Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
This was an interesting piece by Francine Prose, about the Kirkus Review’s take-back of a starred review because of a “sensitivity backlash” (my term) to the YA novel, American Heart, by Laura Moriarty. It’s not even out yet, but the book has received plenty of negative reviews on Goodreads because some readers of advance copies are offended by its “white saviorism.” Which is a thing.
What I never knew, and Prose outlines, is that publishers will put some books through a “sensitivity reading” to identify and presumably root out “problematic” issues. Most often, I guess, that involves racial or sexual matters, things that would offend large groups of readers and therefore hurt the book’s chances. And in this case, for a book that involves a dystopian society where Muslims are being herded into concentration camps, the editorial reads must have given it a good enough grade to proceed. The Kirkus reviewer who starred the book was even “an observant Muslim person of color.”
The reaction on Goodreads was so strong that Kirkus took away the star from its review. It basically smacked down its own reviewer and tossed the book into a category of “Gosh, there might really be something wrong with this.”
I glanced at some of the Goodreads reviews, and it looks like many of the one-star reviews are by people who didn’t read the book but who hate the idea of it. They seem young and adamant. Maybe they have a point about “white saviorism,” and maybe publishers are to blame in part for publishing books by white authors with white heroes who save the day for characters of color. But, political correctness aside, at this time in our nation’s evolution, isn’t it a reasonable premise to explore the idea of Muslim concentration camps as a cautionary tale? This particular writer, a white woman, is the one who conceived of such a story. And while it might have been interesting (and challenging) to make the protagonist a “Muslim person of color” instead of a white girl, I can imagine a ton of criticism coming down on her for presuming to know what it’s like to walk in those shoes.
In other words, damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t.
I have a couple of novels in early drafts in which the protagonist is something I’m not, a transgender man in one, a black man in another. I’ve approached them both with apprehension because of this kind of reaction, that as a privileged white man I have no right to represent such characters. Yet, I imagined them. I wrote about them with all the sensitivity I could summon, and as much realism. And while there might be transgender writers out there and black writers who could write similar stories, I happened to be the one who came up with these books.
It sounds like there’s plenty to criticize in American Heart. But Kirkus was wrong to remove its star, and publishers are wrong if they let potential sensitivity issues dictate who gets to write what book. Take the text for what it is and either support it or pass on it. Grow a pair.
White saviorism will fade away eventually. It should. But I long for the day when we read a book before we review it, and when we do we judge it on its merits. The market takes care of “problematic.”