Symbolism in Book Review Attribution: Good Idea or More Awakening?
By GREG MARKLEY
In a recent New York Times magazine article, opinion writer Jay Caspian Kang wrote a comment titled “The Reductive Practice of Assigning Book Reviews by Identity.” He argued that “it might be healthy for progressives to stop, look up at the work of making the world a more equitable place, and ask, ‘Wait, is this specific thing we doing right now will really help?
Kang’s comment was in reference to an incident in 2017, when major bookstore Kirkus published a review of a young adult novel, “American Heart.” Laura Moriarty, who is white, wrote the review despite the fact that American Muslims were the focus. People on social media were furious that a non-Muslim white woman had been chosen to assess the family saga.
Winston Churchill, the former British Prime Minister, had just finished reading a book whose author was now on the phone. The man asked Churchill, who was then in the toilet (or toilet, for the British), if he had enjoyed the book. Churchill said: ‘I’ve just finished it, and now it’s behind me. (He meant, in the toilet as a bad example of writing.)
Years ago, critics ventured “outside their fields”, noted the Times. But that doesn’t mean that today’s critics are wrong to engage in work they don’t fit academically, ethnically, or racially. Now, as a reviewer for the Center for Military History, I found an interesting book. It’s “Canada’s Mechanized Infantry: The Evolution of a Combat Arm, 1920-2012” by Peter Kasurak. It’s not directly in my field, but I might end up reviewing it anyway.
Based on my MA in history (emphasis on the modern United States) and my career as a political writer and adjunct faculty member, I now review books in these areas, or in education, where I have my second master’s degree. For the Oral History Association, I reviewed oral histories about the war on poverty and the long (and certainly unfinished) fight for a blue Texas. That is, a Texas where Democrats and Liberals dominate.
South Korean-born magazine writer Jay Kang said he understands pairing authors with people of like-minded races and family histories isn’t without merit. But he posits that there may be another, less agreeable reason for having segregation by race or nationality.
“Are editors, intimidated by the potential for social media outrage, doing what amounts to a hedged bet?” Kang asked. “If you hire reviewers who look like the authors or have had the experiences they detail, your chances of facing a sea of criticism on social media are likely much lower.”
That the majority of academic or journalistic book reviews today are “woke” is a loaded word, negatively exaggerated by much on the right and over-trumpeted by many on the left. A good guide is offered by Benjamin Butterworth of the UK’s Guardian Group.
Woke rose to the top of political and cultural circles in the United States. “Some say waking up is a sign of awareness of social issues, others use the term as an insult,” according to Butterworth. In 1962, African-American novelist William Melvin Kelley coined the phrase “If you’re awake, you dig it”.
Fifty years later, an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin was shot dead in Florida by a volunteer warden, George Zimmerman. The term “woke” has been used a lot to publicize the 13-year-old Black Lives Matter organization. Fortunately, it is unusual for the quiet work of book reviewers to be involved in the revival!
What drives me to write book reviews? After all, there is no pay and not much cheering. First, I get the books for free and I can keep them. I write two book reviews a year, so I save maybe $60 to $80. Second, I like the discipline of writing a 900-1000 word analysis; my Observer column is between 750 and 825 words but requires more versatility. Third, I enjoy the intellectual part of the critique – drawing on my own upbringing and personal background.
Ultimately, readers are advised to find out who is evaluating a writer’s post and how well they think and write. It wouldn’t shock anyone to see Sean Hannity’s latest book on TV raved about by Mark Levin on the radio. They think alike and are close friends!
Likewise, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything negative about TV’s Rachel Maddow in a book review by her MSNBC colleague Chris Hayes. So, wokeism has its disappointments, as well as its enticements. I still hope for a happy resolution on matters such as revival. But this type of closure rarely occurs.
Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has a master’s degree in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the military and civilian life, he contributed to The Observer for 11 years. firstname.lastname@example.org