A little learning is a dangerous thing
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring :
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the conundrum that happens when reviewers think we know, but don’t. My friend Roxanne Feldman addressed this beautifully in her post, “Doing the Diversity Thing Diversely, Part 3: How Can We Know When We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know?,” focusing in on the reviewer’s difficulty when:
DKDK One is unaware of one’s lack of knowledge in a particular area. More often than not, one also believes that he/she actually has solid knowledge about the matters at hand. This often makes it difficult for anyone to obtain actual knowledge.
Roxanne then goes on to unpack two examples. The first is her evolving response as a Chinese reader to The Five Chinese Brothers. Writes Roxanne:
I myself have engaged in several discussions over the years on the portrayal of Chinese culture and characters in children’s and YA books. I always do this with much trepidation: since there is no way that I can truly be the spokesperson for an entire (and extremely complex) culture, even if it is considered MINE. (I am now even more aware of the differences between Chinese and Chinese American Cultures.)
Having defended the book some years ago against others who saw the illustrations as racist, Roxanne now feels:
I have also come to realize how much I also DKDKed! My insistence to support the use of yellow for the faces is based on my personal experiences: as a Chinese girl growing up in a homogeneous environment, proud to be a member of the “yellow race,” and never having to contend with my ethnic identity. It is a highly biased stance (and I wanted to break the connection of Yellow=Undesirable, what an naive idea!) I disregarded the real experiences of Chinese and Asian American child readers. Just because I don’t find being labeled “yellow skinned” hurtful does not mean that there are not many who are indeed hurt. In this case, I believe that their views are more valid than mine.
Roxanne’s next example is from the Kirkus review of my book, Africa is My Home. Before the book was published, my biggest anxiety was that a reviewer would catch something that I or the illustrator had overlooked and managed to get glaringly wrong. It hadn’t occurred to me that a reviewer would do so inaccurately as happened in the Kirkus review, a case of the reviewer not knowing what he/she didn’t know. Do read Roxanne’s thoughtful research and unpacking of the “flaw,” the lack of variety in skin tone in the illustrations.
How do we review when we worry about what we don’t know? Take my favorable New York Times review of Andrea Davis Pinkney’s The Red Pencil. As someone who is passionate about how the continent of Africa is represented, I wanted to do right by the book while recognizing that my knowledge about the Dafur conflict and its people was limited to news accounts. I did some research and fact checking for my review, but there was no way I could do enough to be absolutely 100% certain that all was correct. In the end it came down to trust, that Andrea with her stellar reputation — having done her own copious research and reached out to some seemingly excellent experts — had gotten it right.
Or how about when we are of the ethnicity or culture represented in a book, but have polarizingly different responses to the way it has been represented as happened last year during the discussions around The Hired Girl? My background as the child of secular German Jews probably had something to do with my enthusiasm for the book. Yet devoted and practicing Jews with very different backgrounds from mine did not see eye to eye, some loved the book while others did not (a range of these responses can be seen in this Heavy Medal post) . What are we to make of these varied responses in lieu of our concern about equity? What to think about what we Jews knew in or didn’t know in terms of that book as it represented our culture? Did we assume and trust too much? Or not enough?
Having been brought up by German parents and spent years in Germany as a child, I am sensitive to representations of things German. This has made my reading of books set there to be perhaps different from someone without my background. In a recent book set in 1980s East Berlin, little errors kept pulling me out of the story, say a bratwurst sandwich (these are eaten with rolls, not in an American-style sandwich), a stove described as too small to roast a turkey (not a usual part of German cuisine), and so forth. In another forthcoming book of a similar time and place I found that the author was more successful with the German stuff, perhaps because, unlike the previous writer, she had spent significant time in East Berlin during the time in question. In this case, something else specific to my experience caused distractions — the child American main character’s ease with the German language based on seemingly minimal previous experience. As someone who spent time in Germany as a child, some of it in German schools, my experience was significantly different. Now does it matter? The story is not about the child’s experiences in the schools, after all. And understanding German is critical to the plot. I doubt any reviewer is going to give any thoughts to the boy’s remarkable ability with the language unless they’ve had experiences that will alert them to it. Presumably reviewers have and will assume sufficient familiarity with German culture and history to do justice to such books.
So what do we do as reviewers? I think we can only be as aware as possible, be open to corrections, to be conscious that we probably don’t know as much as we think we know, and try to go beyond that dangerous “little learning” about which Alexander Pope is so scathing.