reviews, ratings and issues of identity

So I’ve noticed something recently that’s been troubling me. And yes, this is going to be one of those posts.

A recent trend that I am overall pleased about is an increasing diversity in queer romance. We’re seeing more stories featuring protagonist who are trans*, asexual, genderqueer or otherwise possessing queer identities that go beyond ciswhitegaydude. This is very cool and I very much feel it’s the right way for the genre to evolve. I’m starting to see publisher websites where m/m has actually been replaced as a category by LGBTQ (or equivalent), which suggests that—although m/m still dominates—there’s greater awareness that there’s a whole rainbow out there and it deserves to be represented.

Unfortunately, you pretty much never get change without backlash and as I’ve seen more reviews of non ciswhitegaydude books I’ve also seen more reviews that seem to explicitly mark books down for having protagonists that fall outside of the reviewer’s experiences or expectations.

Now, obviously, people are entitled to read what they read and like what they like and they don’t have to apologise for that.  And I understand that reviews are personal spaces and it’s important that reviewers be able to express themselves freely, honestly and safely. But at the same time I think reviewers, especially ARC reviewers, do need to realise that they occupy a position of some influence and if what a reviewer doesn’t like about a book is, um, somebody else’s identity then they have a responsibility to be really careful about how they express that. And it’s even more complicated and tricky with romance reviews because so much of one’s response to a text hinges on what one is, for want of a better phrase, “into”.

The problem, in a nutshell, is the complex intersection between personal response and social rejection.

Suppose I am reviewing a fantasy novel. Suppose that this fantasy novel is set a world that has gunpowder technology. Now there are genuinely people out there for whom that would be a dealbreaker. A surprising number of people don’t like firearms in their fantasy because they read fantasy novels in order to experience stories about horses and swords and wizards, not about matchlocks and muskets. When I was writing this review, I would probably have to make very clear that a) the book contained gunpowder technology, which I’m aware some people aren’t into and b) that I was aware that there were plenty of people for whom it wouldn’t be a problem at all. If I was giving the book a numerical rating, I would probably do my best to divorce my distaste for black powder weaponry from my feelings about the rest of the text because it would feel, to me, unfair to mark a book down (particularly if it was on a site like GR that averages numerical scores) simply because it contained as part of its premise something that I personally didn’t like. If I did actively mark the book down for having guns in it then that would, to me, constitute an assertion that it was flat-out wrong for guns to be fantasy at all. It would be turning my subjective preference into a normative statement about the genre. And I would consider that inappropriate.

Of course, the thing about gunpowder is that it’s … well … an inanimate chemical substance. While I wouldn’t want to trash a book’s average rating on GR merely because I’m a bit of a fantasy purist, I wouldn’t have any particular problem starting my review by saying something like “The protagonists in this novel use guns. That doesn’t feel like proper fantasy to me. I don’t like firearms in my fantasy literature.”

If, on the other hand, the element I objected to was not a volatile compound used in arms manufacture but a human being’s identity (be that their race, their gender, or their sexuality) then I would want to be even more careful with the way I expressed my preferences. Not to put too fine a point on it, starting a review by saying “The protagonists in this novel are women. That doesn’t feel like proper fantasy to me. I don’t like women in my fantasy literature” would be … let’s just leave it at troubling.

And, obviously, I’d be well within my rights to say it. And there might even be people who shared my (I should stress purely hypothetical) belief that women had no place in fantasy (in fact, I know these people exist, I’ve read articles by them) who would consider it a useful and pertinent feature of the review. But it would, I think, also be sending a fairly clear message that I felt certain people were unwelcome in the genre. And those people, or indeed any people, would be well within their rights to be upset with me.

And, again, I should reiterate that I’m fine with free speech and I don’t believe everyone should be forced to be “politically correct” all the time (although I would echo Randall Monroe in pointing out that when we say “political correctness” we basically mean “considering other people’s feelings”). I think what worries about a lot of the reviews I’ve seen recently is how casually and off-handedly some reviewers are willing to dismiss other people’s sexualities or gender-identities as icky, unattractive, unexciting, bewildering or, in extreme cases, grammatically incorrect.

I think what troubles me here is that while I accept that a person may not be into a book for a variety of reasons I feel that people are genuinely failing to consider the mapping between the traits they have trouble with in fiction and the traits of real people who might read their reviews. To take a concrete example, I recently read a review of a book with an asexual protagonist in which the reviewer seemed to express genuine bewilderment that a person could have satisfying romantic relationship with an asexual partner. And, on the one hand, if that was the reviewer’s personal response to the book, fair enough. But on the other hand, one has to accept that such a review is not commenting only on the book but also on asexual relationships in general. It would, I think, be unacceptable in the 21st century to express incredulity at a happy relationship existing between two people of the same sex or of different races. And it worries me that we do not extend the same courtesy to less visible minorities.

I also wonder if part of the problem isn’t simply a clash of expectations arising from the shift in the genre from the relatively focused “m/m” to the more broad spectrum “LGBTQ”. To take another example, I’ve seen a number of reviews in which readers have expressed shock or disappointment at discovering that genderqueer, gender-fluid or gender-ambiguous protagonists had vaginas. Again, I can see where people are coming from here because if you have been reading in this genre specifically because you were interested in reading books about two men then it might not occur to you that you … err … might not be. Again, to draw the analogy from a different genre, it must be a little like stumbling across science fiction elements in the middle of a fantasy novel (like when Titus Groan leaves Gormenghast and there’s suddenly all this high technology stuff ). But to stick with that analogy, I feel it’s important to remember that if I say I was upset to find a spaceship in my dragon book I’m not rejecting anyone personally. Whereas if I’m upset to find a vagina in my gay book, then I sort of am.

And, once again, I’ve written a thousand words in which I’ve come to no real conclusion other than shit is complicated y’all.  I respect people’s right to like or dislike books for whatever reason they like or dislike them. I just hope we can get better at finding ways to express those likes and dislikes without telling other people that they’re confusing and icky.


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