Here is a review of Matt de la Pena’s latest novel The Living, from Entertainment Weekly this week. Take a moment with it.
I’ve criticized reviews before which show incredible bias toward what quality is in YA and toward what many believe to be a revival in YA that comes at the hands of an individual by the name of John Green.
Perhaps you’ve heard of him.
Let there be no question: Green has earned his accolades and awards. He’s worked tirelessly to gain a following and fan base. But the fact that we as a reading and book culture — hell I’d even go further to say those who are casual readers — continue to uphold him as some Savior of YA and the success toward which to aspire is amazingly problematic. Because it follows in the same problematic gender norms that have plagued us since forever. The cis-gendered white male is the standard for best.
The review above irks me on many levels. But the reason we need to be talking about it and need to be angry about it is this — we spend a lot of time discussing about our need for diversity in YA. We want to give books featuring diverse characters and stories to YA readers, teens and non-teens, so that they may see themselves and see those who look like the people they interact with on a daily basis who may not be exactly like them.
We have a non-white author doing this kind of work, writing these kinds of stories, and yet — and yet— those characters must be worthy of the characters in a white, cis-gendered male novel. Worthy.
De la Pena did a rare thing in creating an interesting YA with characters who, even though they aren’t white (that’s noted in the review) are worthy of the white ones in the white male author’s novel.
At what point are we going to say we’ve had enough? And at what point will reviewers and/or editors actually sit down, reread these reviews, and think to themselves that maybe they’re further reinforcing a single norm as the “right” one?
Do they even care?
This is really interesting from top to bottom. I agree with Kelly (catagator) that the EW review is problematic, and the word “worthy” is a red flag, especially given the racial dynamics involved in comparing a book about characters of color to books about white characters.
However there are a few other things to tease out here.
1. Entertainment Weekly’s YA review coverage has consistently been bizarre to folks who are involved with the YA industry. EW’s YA reviews aren’t for people who regularly read YA; they’re for people who hardly ever read YA unless it’s a John Green novel or Twilight. Reading the review in that light, I think that EW is trying to do Matt de la Pena a favor here. We all know that the mainstream views John Green as YA’s savior, even though that isn’t the whole truth.
(Yes, I think Green might be partially responsible for a recent upsurge in mainstream interest in YA, but his contribution rides on the tails of Suzanne Collins and Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling, all women.)
Sure, there are problematic racial implications with using the word “worthy,” but it’s deeper than being simply racist. Why?
2. The author of the review, Stephan Lee, is Asian American. I’m not saying that people of color can’t be racist; they absolutely can be since everybody in our society was raised on racist norms. But given that Stephan Lee is Asian American, I can also read that review of The Living as an attempt to support an author of color by pointing out that race and inequality is part of this story that is also a thriller.
All too often, race is left out of book reviews, even if the main character is of color. All too often minority identities are erased in an attempt to sell a book to the mainstream, which is perceived (rightly or wrongly) as being unwilling to read about nonwhite characters. All too often, a book like The Living would be pitched as a straightforward thriller, forget about the minority stuff.
The fact that race is mentioned in the review (although very obliquely — Stephan Lee at no time says that the main character is not white) is, I think, quite extraordinary. EW’s reviews basically never go there. EW is as mainstream as you can get without being People magazine.
3. Of course, the review is still condescending to YA as a category, but it’s also condescending to thrillers and, by extension, genre fiction. This is nothing new.
4. The most interesting part of this review, for me, was the caption beneath the book cover. I’m not sure if Stephan Lee wrote the caption — he may not have — those things are often written by someone else at a magazine. The mini headline, “In Living Color,” is a pretty straightforward reference to race; I think it’s referencing the 1990s-era Wayans brothers’ variety show. That was a pretty revolutionary show at the time, if I recall correctly, that pushed racial boundaries on TV. I don’t know if the person who chose that mini-headline meant anything by it (they probably didn’t), but let’s think about this for a minute. This review situates Matt de la Pena’s book as being boundary-pushing because of race: it’s more than a dumb thriller! It’s about race and class and has complex characters!
For me, this is the biggest problem raised by this review, and it’s less about the review than it is revealed by the review. We live in a world where characters of color are hardly ever allowed to be in books that aren’t only about their minority identity. Having adventures while being nonwhite is somehow startling.
Everybody sees the problem with this, right? Characters of color must be given the freedom to have adventures, not just problems.