. White people writing about black people get more attention and kudos for doing so then black people. Her complaint is not against Mr. Herkowitz and she is not exercizing “gentile privilege.”

    It saddens me that you can read such a heartfelt post and pull anti-semitism out of it. If anyone here is playing “Oppression Olympics” I believe that it’s you who is doing so.

  8. Zetta Elliott on #

    Thanks for clarifying, Rachel, and thank you Ella for that link–I’m sure you know that PBS does an outstanding job when it comes to history documentaries. Since you seem not to have seen the Herskovitz film, I really urge you to take a look. The filmmakers spend a fair amount of time at the outset exploring the anthropologist’s Jewish heritage and how his “outsider” status in US society might have contributed to his sensitivity as a scholar of Africans and African Americans. His Jewish identity matters, which is why I mentioned it in my post. And I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that people who are oppressed still have *some* power, and that power can be used to oppress others…men of color can oppress women, LGBT whites can oppress people of color (regardless of their sexual orientation), etc. Sometimes oppressed group *do* compete for the tiny slice of the pie the majority allows…

  9. Cy on #

    Ooh, a very thought-provoking post! As someone uninitiated in the field of publishing (or even the field of “attempting to get published”…darn manuscripts, why don’t they just write themselves?), I really don’t know how hard it is for people of color to get published, or if there really is a bias against POC authors b/c of fears of “unrelatability” with the general public, etc. My gut instinct is that publishing, being an industry of the educated, has the same bias toward idealism, equality and POC-friendliness that you generally find in more intellectual establishments like universities, etc (lol, as long as the bottom line isn’t horribly in peril; then folks kind of forget idealism, I’ve noticed, but that’s human nature, I guess), and would in general be happy (or at least, not opposed) to diversifying the ranks.

    So my general feeling about why there are so few published POC authors out there is that it’s probably just because there are numerically/populace-wise much fewer of us than the white majority in the US (and Australia, etc). I’m not sure what the actual percentages are (percent of POCs in the general populace vs in publishing), but if, for instance, Asian are only 6% of the US population, and every race produces the same tiny percent of good writers, there will obviously be a lot fewer published Asian authors than White.

    Which is why, even though I would hope to see more and more authors of color spreading out (or being allowed to spread out?) to genres beyond the stifling bounds of minority/hyphenated literature, we’re still going to be a pretty small number for a long while.

    That’s why asking white authors not to write about POC characters (or asking POC authors of one race not to write about others) is a pretty counter-intuitive thing to do, in my humble opinion. Don’t we want MORE diversity in our literary canon? Isn’t the point of diversifying to help folks of different races become more comfortable/familiar with one another? When a White author writes a POC protagonist (and generally gets it right, or is at least loving and respectful), I feel happy, because I perceive that as a step toward all of us getting comfortable with each other. I, personally, write lots of White protagonists b/c, obviously, born and raised in the US, I’m extremely comfortable with whtie people, and once you’re comfortable/have really taken people of another race, etc, to heart, you may dream up stories about them as much as you do about characters of your own race–a muse knows no bounds, right?

    So why shouldn’t they be able to write about POC characters? As long as someone isn’t trying to pass off sheer, baseless moonshine as truth, I think it can only be a good thing.

    Granted, I do hope that folks of any race who want to write about another will DO THEIR RESEARCH. I definitely understand Zetta’s discomfort when a well-meaning author writes something outside their scope of experience and messes it up to a cringe-worthy level (and were completely well-intentioned while doing so). Sadly, I’ve run across a case or two of this, and those little errors really surprised and kind of hurt me, I’ll admit. Because these (generally) White, educated, open-minded, sci-fi/fantasy geeky authors are who I kind of consider “my people” intellectually, since we share so many opinions, hobbies, etc, and I feel I really get them. So when there’s a moment where it turns out they don’t “get” ME, it’s a little bit sad. =\ But I understand their good intentions, so I just let it go. After all, they haven’t had the exposure (because I’m not published yet :P), so I can’t really blame them. Things will get better as more POC authors step into the field.

    So yes–I am all for getting more POC authors published like Zetta said! But that doesn’t mean White authors need to step back for us or anything–a good author, regardless of race, doesn’t need a handicap to “compete.” :P I’d welcome one and all to write POC characters without fear–and, to return to Zetta’s initial complaint–I’d also welcome POC reviewers to criticize what’s odd or wrong CONSTRUTIVELY, because that’s the only way we can learn.

  10. Nat on #

    Zeta, in regards to Alma’s comment: Regarding the ‘privilege within the industry’ point, I feel you’re getting at the heart of the issue. You say (I’m paraphrasing) that we are within a culture and system that encourage the promotion of white-authored books over the promotion of books by people of color, which is compounded by the idea that publishers are taking risks by publishing books about people of color, and therefore may/will limit how many such books they publish. (Please, please correct me if I’m misunderstanding your point.)

    So I what I would like to know is: What can would-be allies do to keep from being hurtful? Do you, or does anyone here, have any strategies? Or is this something I should keep searching for answers to? Because I really don’t want to be party to any oppression or exclusion, intentional or not, born of ignorance or of malice.

    I don’t yet believe (I could be convinced) that all white authors avoiding all non-white characters is the ideal solution- but I’m pretty sure that isn’t really what you were saying. I’m not okay with the way things are, either. And now that you’ve drawn attention to this, it seems only right that we start looking for a conclusion.

  11. Kate on #

    This post really hit close to home, because I’ve been struggling with these issues myself. I’m writing a novel with an AA protagonist, although I’m white. Or at least I was white when I started writing it.

    In doing the historical research for the book, I discovered that my gggg-grandfather was black, and my ggg-grandmother was Native American. Am I still white? Does discovering this heritage give me more ‘right’ to write this book than I had before?

    And I have to say, ‘no, it doesn’t,’ but being ‘white’ didn’t rob me of the right to write it either. Culturally, the USA is one big schizo when it comes to race, and although that may be my problem, it’s not my *book’s* problem. My book just wants to be written, and it seems to have chosen me to write it.

    I hope anyone who writes would understand that sentiment.

  12. Justine on #

    I’m a little disturbed that so many people (here and in the posts linking to this one) are latching onto Zetta saying, “Mostly I just wish white authors would leave people of color alone” and getting hot under the collar about it.

    Zetta’s comment was an expression of frustration with white authors getting it wrong when they write about non-white characters & with white writers writing non-white having a bigger chance of getting published than brown writers do. Both of which are perfectly reasonable positions and the second of which is demonstrably true.

    I frequently wish non-Australians would not write about Australians or Australia because they so often get it wrong. But, like Zetta, I am not God so I cannot enforce that wish.

    That is all Zetta said. She did not say you are not allowed to write about non-white people. She did not say doing so is wrong. She just expressed a wish.

    In her response to Alma above, Zetta was very explicit about her position:

    “I wouldn’t try to stop any writer from writing about anyone. I have my personal preferences, but in the end, I don’t support censoring artists.”

    I don’t see how she could have been more clear cut.

    You can write whatever you want to write. No one has the power to stop you. Stop freaking out at someone expressing their honest opinion.

    Because I’m now finding the responses predictable and repetitive I won’t be letting any more “OMG! White people can write whatever they want!” comments through.

  13. Zetta Elliott on #

    Hey, everybody–sorry for the delay, but I didn’t know there were additional comments until I read something on someone else’s blog that said Justine had weighed in. Thank you, Justine, for bringing some much-needed clarity to the discussion…

    In response to Nat’s question: “What can would-be allies do to keep from being hurtful?” I think, once again, we need multiple strategies. One thing I’d like to see is pressure placed on the children’s publishing industry so that by 2015 they’re publishing twice as many authors of color. That seems reasonable to me–double the number of PoC getting published. Since PoC are about one third of the US population, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect nearly 10% of published books to be *BY* PoC. Now, that doesn’t mean white authors can’t write ABOUT PoC. But if you look at the stats now, more whites than blacks are having books published *about* blacks. I don’t think that’s right. So blog about it, write to publishers, start a petition, educate others–do *something* to “offset” the injustice. I think that would help…and if you’re in doubt, follow Justine’s lead! Talk to PoC and find out how they feel, and what they need from the publishing industry.

    I’ve been asked to write something for The Huffington Post–I think it goes up tomorrow, and would appreciate comments so folks know this topic MATTERS to a lot of us.

  14. Pam Adams on #

    One obvious thing that allies can do is to buy or encourage the buying of books by POC authors. Ask your library to order them. Give them to your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and children of friends. Heck, keep them for yourself and gloat over them. The marketplace has (in my opinion)the loudest voice in book-buying decisions at the publishing level.

  15. Nat on #

    Thanks so much, Zetta! (And I’m sorry I misspelled your name in my first post.) I appreciate getting a thoughtful, very reasonable answer to that question. And thanks, Pam. It is good to have strategies- and you better believe I’ll be thinking about this a lot when considering the publishing industry in general, and my book purchases, recommendations, and writing choices in particular. At the moment I’m just a reader, but as Pam pointed out, there’s still some power there.

Comments are closed.