In which I review a book review

Over the summer, advance reviews for Fiona Wood’s Cloudwish began rolling in to various venues in the US (the book has been out in Australia since last year). I was one of those who liked it and enjoyed it, and a lot of the feedback was generally positive, until a Kirkus review proclaimed it “misguided.” The collective reaction to that in the book community was fascinating to watch, but also illustrative of some big problems.

Cloudwish is set in Australia, and revolves around a lower class Vietnamese-Australian girl. As a white reader in the US, there’s very little I have in common with her, other than the experience of growing up in a lower class household. I greatly enjoy Wood’s work, and Cloudwish felt to me like another entry in the vein of her books: Thoughtful character studies of people living varied lives. While she didn’t write the book for adults in the US who like reading YA, I found it accessible. So did many fans of a variety of backgrounds, until this Kirkus review arrived.

It created an iteration of the fascinating divergence that’s happening a lot in conversations about fiction these days. As the discussion about diversity finally starts to gain ground, some people take it to mean that a single review can be read as an ultimate authority that unseats everything anyone else has ever said. I’m not trying to dismiss the Kirkus review out of hand, but it should be read with considerable care, because it skips over some important things, and the things it skips over aren’t just about Cloudwish, but the way people interact with fiction in general.

From the outset, the review makes a comment about how something would appear abnormal to Asian-American readers. Well, perhaps it should. The book is set in Australia, which has very different cultural and racial politics than the US, and it’s about a first generation Vietnamese-Australian. It has nothing to do with the United States. This may come as a surprise, but there are countries besides the US in the world, and they have different social, cultural, and political norms. The Vietnamese-Australian experience isn’t identical to the Vietnamese-American experience, and if you’re going for authenticity, you should probably have a Vietnamese-Australian read the book. Like, say, this pair of Vietnamese-Australian teens, you know, the demographic the book depicts? (h/t Wendy Chen for that link.)

The reviewer also refers to the ‘tired conflict’ of the main character’s difficulty balancing her love for art with pressure for her parents. It’s something I actually thought about too, but I came away with the observation that just because something is frequently depicted, doesn’t mean it’s negative. There are definitely some stereotypes surrounding parental pressure for children from many Asian families, but also? There’s a grain of truth to it, as Malinda Lo pointed out when she responded to the review. She observed that this is an experience she relates to — so did many of the people who responded to her. That experience gets ‘tired’ when it’s the only one you ever see depicted, or when you’re an adult and you’ve seen it over and over again, but that doesn’t necessarily apply to teens.

The fact that some people identify with it doesn’t mean it’s a universal experience, but that doesn’t mean people should stop writing about it, either. As Lo put it, “So, just as I don’t personally need to read more coming out stories, I know they still resonate with many queer kids. Same with this.” This is something that some readers may identify with. This book is written for teens. Not adults. People need to stop writing YA for adults and reviewing it as though failing to do so makes books terrible. Some Asian-Australian teens are probably reading Cloudwish and identifying with it, getting something out of it, enjoying it. Others are probably feeling stereotyped by it and longing for stories about other things. Both of these reactions are valid, but in the haste to cry ‘stereotype!’ there’s a failure to recognise that for teens just waking up to themselves and the world, ‘stereotype!’ can sometimes be reality, too. Should it be the only reality in fiction? Of course not. It shouldn’t be the predominant reality, either. But that doesn’t mean it should be forever off limits.

This review creates a curious tension. As someone who is not a Vietnamese-Australian teenager, I pay close attention to reviewers with experiences closer to the main character’s than my own. A Vietnamese-American, or an Asian-American, is going to have more complicated, insightful, and interesting reactions to the book. The kneejerk response to reviews like this is sometimes ‘oh, I was completely wrong and didn’t see all these problems! I guess this book is garbage!’ But in fact, that’s not really the right reaction. Reviews like this one should drive you to go see how other people are reacting, especially when red flags (talking about experiences in one country as though they are identical to those in another) pop up. Go see how other Asian immigrants and people of Asian descent are responding. Pay special attention to Vietnamese readers. Seek out reviews and commentary by Vietnamese-Australians specifically.

If 20 reviews are telling you the same thing, that’s a sign that a book has some problems. If those reviews are more mixed, it tells you that reviewers are reacting to it in different ways, which is actually pretty normal, because reviewers are humans. A reviewer who’s seen eight million books with very similar storylines is going to be frustrated with yet another one. Another reviewer might also have seen a gazillion books like Cloudwish, but still sees the value in it. Or not. There are lots of ways to react to a book.

This isn’t, again, my way of elaborately saying that you should ignore this review because some other people liked the book, ergo the reviewer’s reaction is invalid. This is my way of saying that no one review should be taken as the ultimate tastemaker on a book.

The experience of reading is different for everyone. You and I can read the same book and I may rail against it as a stereotype-laden harmful pile of garbage, while you may think it’s a sensitive and accurate depiction of your experience. I might love it, and you might hate it. I might love it, read your review, and go: ‘Oh. Yeah. You’re right, I really didn’t think about the implications of X.’ Sometimes all it takes is one review to cut through the crap — like when I read Everything, Everything and liked it, until I read a review highlighting all of the glaring issues that I’d missed. That review made me reconsider my own stance (I left the initial review up because it highlights a lot of things, one of which is the fact that you can change your mind about a piece of media after thinking more carefully about it). A single good or bad review doesn’t magically invalidate all the other responses to a book, but it should be read and thought over carefully. It’s okay to read a good or bad review and disagree, but if you do, ask yourself why: Is it a kneejerk because it brought up some issues for you? Are you defensive because you liked something and you feel like a bad person for missing problems that someone else identifies? Is it clear that the reviewer fundamentally missed some important things in the text, and what assessment are you using to make that judgement? Does the reviewer share/not share the experience being depicted and critiqued? Is the review itself thoughtless? (e.g. I hope no one stumbles upon my Everything, Everything review and goes ‘oh, this person thought it was fine, so I’m cool.’) Sometimes one reviewer just really didn’t like a book. Sometimes a book touches a nerve, and not in a good way. Sometimes a problem with a book is so subtle that one in one thousand readers will catch it, and that one outlying bad review should be taken pretty seriously. Sometimes someone just really hates a particular character type and that colours their reviews. Read reviews critically, especially if you disagree with them, to understand how and why you disagree.

It’s important to remember this — not to dismiss reviews because you don’t like or agree with what they say, but also to acknowledge that different people interact differently. And books aren’t always written for you. And that’s okay. I’ve been reading a lot of YA in the last year that I’ve found pretty frustrating, but in many instances, when I’ve taken a step back and thought about it, I’ve been reminded that this book wasn’t written for me, that the things that bother me are still new and fresh to younger readers — and that includes books about characters with marginalisations that I share, with stories that are frustrating for me because I’m of an age where I don’t need to read them anymore.

…I think I just reviewed a book review. I may have reached peak meta. I make no apologies.

Image: Story…so far, David Bleasdale, Flickr