When I first started reviewing books, I was halfway through a manuscript myself and I felt as though I were playing with live ammo. A novelist who reviews books is like the pot calling the kettle trite, insincere and uninspired.
But then I remembered Maya Angelou.
In 1969, Maya Angelou published her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a classic, honest and tragic exploration of how racial and sexual politics informed her adolescence. In 2002, a woman named Patricia apparently ordered the book from Amazon, read it, then gave it a one-star review, saying, it was “…a 280 page exercise of almost vaudevillian absurdity in which the reader’s boredom is only exceeded by the author’s self-absorption.” A writer could see, already, how self-aware Patricia is.
Then, in 2014, a concerned father named James read the book assigned to his daughter and wrote in the comment thread that “It is racist—degrading to whites and supportive of race-hate mentality.” Finally, a woman named Donna wrote, plainly, “Didn’t care for book.”
I don’t have enough information regarding Donna’s disapproval but I can confidently say that neither James nor Patricia really understood neither the text nor context of the book. There is an undeniable element of racism to their unfavorable reading—in fact, it takes a special kind of orientalism and condescension for a white person to accuse Angelou of “vaudevillian absurdity” when she misguidedly uses her teenaged sexuality to achieve some sense of selfhood in Jim Crow South specifically because of the white world’s refusal to allow her to do so in a more healthy way. I wonder if, when Patricia was a teenager exploring her sexuality in the face of a patriarchal society, her adolescent blowjobs were seen as vaudevillian.
It is neither racist, as James says it is, when Angelou refers to whites in the nicer part of town as being foreign. Simply put, a non-racist person would understand that these are embedded survival mechanisms subconsciously developed by Angelou in reaction to white supremacist sentiment. A smart person would understand that the book should be lauded as, at the very least, an important record of what it was like being a black teenager in the first half of the last century.
But I’m not interested in arguing whether or not I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a good book or whether these specific detractors are racist. (It is and they are). The Amazon comment thread beneath the book gets at a different phenomenon that is changing the way we consume literature or any form of elevated art. People are, more than ever, so active in their interpretation of any form of communication that, in the very act of their consumption, they change meaning. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings now exists in a realm wherein any racist philistine with an opinion can actually make their opinion known and so change the context of the way a work of art is interpreted.
This is in contrast to the way opinion was disseminated even a decade ago: someone with a curatorial approach would deconstruct a piece with the authority of their own background in the form. If this sounds exclusive and masturbatory, it is. But I’ll take that over Patricia and James any day.
More often than not, book reviewers are authors themselves: those with access to galley copy books, industry insiders, etc… Sometimes, indeed, it becomes a conflict of interest. But usually this model is self-regulating in that it ensures that those with the potential to bend and create the meaning of a novel are those that understand how novels are supposed to work. Of course, there are missteps, but the filter, when it comes to book reviews, is strongest when those reviewing are also writing.
This is all in the service of literature, itself; because what Patricia and James got so wrong is what a more informed individual would get right. The scenes and images they thought were racist, boring, vaudevillian, and self-absorbed they attributed to Maya Angelou the author, not Maya Angelou the narrator. It is an important difference to note when looking at the quality of a piece of literature and no one would understand this difference more than a writer his or herself. The scenes that so dragged on and on or reeked of racism to James and Patricia were written adeptly and purposefully by Angelou in order to illustrate exactly what her teenage mind and her teenage body thought and felt. And it is racist in and of itself to discount those revelations as racist or absurd—they’re teenaged; they are true; and they are informative. It actually takes an unfathomable skill for an adult writer to inhabit the mind and body of a teenager—let alone a writer’s teenaged self.
This all gets at my greater point: when we strip the curators of art of their process, we loose its valuation on people like James and Patricia. Does a reviewer have to be a writer, his or herself? Probably not. But it certainly helps in order to maintain a high enough standard. And again, this is only as exclusive as it should be. Truth is, literature has a job to do and we can thank James and Patricia for putting that job in high relief. We need it to understand all the ways in which we let each other down and can lift each other up. And, if not experts, we need a trained army of people who can elevate those works which do the job best.
This is not to say that only writers should review books but, rather, that the best reviewers may well be writers. So long as they do not act as gate keepers—writing, after all is a democratic and personal exercise—but, instead, are prepared to find the art within the ruin once the gates have opened.