A Book Never Stands Alone: Do Reviewers Have a Social Responsibility?

By Kathy Short, Director of Worlds of Words

social responsibilityBook reviews, by definition, are a summary and evaluation of a particular book. Clearly reviewers make those evaluations within their in-depth knowledge of the broader field and body of literature. The reviews themselves sometimes connect the book to other literature, especially in longer reviews, but the general approach to reviewing is from an individualistic standpoint — the book stands alone. Several recent examples have made evident why this is problematic.

One example comes from Yoo Kyung Sung’s research of Korean-American picture books. She found that out of 24 picture books of contemporary realistic fiction, 18 focused on the experiences of newly arrived Korean immigrants in the U.S. Readers are left with the impression that all Korean-Americans are new immigrants, struggling with language and adjusting to American society. The experiences of Korean-Americans who have been in the U.S. for several generations are almost completely absent. This overrepresentation of one particular type of experience for Korean-Americans establishes stereotypes across the set of books. Another new book on the Korean immigrant experience in the U.S. is thus a cause for concern, no matter how well written or illustrated.

The other examples come from the research of Seemi Aziz Raina who is looking at the representations of Muslims within books published in the United States. One issue that concerns her is when only one book is available to reflect a particular cultural experience and so becomes representative of an entire culture. For example, Shabanu by Suzanne Staples Fisher was the only novel on Pakistan available to American readers for over 10 years. Seemi points out that the book is authentic, for the most part, in the portrayal of a particular subculture within Pakistan. The problem is that this subculture reflects less than 1 percent of the population in Pakistan and reinforces Western stereotypes about the oppressive treatment of women and the Middle East as a land of camels, tents, and deserts, frozen in time.

The recent publication of more books set in Pakistan is providing a wider range of representations but Shabanu stood alone for a long time as the exemplar of life in Pakistan. Another example is Ask Me No Questions by Maria Budhos, the one children’s novel that portrays the impact of 9/11 on Muslims in the United States. The problem for Seemi is that this book portrays a Muslim family who are undocumented immigrants. The impact of 9/11 in creating fear, danger, and discrimination for all Muslims, the vast majority of whom were legal immigrants to the U.S., is absent from children’s books, again creating the potential of stereotypes.

These examples beg the question, Does the reviewer have a social responsibility to raise questions about the possible impact of a book within the broader collection of books available about a particular culture? The social responsibility of authors has been debated, but what about reviewers? What is their social responsibility?

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6 thoughts on “A Book Never Stands Alone: Do Reviewers Have a Social Responsibility?

  1. I agree that reviewers have a social
    responsibility to raise questions about the
    possible impact of a book within the broader
    collection of books available about a
    particular culture. Here is my reasoning.
    1. Many reviewers read widely and are
    aware of the context or impact of a book
    in relationship to others published on the
    same topic. Many times I recommend a
    book but do so with a comment that the
    book is the only one widely available on
    the topic. Or, I will compare the book
    to others on the same topic.

  2. Theresa says:

    I am not well versed on the requirements of a reviewer, but it seems to me that there should be a protocal in place that requires them to be socially responsible. What is the reason for not being socially responsible? And, if reviewers are going to be held accountable to a new standard who sets the guidelines to make sure that they do their job correctly and who enforces the rules?

  3. Annette Fiedler says:

    I do agree that the reviewer must have some social responsability, however what the standards and guidelines are I am not aware of. It would make sense that reviewers are culturally aware of specific happenings and those should be respectfully and effectively covered when reviewing a piece of literature. Theresa, I agree with your questions and the curiousity that this topic speaks of.

  4. tabitha kline says:

    I think this is a complicated topic for both authors and reviewers. Authors don’t always know how many books containing their content are on the market and reviewers should not have to research all other books with similar content to the book they are reviewing. Both should have the reponsibility to create a socially concious piece.

  5. Alicia M. Fagan says:

    As a teacher and a parent I feel that I rely on reviewers to guide me in the right direction in choosing books. I find it encouraging that that reviewers are becoming more aware of the authenticity of the cultural awareness of the books they are reviewing.

  6. Genny O'Herron says:

    It would be exteremly helpful–as a parent and a teacher–to know that reviewers were making the effort to raise these questions about stereotypes and broader social implications. Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie’s description of the “danger of a single story” comes to mind. I don’t want to perpetuate that “danger,” but as someone new to the world (and beauty and power) of international literature, I am apt to do so without some wise guidance.

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