In full disclosure: I have not read the book American Heart by Laura Morarity, however, I have read the NPR interview covering the Kirkus Review. It should be noted that an author or publisher pays for a Kirkus review, and Kirkus is in the business of providing editing services.
Originally, this novel was given a positive review, including a “star” within the Kirkus system, which is a significant achievement and a benefit to marketing the book. Objections were raised however, and the original review was withdrawn, and a new one put in its place. The updated review, which did not include a “star,” also stated: “It is a policy of Kirkus Reviews that books with diverse subject matter and protagonists are assigned to Own Voices reviewers—writers who can draw upon lived experience when evaluating texts.” The star originally awarded was withdrawn when the reviewer went back and “clarified” that the Muslim character is only viewed through a white protagonist’s filter.
Certainly, anyone can criticize any artistic work for any reason, and I applaud Kirkus for its corporate sensitivity to cultural differences, and accurate portrayals of, as they put it, “marginalized groups.” Yet, its actions trouble me because of the implications.
The first is that only writers of color or from marginalized group may write characters of that color or marginalized group. The second is that, perhaps, only white writers are restricted from writing characters of color or from marginalized groups.
This is a novel written for entertainment. It is not a classroom text book or a scholarly non-fiction on culture and society. It is fiction. While it is proper to insist on accuracy in text books, or the like, in fiction, the author is free to express reality, and perhaps even take the story beyond reality, to tell the tale.
I’m left wondering where the publishing and reviewing industry has been for the last 100 years, as men wrote horribly distorted female characters and perpetuated stereotypes of women that reverberate in society today. Women were historically seen through “a male protagonist’s lens.” Indeed, some say that women are a “marginalized group” within publishing writ large. Taken to its logical extreme, only women can write a female character, only men can write male characters, only blacks can write black characters, etc. Where does it end? Can fantasy or science fiction be written only by authors who are aliens?
Reading and writing characters is one way to “walk a mile in their shoes” and we should be ENCOURAGING authors to write diverse characters, and — as Justina Ireland says in the NPR interview — “get it right.” If readers don’t like how a character is written, then don’t buy the book. Literature can help bring us together, instead this short-sighted approach to punishing authors for creating diverse characters will polarize us even more.