The Lack of Culture in Book Reviews

By Kathy Short, Director of Worlds of Words

Culture in book reviewsMy major goal for teachers taking my course on multicultural literature this semester was to encourage them to develop a critical lens to use in reading and evaluating literature.

We often discussed books in small group literature circles. Teachers were asked to read and respond to each book from a personal perspective. They also researched the background of the author and located book reviews to see how experts in the field evaluated the book. I wanted them to have a range of tools to use in evaluating books for cultural authenticity.

We were surprised to realize that book reviewers seldom commented on any issues of culture. Not only did reviewers not discuss cultural authenticity, they rarely commented about any cultural aspects of the books, except to note the ethnicity of the main character. For example, Becoming Naomi León by Pam Muñoz Ryan raises issues of bicultural identity and challenges stereotypes of Mexican fathers. However, the book reviews did not comment on these aspects of the book.

After reading multiple book reviews for many different books, we concluded that book reviewers seem to go to great lengths to avoid commenting on culture in book reviews. One librarian in the course was distraught when she realized the inadequacy of reviews for books reflecting specific cultural experiences, because she has been using reviews to order books for many years.

We wondered if the reviewers are not comfortable with their knowledge of diverse cultures and so avoid any specific comments about culture for fear of being accused of inaccuracy. Is the avoidance of culture an indication that most reviewers hold mainstream views and lack knowledge about culture and cultural authenticity? Or are other factors influencing the lack of reference to culture in reviews? Is the issue the lack of diversity within the book reviewers or the standards and criteria used to write book reviews? What other issues might be affecting the lack of culture in book reviews?

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19 thoughts on “The Lack of Culture in Book Reviews

  1. I think it’s a combination of all these issues that makes most published book reviews inadequate for determining cultural authenticity or accuracy. To my knowledge, there are no specific criteria for book reviews or reviewers in the most frequently used review sources consulted by school and other librarians. That’s one reason why the WOW Review is such an important resource. We need to spread the word! http://wowlit.org/on-line-publications/review/

  2. Kathy Short says:

    I agree that fear of offending someone is a major factor, especially in relation to race. One book that I found helpful in thinking about how to talk about race, rather than avoid the topic, is Talking Race in the Classroom by Jane Bolgatz

  3. I started reviewing books with American Indian content for HORN BOOK. That was in the 90s when I was in graduate school. One review was rejected because I used the word “stereotype.” It was deemed a non-literary critique. Later, a review I did on a book about the California Missions was also withheld. In that one, I pointed to scholarship by people in Native Studies that challenges the status quo with respect to how indigenous people were treated by those missionaries.

    I eventually quit reviewing there. In 2006, I launched a blog and resource where I turn a critical lens on books, reviews, lesson plans, movies, etc. with Native content. Friends and colleagues with a similar lens submit items for the site. On Thursday, for example, I published Jane Haladay’s review of Will Hobbs BEARSTONE. In it, she asks the question of audience. Who is Hobbs book for?

    I think writers and reviewers write to a white audience. I also think that, due to the visibility of my site, there’s increasing awareness that Native people are also reading these books, and voicing objections.

    My site is americanindiansinchildrensliterature.net

    Stop by!

  4. Carol Johnston says:

    Hi Kathy,
    Perhaps you’d have a recommendation(s) regarding recently published books (2005 on) that misrepresent African Americans and their culture. I’ve been searching websites, reference books and databases. I came across your site today.
    Thanks in advance for any thoughts you can share.
    Carol Johnston

  5. Celina Lopez says:

    I’m not sure exactly why book reviewer aren’t discussing cultural authenticity in book reviews, but I think it’s a shame that they aren’t. I teach third grade and critical thought and literacy is a must! In order to truly be able to think about, teach, learn and embrace multiculturalism in our classrooms and world, students and educators need access to meaningful literature.

    Perhaps an issue of book reviewers not discussing culture has to do with the book distributors and marketing. Sadly it seems most issues in society revolve around producing, consuming, and economic gains.

  6. Theresa says:

    Are the book reviewers selected by the publishers? If so, are the publishing companies not taking the time to select people from all walks of life that have the knowledge and authenticity to write a review that is culturally accurate and appropriate. Seems like they would do that, marketing a book cannot be easy the wider your target market is the more books your going to sell…is that right or am I missing something?

  7. Salina says:

    I find it interesting that reviewers are not addressing culture. I wonder if it’s because of the cultural differences between the reviewer and the author or book’s topic. The reviewer may find it safer to state the ethnicity of the characters in order to avoid a possible cultural misinterpretation.

  8. Annette Fiedler says:

    Celina, Theresa, and Salina, I agree and have the same curiosities about why culture is not present in many children’s literature. I agree that it is “safer” not include the cultural aspect instead of including material that in not authentic. I respect this. As a teacher researcher, I would not feel comfortable about writing (for publication purposes) outside my own culture, therefore this may be the mindset about their inlcusions of different cultures. This is where research comes into play! Kathygshort, I have read a book that you speak of, “Yoo Kyung Sung has found this in books about Korean American experiences,” and I find it interesting and understand that “cultural authenticity” lies within many different genres of literature.

  9. Alicia M. Fagan says:

    You have all made good points. We do live in a consumer driven society. What sells is what matters and I could see where focusing on a great story line, rather than cultural authenticity may be what is believed that average consumer is looking for. I also think that people are afraid of being offensive, especially when looking at things that are outside of their culture.

  10. Rae Etta Zuniga says:

    I think it all comes down to money. Publishers cannot sell books that recieve a controversial review so they get reviews who don’t bring out the controversial points. If they discuss the stereotypes or cultural inaccuracies of a book, they put themselves in a position to not receive work. Everyone seems to be avoiding those uncomfortable, sticky topics of race and prejudice. Things aren’t really going to change until we start having that conersation.

  11. Amanda says:

    I agree with all of you! Once a person puts their cultural thought down on paper they may be viewed differently by others. I also think that it could be they do not know much about certain cultures and do not feel confident in writing their thoughts.

  12. Amanda says:

    I agree with all of you! Once a person puts their cultural thought down on paper they may be viewed differently by others. I also think that it could be they do not know much about certain cultures and do not feel confident in writing their thoughts.

  13. tabitha kline says:

    I agree with you all. Publishers want to sell books and reviewers are safe if they don’t address authenticity. It would be helpful though if the authenticity were researched and the publisher has the power to make it happen!

  14. Carilyn says:

    I think that for the book reviews to absolutely mean anything, the publishers need to pick readers that come from the culture that the book is trying address. This way the book reviews will actually have some meaning behind them. I could write a review on a book thinking that it is an absolutely great story, but not knowing the culture, maybe in reality it is a horrible story!

  15. Celina Lopez says:

    I think there are many reasons for reviews not discussing culture that are in the books they are reviewing. I also agree with the blogs so far on how it could be a combination of many issues. As an educator, I think it’s seriously problematic not to be able to find books that are raising questions and stimulating multiculturalism. It would be great if mainstream reviews actually wrote about useful things that could help teachers and students find what they are looking for in the literacy world.

  16. Joanna Montoya says:

    I find it difficult to comment on culture when it is a culture I lack knowledge of. As far as not mentioning culture in book reviews, I believe it might be because the reviewer lacks knowledge on culture presented in the book or for cultural sensitivity reasons.

  17. Genny O'Herron says:

    Silence (in this case absence) speaks volumes. I’m sure there are numerous reasons why cultural comments are avoided (why literary criteria and authenticity are seen as being in opposition to one another), but the bigger question for me is how can/how is this being reversed. I’m grateful for you insight and commitment in this endeavor Kathy. It has expanded my thinking considerably and attuned me to the ways in which book reviews may be minimizing and negating the very benefits and treasures of multicultural and global literature.

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