Pondering Bookish Things; Or, Wearing Many Hats

So, I've been reading a lot of books over the last few years, and I've been writing reviews, researching for my PhD, and working on various award committees. I just wanted to take a few moments to talk through some of the difficulties of wearing these hats. When I write a review, I am reviewing a single book. I am looking at the characters, setting, writing, and possible socio-political implications of events and representation within that particular text. I'm not necessarily looking at the publisher's track record or the author's previous works, or even the larger body of work within a given genre or age-range.

In my scholarly work, however, I am suddenly looking not only at representation in a single book, but also in terms of a larger context. In my particular field for instance, I read a lot of books featuring trans characters. I look not only at representation within a particular text, but also explore the implications of these representations in the larger context of trans novels for young readers. If I focus only each text as its own piece, existing alone, then there is no way to do the larger work of finding trends, or seeing how books hold up over time.

When I read a book for a review now, after reading so many books with similar themes and characters over the last few years, I can't help but sometimes think, "Oh boy, this is starting to look familiar." And sometimes even worse, "Oh boy, here we go with the same depiction of trans-ness again." For instance, within trans narratives, the majority of writers are cis women, and the majority of characters talk about being "born in the wrong body." This depiction of an individual's trans experience is totally relatable to some, but not to others. That being said, I am constantly discovering the tension between attempts by authors to write individual stories and universal stories.

If each book is treated as an individual story without looking at the overall trends around representation, then it's sometimes hard to see the problem with having all the individual stories starting to sound the same. The story ends up becoming more of a universal one, and less critical readers might begin to assume that all trans individuals have the same understanding of their bodies and identities. And without this being called out, we end up in the situation we are currently in, where we have more stories about "being trans" than we do about trans characters within larger stories (at least where the mainstream publishing industry is concerned). The larger body of work, then, as it currently exists, would seem to be more about educating cis audiences about what it means to be trans than about giving trans people a space within fiction to simply exist and take part in life and adventures and space travel, or whatever else might be the case.

That all being said, I now often find myself torn when reviewing books. Do I talk about their place within the larger body of YA literature? Do I point out that an author has written yet another wrong-body narrative meant to educate cis readers? Is there a space for exploring the bigger picture to ensure that individual stories do not become universal ones? And does this then cause me to fall into a trap of judging a single text based on similarities in theme and character representation to other books when readers might not even notice the overlaps?

I know there has been study on this type of thing, and I know that each particular approach has value. Would we be able to talk about diversity and representation in race, sexuality, gender, and class, if we didn't analyze trends and existing work, after all? What I'm trying to get across is that I'm sometimes finding it difficult to figure out which hat to wear to ensure that I'm treating books fairly and yet critically, as their own entities and as pieces within a larger whole.

Feedback, thoughts, comments... let me know! I hope to hear from many of you about your own experiences.

Thanks for indulging me in this non-review post.

Comments

  1. If you have a cis person educating cis people on what it means to be trans, using a boring take on an established pattern, then I think it's fair to mention that in a review in some way. It might still be a valuable book for a family who has never thought of exploring this issue before, but people reading your review might appreciate knowing that it doesn't bring anything fresh to the table. On the other hand, you might just rather want to emphasize in your reviews those books which do bring something fresh and insightful to the table. Are there books by trans authors to help cis (or possibly trans) people find out what it's like to be trans? Because what you said above almost sounded like cultural appropriation.

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    1. There are certainly books by cis authors that do similar things for educational purposes. I was just pointing out the fact that the majority of trans YA has been historically written by cis women. It's a big part of conversations now around insider/outsider authorship and the need for more #ownvoices in publishing. Thanks for your thoughts! I really appreciate it :)

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