It’s been my policy to never comment for the record on book reviews except to correct errors of fact. I’m making an exception for So Lucky‘s first review because it epitomises the bias faced by novels about disabled characters written by disabled authors and it’s time this bias was called out.
Look at the first sentence of the So Lucky review:
This affecting and autobiographical novel…recounts
In How to Suppress Women’s Writing Joanna Russ lays out eleven methods to belittle the work of women (and, I would argue, of members of other oppressed groups). Labelling fiction as ‘autobiographical’ could be assigned to either Denial of Agency or Pollution of Agency. From a male-identified author (for example, Karl Ove Knausgaard), autobiographical fiction is Art. From a female-identified author, it is merely a transcription of real life with no creativity involved: Oh, she wrote it, but it’s not really art because it’s the story of her life. She just, y’know, transcribed what was actually happening.1
This same journal reviewing So Lucky has reviewed my previous novels.2 Here are some words and phrases plucked from those reviews:
Griffith opens her latest
Griffith is enthralling
Griffith’s work is hugely satisfying
Griffith goes boldly
Griffith’s compelling prose
Griffith breathes life into an appealing heroine
These are reviews of novels about nondisabled characters written (as far as the reviewer is concerned) by a nondisabled author: Slow River, The Blue Place, Stay, Always, and Hild (I can’t find the review of Ammonite). In these reviews, the agent is always ‘Griffith’, that is, the author. The author is acknowledged as the one responsible for creation and therefore the reader’s reaction.
But this review immediately sidesteps the author and names the ‘autobiographical novel’ as the actor and agent. When both author and protagonist are disabled it’s apparently the novel itself that affects the reader. My role as a novelist is denied. My expertise is dismissed.
Further on we get this:
the end product is a plausible warts-and-all portrayal
Again, the reviewer suggests that the subject, the doer, if you like, is not the author. Rather, it is the story of struggle and disability that evokes a response in the reader, not the author’s prose. In this review, rather than creating the story I become the story. It is not what I do that matter, but who I am. And what I am in this assessment is Other.
Now let’s turn to the description of the disabled protagonist, Mara. Her agency, too, is diminished. She does things ‘accidentally’ rather than, as I frame it in the novel, in a vicious rage. Her quite conscious and deliberate choice in the book, which becomes an almost-fatal error, is based on a crucial character flaw, yet is dismissed as a
subplot involving crimes against the disabled [that] could have been dispensed with
Agency appears to be incompatible with disability. A ‘meaningful’ life is also apparently incompatible, and so the book becomes about Mara’s ‘struggle’ to have a life ‘despite’ her MS. This ‘struggle’ is what apparently makes So Lucky ‘affecting’—struggle is used twice, in a 200-word review3. According to the reviewer, readers won’t be impressed or wanting more or thrilled by my hugely satisfying work and compelling prose, they will be ‘affected’ and ‘inspired’ by Mara’s disability.4
Inspired is literally the last word of the review.
In 2014 activist Stella Young coined the term ‘inspiration porn’.5 Inspiration porn is the portrayal of a disabled person as an object of inspiration for the benefit of nondisabled people. By objectifying disabled people, inspiration porn dehumanises us. Inspiration porn renders us Other.
So Lucky is not inspiration porn.6 It is reviewed as such here because of the unacknowledged, unconscious ableism of the reviewer. The reviewer may have felt benevolent towards both the author and the book, their bias might be implicit rather than explicit7, yet the review offers a reading of the novel in which the agency and humanity of both author and protagonist are diminished, denied, and dismissed.
Do better, critics.
1 Well, no. As with all my novels, I use elements of my own life but Mara’s story is no more my story than Aud’s in The Blue Place, Lore’s in Slow River, or Hild’s in, well, Hild.
2 I won’t name the journal. I’m not inclined to send them traffic.
3 And let’s not even mention ‘medical adversity,’ because, of course, what Mara is actually dealing with is the effects of the social model of disability. Her central difficulty is ableism—her own, and others’—not just illness.
4 This is the kind of review a queer novel could have expected 60 years ago in which the protagonist is remarkable only as a pitiful creature crying out to be treated as human and relying on the kindness and forbearance of strangers.
5 If after Young’s TEDx talk you want to know more about this, Wikipedia has some references that will get you started.
6 According to the disabled critics who have read it, So Lucky is ‘a new wave of disability story’ (Susan Nussbaum, winner of the PEN/Bellwether Award), a ‘tour de force of the onset of disability’ (Steven Brown, the co-founder of the Institute of Disability Culture), a ‘story of what we all share’ (Kenny Fries, multiple award-winning author and creator of the Fries Test), and a ‘hallucinatory exploration of the body, reality, and identity’ that is ‘disorienting, destabilizing, and game-changing’ (Riva Lehrer, this year’s winner of the President’s Award from the Society for Disability Studies, an artist whose works hangs in the National Portrait Gallery). These are well known, extremely well-respected scholars, artists, and cultural critics. They understand when a book is doing something exciting and different. (ETA: Many people assume that all members of a subculture know each other. While Riva is a friend, I’d never had any communication with the other three until I asked them to read the book.) So what game-changing narrative strategies does So Lucky employ to achieve this innovation? Well, wouldn’t it be lovely if a critic could get past tired ableist assumptions to ponder that question…
7 If I thought it would make a difference I’d ask reviewers to visit Harvard’s Project Implicit, take the implicit bias test for disability, and post their results along with the review.