Part of a critic’s job is to offer an expert, informed opinion of art. Keyword: informed. We need disabled critics to review art by and about disabled people.
No one views a novel, painting, or symphony through the same lens, but an expert critic will often see not only the art’s brilliance but its flaws. And no matter how good a painting, novel, or symphony is, there is almost always something about it that could be improved.1 We need clear-eyed, honest, informed critical assessment of art, whether in emotional, intellectual, moral, or political terms. In other words, we need negative reviews. A negative review can be a gift.
For an author, negative reviews are not fun. Some writers refuse to read any review of their work, and they have their reasons, but I read all my reviews, great and small.2 When they’re wrong, they teach me about readers’ biases and assumptions. When they’re right, they point to ways for me to improve. Either way, for me negative reviews are useful.
For a reader, negative reviews can be a real gift. The significance of this gift can range from saving one reader $10 and five tedious hours, to saving another reader’s life. No, I am not exaggerating. I believe some books can be so dangerous, so reinforcing of a despair-making cultural message that they contribute to suicide. If you’re a member of a group that’s already so marginalised that suicide rates are high, being warned away from a particular book, or having the book’s implicit messages discussed openly, can save you a lot of grief.
To be clear, I am not suggesting writers should not write fiction that is disturbing, or emotionally or culturally challenging. I am saying that cultural critics have a moral obligation to name the explicit messages and unearth the implicit messages delivered by the book under review.
To illustrate my point I will use a specific example, a novel about a disabled character, Still Life With Monkey, written by a nondisabled author, Katharine Weber. The book was published in August 2018, adorned with blurbs from a variety of well-known writers,3 and reviewed in outlets including the New York Times Book Review and the Washington Post (including starred reviews from the usual publishing trade journals such as Publishers Weekly and Kirkus, all linked to below).
I read the novel before publication: Duncan, a successful, rich, married, satisfied, secure architect in his 30s freaks out about his feelings for his male protegé, Todd, and loses control of their car, with the result that Todd dies and Duncan sustains a C6 break and becomes quadriplegic. After a year of living with a helper monkey in a wonderful house with his wonderful wife, in complete financial security, paid staff of every kind, and a new opportunity to finally design exactly what he wants, Duncan finds life as a quad so unbearable that he kills himself. His wife inherits all his money, finally takes care of her brother-in-law’s disorderly life, and founds a nonprofit to look after retired helper monkeys. The status quo is magically restored, and with the tedious mournful cripple out of the way, everyone else lives happily ever after. I hated it.
The ableism and whiffs of homosexual panic embedded in Still Life With Monkey appalled me. Essentially, what this book said to me was, No matter how much you are loved, or, once you’ve recovered from the shock, how fine your life could be, if you need help with everyday life activities, that life is not worth living. Also, if you die all those who love you will be better off, so why not do everyone a favour and kill yourself?4
I was appalled, too, by the poor quality of the trade reviews. PW, for example, doesn’t know the difference between quadriplegic and paraplegic; Kirkus uses phrases like ‘wheelchair-bound.’ Unsurprisingly, both (anonymous) trade reviewers loved the book, and either didn’t see or did not have the skill to call out the homosexual panic subtext and the if-you-can’t-walk-life’s-not-worth-living ableism. Instead, theses reviewers suggested Weber is being ‘brave’ and ‘unflinching’ and ‘unsentimental’ about facing ‘hard truths.’ I would be very surprised if any of the trade reviewers were disabled.
So when mainstream reviews began a couple of months later, I paid attention. All but one of the reviews I read failed to point out either the ableist or homophobic messages of the novel. They, too, appeared to believe Weber was just bravely calling it as she saw it. To be fair, I think that’s exactly what she was doing. I’m guessing she thought she was just facing the unpalatable truth, that is, the truth as she imagined it would be for her if she became quadraplegic overnight.
Many nondisabled people really do think that if they became crippled, by accident or illness, they be better off dead. In my experience, disabled people rarely think this.5 So I do not believe the author intended harm; I do not believe she was aware of what a terrible message her book was delivering to disabled people (and bisexual men).
The thing is, it doesn’t matter what the author intended. Intention does not equal impact. And the impact of this book’s conclusion on anyone wrestling with new disability—that is, just when they are most vulnerable—could very well be: Oh, just kill yourself already because everyone will be better off without you moping around and ruining our previously aesthetically-pleasing bubble.
The single review I found that might have warned a disabled reader, or one of their loved ones, of the shock and horror of this book was Karen Joy
Fowler’s piece in the Washington Post.
Katharine Weber’s “Still Life With Monkey” is a beautifully wrought paean of praise for the ordinary pleasures taken for granted by the able-bodied. In precise and often luminous prose, with intelligence and tenderness, Weber’s latest novel examines the question of what makes a life worth living. The answer the book offers is its only disappointment, but a profound one.
Fowler also points to the homophobic panic subtext—though is kinder about than I would have been.
The book is somewhat mysterious on the subject of Duncan’s fondness for Todd. But the important fact is the one Duncan expresses quite plainly: “Todd Walker will always be dead. I will always be the reason.”
Weber uses Duncan’s guilt over Todd’s death as a fig leaf to cover her ableist assumptions. She wants us to believe that Duncan doesn’t want to die because he’s a cripple, oh dear me no. He wants to die because he feels guilty about Todd’s death. But a close study of the text (and trust me, I studied it closely; it’s the most attention I’ve paid a book since doing my PhD) shows this to be nonsense.
Thankfully, Fowler is very clear about the main impact of the book.
This excellent novel is, however, all but spoiled by its ending. I counted on the imagination and intelligence shown in the rest of the book to carry through. Instead, we’re given the same appalling conclusion we see so often in tales of disability. The end of Duncan’s story line is a terrible letdown. The conclusion of Laura’s story is unpersuasive. Only Ottoline has an ending I can embrace. As she begins the book, so does she close it, with a bright energy and the continual mystery of her complex and curious mind.
If Karen Fowler could see what the real message of this book is, why couldn’t other reviewers? More to the point, why would assigning editors commission nondisabled critics to review a novel that evolves around attitudes to disability? We’ve all seen the embarrasing results of white critics taking on the work of writers of colour6 (and, worse, that of white authors writing about race and making clichéd assumptions about the lives of characters of different races or ethnicities). These days few self-respecting editors would assign such a review to a white freelancer (professional critics can be a slightly different case). We know that if a book about women’s experience, or queer experience, is assigned for review it should probably be to a professional book critic or to a guest reviewer who identifies, respectively, as a woman or queer. On the other hand, if the book isn’t about the experience of a member of a traditionally marginalised community but is, say, a straight-up murder mystery, or campus novel (does anyone even write those anymore?) or romance that just happens to feature a protagonist who is black, or queer, or a woman, then the identitfy of the reviewer might not matter so much, because race, sexual orientation, and gender may not be essential to the narrative. Although, of course, you would not assign such a book to a known racist, misogynist, or homophobe.
But a novel about disability, especially one written by a nondisabled author, really, seriously needs to be evaluated by someone who understands the lived experience of being disabled. This is because most nondisabled (and some disabled) people are so unaware of their ableist bias that they are de facto ableists. In terms of disability, most people simply can’t yet offer an informed assessment.
One quarter of US residents have a disability that effects their lives (though I’m guessing not all would identify as disabled).7 It shouldn’t be too hard to find a decent book critic who is disabled. A critic with lived experience of disability will not only recognise ableism when they see it but probably also spot the kind of wish-fulfillment some beginner writers indulge in, and, hopefully, be more willing to call it out. Because, oh yep, there’s a lot of crap criplit out there (after all, 90% of everything is crap; criplit is not immune).
So, book review editors, do better: employ some disabled critics who will actually understand the issues at hand. And, book critics, if you are not disabled but are offered criplit to review, at least ask the opinion of a couple of disabled book professionals you trust. It will save you embarrassment, it might help a new writer improve, and it might, it really might, save someone’s life.
1 In my brief critical career I always felt obliged to point out these flaws, even in work I loved. Most of that work I would still stand by—with one memorable exception—but eventually, in the late 90s, I stopped reviewing. I believe offering only unalloyed praise is not useful–for writers or readers–in the long run, but punching down felt mean-spirited, and punching up was proving counterproductive. The exception? My review in NYRSF of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. I misread one aspect of the book so badly it makes my toes curl to think about it, but happily Octavia forgave me.
2 I believe most (though not nearly all, sigh) negative reviews of my work are wrong-headed. The first Locus review of Ammonite, for example, said something like, “It might have been so much more meaningful if Marghe had had a brother…” And then of course there are the So Lucky reviews like this one.
3 All of whom should know better. See the publisher’s book page, and reviews from Publishers Weekly, NYTBR, and Kirkus. for samples of clueless critics. See the Washington Post for a much better approach.
4 In this way, it’s very like JoJo Moyes’ Me Before You. I’d like to take a flamethrower to both.
5 This is one of the many perils risked by those who write outside their cultural experience. I have no quarrel with those who do, only with the fact that most of them don’t employ sensitivity readers who can point out egregious subtext—or even maintext—that the writer is unable to see. It’s why we need more #OwnVoices fiction, to displace the well-meaning tripe pumped out by novelists who have no clue about the lived experience of, for example, queer and disabled people.
6 Hunt down some reviews of Toni Morrison’s early work, just to pick out one example.
7 These are figure released by the CDC in August, 2018.