Just a heads up, this isn’t the post I originally had planned for today but I had to rearrange my schedule because Friday morning I came across something on the interwebs that had my spirit grieved. Can you imagine? On the good Good Friday morning? If this comes across as a bit of a rant, well yeah it kinda is 🙂
What happened? It started a few days ago when The Artisan Geek (bookstagram and Youtube) posted about her hashtag #ownvoicesreviews, a movement geared towards getting publishers to send ARC’s (Advanced Reader Copies) of books to book reviewers who are of the same backgrounds as the authors. In her post she made the point that when you go to the Goodreads page of a new release, you can see so many comments like, “I couldn’t get through this book” or “I couldn’t connect with this story”. A friend of mine legit showed me a review on Goodreads where the reviewer got an ARC, didn’t read more than two pages of the book because apparently that was all it took for them to realise that the book wasn’t for them and then rated it 2 stars. What was the point?
From that point on, many people started sharing their stories of requesting ARC’s from publishers and the feedback they’ve gotten that range from bad to wtf. Now, this isn’t a new topic. There was an instance where another reviewer, Jonathan Golding called out publishers by name asking why is it they insist on sending out free upcoming books to people with large amounts of followers but who rarely write reviews and who sometimes never even get around to reading the book. Give them to those who will. Agreed.
Where it really got to me was where it became (inevitably) racial. As more people began to speak up, I began to notice that the majority of people who had bad experiences with the publishers, the lies, the being completely ignored were POC. Jessie of Black Girl Reading made the point that she joined bookstagram “with the full intention of reading while Black and connecting with other Black book reviewers.” She began to notice that many people were getting ARC’s of books and “those people were not necessarily her people”. She went on to say, “it seemed to me that the ARC market was largely dominated by White women with very pretty accounts and nigh a book review…When there were reviews they often skipped over significant critical issues…or, if the books were Black, folks always seemed to find the theme of them to always be “We are all the same inside and racism is bad”. I have to agree with Jessie when she says, “I can confidently say that that the incredible creativity and nuance of Black lit is being undermined by the lack of diversity of reviewers receiving ARC’s”. Where is the lie?
It’s not like POC reviewers are not requesting these books, no no. Seji (The Artisan Geek) even went as far as to make an entire music video (talk about getting creative) requesting an ARC for a book that she’s been trying to get for ages. The video blew up, even the author saw it and requested Seji be sent a copy. Take a guess what happened. Better yet, click here to see what happened.
If I’m being honest, I personally wasn’t a fan of the idea of doing a music video to get a publisher’s attention for a book. I am a 32 year old Jamaican woman, I ain’t shuckin’ and jivin’ for nobaddi!
While it wasn’t my cup of tea, I’m glad that she showed the lengths that people of colour have to go to just to get a book. Why is it so hard? And after all of that, those publishers still treated her that way? ALL THE WAY VEX!
It hit even closer to home when my fellow Caribbean bookstagrammers and book bloggers and I were talking about this topic. Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of Here Comes the Sun has a new book, Patsy coming out this June. I requested an ARC which I rarely do but I figured if I’d do it for any book it would be that one. I never got a response. I followed up twice, nothing. Three of my friends requested and were told they were going to get copies. Months later they are still waiting. Apparently they are still on their way. My theory is they were sent by carrier pigeons who were unfortunately shot down over Cuba. Please tell me why Jamaican book reviewers cannot get a copy of a book set in Jamaica written by a Jamaican author? I’ll wait.
Some of you may be asking why is this a big deal. Does it really matter who the reviewer is? Yes, yes it does and let me give you an example why. Last year, I saw where someone had reviewed Here Comes the Sun, they hated it. They disliked it so much they threw it across the room in frustration. Of course, everyone is entitled to their opinions and feelings about a book, not knocking it but when I asked her why she felt that way, her explanation was, “It was just bad. Nothing in that was realistic, it’s like she (the author) went out of her way to write about Jamaica in a bad way.” You can imagine my surprise but at the same time, that reviewer is not Jamaican, and she’s never been to Jamaica. What would she really know about the real Jamaica and not the one she sees in commercials and in popular culture? I’m Montegonian, I live and grew up where the book was set. I understood the references, I know about the life the author was writing about and therefore could connect. If reviews like hers were the only ones you saw, you’d probably not even want to read it. This happens so often and this is why own voice reviews matter.
It can be flipped the other way as well. Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion was a popular book last year and I thought it was rubbish. It’s in my donate box with its new book smell and all. I wasn’t the only one who thought this but there were many people who loved it. When I looked into it and even asked some people why it was so great to them, they explained it in a way that was personal. I was able to understand why they were able to relate to that book in a way I could not and isn’t that important? If you’re reading a book about a different culture or country etc. don’t you want to know how the people of that culture/country feel about it? Whether it’s a good representation or bad and why? It also isn’t always about race either. I’ve fully admitted to not being able to connect with books written by African Americans, even the more popular writers like Toni Morrison etc. Is she a fantastic writer? Duh, but that’s not a guarantee that I will be able to love and relate to all she writes because I am not African American and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ll just pass it on to someone who can and will appreciate it.
Another thing that got to me was people trying to defend this situation or acting like Shaggy with their “It wasn’t me” defenses. When they take a page from Taylor Swift’s book and try to “exclude themselves from this narrative” then they are a part of the problem or they’ve just admitted that they’re not going to do a damn thing to help solve it. Why should they? They’re not feeling its effects. Why mess up a good thing like a relationship with a publisher that gets them free books that look pretty in their humble brag pics for the gram? Heaven forbid they use their numbers, their position of privilege to actually make a difference. Again, if the situation was flipped and only people of colour were getting all the ARC’s while they had to repeatedly ask, be lied to or be ignored, we know that would be a discussion on The Today Show yesterday morning. That’s how we know things aren’t equal. They may not be the person doing the actual wrong but they’re befitting from it and defending it which is also wrong. I’m not naming names but if you feel like this applies to you well, as Bob Marley said, “Who the cap fit, mek dem wear it”. This isn’t hard.
I think my rant might be over now, I’m winded but I’d like to end this on a good note. Kudos to Seji for being brave enough to speak out and demand change. I want to commend all the people who contributed and continue to contribute meaningfully to this conversation. All those who reached out to publishers and asked for change, those publishers who actually responded, those who shared their stories to help raise awareness. Big ups to people like Anna from Never Without a Book who started a list of Diverse Book Reviewers which she will send out to publishers asking them to take those reviewers into consideration when they are sending out ARC’s. Thanks to those reviewers and publishers such as Mawenzi House for pledging to pass on ARC’s and backlist books to own voice reviewers. Just hats off to those who are doing something instead of just talking which even I will admit I’m guilty of sometimes. Trust me, I’m not pretending to be holier than thou in this situation but I feel call outs are necessary. Tell these publishers to stop the foolishness.
If you want to know more about how you can support #ownvoicesreviews, click here to get more information.
Let me know your thoughts and experiences when it comes to this issue.
Til next time 🙂