Quality and the marginalised artist part 2: reviews of ‘identity-based’ works

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In a series of four pieces, writer and critic Sandra Alland examines the state of disabled and D/deaf arts criticism, with input from various artists and experts. Last month, Alland dissected what’s happening for marginalised people in publishing. Today, she uses her experiences as co-editor of Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (Nine Arches, 2017) as a case study of reviews of ‘identity-based’ artworks.

Book cover of Stairs and Whispers

Stairs and Whispers (Cover)

Privileged people often suggest marginalised artists are featured because of positive discrimination instead of ‘quality’. Sometimes they fear, perhaps correctly, they don’t know enough about us or our art practices to engage. In response, they ignore us, praise us indiscriminately so they don’t seem bigoted, or make generalisations about ‘subcultures’ that suggest our work is only for audiences exactly like us.

I’m not a statistician, but I’m solid at maths and critical thinking, and I’ve spent months poring over reviews of Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back. My small case-study of this ‘identity-based’ work echoes some of what I wrote last month regarding publishing and criticism, with a few differences. I’ll get into numbers again, and this time I’ll examine content.

You might be surprised, given my concerns, that Stairs and Whispers (SAW) didn’t receive a single terrible review. In fact, 96% were glowing. People wrote very complimentary and excellent things. But they also wrote complimentary and not-so-excellent things. It was this experience of being lauded in uncomfortable ways that led me to develop this series.

Disclaimer: I and my co-editors, Khairani Barokka and Daniel Sluman, are deeply grateful to everyone who reviewed the anthology. This could read like a giant sub-tweet, but it’s not useful to call out individuals who made terrible or silly comments. Instead, I’m highlighting systemic issues that interfere with the critical and political reception of disabled work. In some ways, I’m more concerned with who didn’t review us than who did.

In 2017, The Guardian ran at least four articles on lack of diversity in publishing; yet research by Dave Coates showed that between 2015 and 2017 the newspaper hired 98% white critics to review 92% white poets. Coates didn’t have comparable numbers for disability, but research like The VIDA Count suggests similar trends.

Only four print journals reviewed Stairs and Whispers. Many well-known poetry reviewers, including The Guardian, Poetry Wales and PN Review, didn’t review the book, nor did any major newspaper.

We received 28 reviews or mentions – decent for an independently-published, small-press, identity-focused book of poetry. However, ‘niche’ publications accounted for over a third of mentions. One source was a D/deaf special issue; four solely reviewed disabled or D/deaf work; and four others had specialist purviews (feminist arts, ‘diverse’ books, working-class poetry, a review of a writers of colour festival). Three mentions were less than 60 words, two were reviews of events, two previews, and one a section of a review of another book by co-editor, Khairani Barokka. Eight mentions appeared in online journals, eight on personal blogs, and five on YouTube.

Pie chart: publication type

SAW got a fair amount of attention for a poetry book, yet most of the feedback is considered ‘unprofessional’, unsuitable for grant applications and agents. To be clear, I’m not devaluing ‘amateur’ reviewers or specialist publications (see last month). I’m calling attention to what’s valued, to cycles of exclusion.

Pie chart: publication purview

Statistics Disclaimer: My reviewer stats are based on information in online bios, interviews and bylines, not on surveys of reviewers. But almost all analysed info was available online, so there were few cases of ‘unknown’ answers. That being said, gender has been inferred by names and pronouns. Though fairly accurate, this method excludes some non-binary or genderfluid people. Likewise, I based racial backgrounds on how critics presented and wrote about themselves, a method that could fail to count some people of colour and/or indigenous people. Analysis of disabled and D/deaf identities depended on disclosure, which is generally a terrible method – however, because of context, disclosure was often featured as part of SAW reviews.

From the available info, 23 reviewers were likely white, two Black, two Asian and one mixed-race. Around a third of reviews were published in London, with another third likely in other parts of England; at least two-thirds of reviewers were English. There was a balance of older and younger reviewers. Interestingly, only three people named themselves ‘reviewer’, while 22 identified solely or primarily as ‘poet’.

Pie chart: race

From what I could glean, there were 19 women, eight men, and one genderqueer critic. In general, there was little information regarding reviewers’ LGBTQI+ or class experiences. However, one reviewer mentioned being queer, two being working class, and nine of 28 mentioned Masters and/or PhD credentials.

The most underrepresented reviewers were men of colour and disabled men (one of each), and disabled or D/deaf women of colour (one of each). Of all reviewers, 25% of men were likely paid, compared to only 16% of women. So, while women are perhaps over-represented, it’s also true they were more likely working for free. Though many of my statistics support others mentioned last month, it’s important to remember this is only one book, and choice (of editor and writer) is relevant. Women might have been more interested or willing to do this work; perhaps women were more likely to be assigned the book (by men who didn’t want it).

Pie chart: gender

The majority of reviewers likely to have been paid had Masters or PhDs; only one paid reviewer mentioned being queer and genderqueer; and no paid reviewers appeared to be Black, Indigenous and/or people of colour.

Perhaps surprisingly, and contrary to available statistics, (at least) eleven critics were disabled and two D/deaf; 46% of the total. In the few cases of paid reviews, non-disabled editors hired 40% disabled writers, only a slightly lower percentage. This could be interpreted as a positive #ownvoices move, yet could instead mean non-disabled people aren’t learning to interact with disabled work – or aren’t interested. Further, until more research is conducted, we can’t know how many disabled people are commissioned to review both non-disabled and disabled work.

Pie Chart: disability

In terms of access, 18 reviews were published as text-only (three print-only). A mere two reviews offered audio versions. One recording was from The Deaf Poets Society (who always offer such access), and the other from disabled writer, Jen Campbell, for The Poetry Review (who don’t usually offer review audio). On YouTube, the sole captioned video was a British Sign Language review from Deaf artist, Jenny Sealey. What does it mean if we can’t access feedback on our work?

But onward to content! I’ll focus on general disabled content, and cover specific D/deaf findings next month, in collaboration with deaf poet Bea Webster (in BSL and English).

Reviews of Stairs and Whispers revealed that most (white) people have difficulty engaging with the idea of intersecting systems of oppression. One system is all most reviewers acknowledged, and usually by referring to ‘identity’ instead of power structures. Generally, reviews addressed disabled and D/deaf experiences through a paradigm of sameness – despite the range of analyses and backgrounds in the book and its accompanying videos and recordings. This is common even in disabled communities, aptly named #DisabilityTooWhite by Vilissa Thompson.

Overall, reviews also failed to engage with ideas of political or community solidarity. The majority gave overwhelming weight to the medical model of disability and individual impairments, despite SAW highlighting social and radical models of disability, Deaf culture and neurodivergence. When considered together, they reveal a tendency to other disabled artists, as if critics were asking themselves before each poet, ‘What does this one have?’

Not to belabour the point, but we had four intros and a glossary, together clarifying the book’s distance from the medical model and person-first language (especially regarding autistic people and Deaf culture). But many reviewers insisted on medical terminology, individual experience over collective politics, and problematic narratives:  ‘a plethora of conditions’, ‘what it’s like to be partially hearing or have a disability’, ‘differently inhabited subjectivities’, ‘a spectrum of physical and invisible disabilities’, ‘the writers’ disabilities and abilities’, ‘burdensome to themselves and others’, ‘full hearing loss’, ‘suffer in silence’, ‘journey of perseverance’, ‘brave, mostly positive’, ‘inspired’, and ‘poets have allowed themselves to be exposed publicly for potential ridicule’.

One piece said the anthology asserted ‘an entirely new poetics distinct from “ableist” poets’. Again, this emphasised individuals instead of ableist systems, as well as erasing the branches of our poetics that have nothing to do with non-disabled people. It questioned ableism by putting it in quotations, also suggesting we’d actually said this.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s no problem with disabled people exploring medical experiences, interrogating the medical industrial complex, or discussing individual struggles and negative feelings about illness and impairment. But such work doesn’t form the majority of SAW by any measure, and framings of voyeurism, overcoming and inspiration are definitely not what the book conveys.

Instead of individual ‘suffering’, more reviewers could have mentioned systemic oppression, stereotyping, and barriers from government, doctors, family and peers. I salute and thank those who did examine these issues. I would also have loved more commentary on poems concerning nature, science fiction, disabled trans women, or colonial suppression of Black gay desire.

But no review engaged with the fact that over a third of SAW‘s poets are lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or queer. No one commented on trans and non-binary writing, or gender at all, in an anthology that’s over 75% women, and features one woman and one genderqueer editor. No one engaged with class. Only The Skinny noted a fifth of contributors are Scottish. Fair enough if your review is super-short, but in times when everyone has ‘diversity’ on their lips, these are glaring omissions.

There was also little interaction with race and ethnicity, despite 20% of contributors being from BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) backgrounds, and the book having a stated intention of questioning white supremacy and colonialism.

‘It was great to see our decolonial ethics and praxis around disability mentioned in a review (MAI Feminisms),’ says co-editor Barokka. ‘But otherwise it wasn’t really mentioned. And I also wonder if everyone who wrote “intersectional” would be in agreement on what that meant.’

One mention of diversity unfortunately concluded, ‘powerfully demonstrates that disabilities do not discriminate.’ The suggestion: this horrible thing can get anyone. Instead of examining, for example, how systems of power intersect to oppress disabled people of colour differently from disabled white people, the reviewer chose to suggest impairment as a great equalizer (and an inherently negative one).

Another review, after some kick-ass lines about SAW‘s intersectionality, said: ‘OK, you might be saying, this ticks all the boxes but is the poetry any good?’ This was likely meant, not as insult, but as challenge to people’s thinking. But consider how often such questions are asked of our work. And how damaging it is to repeat them, even if your answer is ‘yes’. There’s always lingering doubt; do we pass the test when you separate our work from our ‘suffering’?

Despite numerous longer reviews, judgement-based criticism of specific poets or poems was also rare. There was a sprinkling of words like ‘excellent’, ‘gritty’, ‘beautiful’, ‘rich’,‘stirring’ or ‘stunning’, but few others. If they engaged in specific ways at all, most critics tended to quote extensively and maybe describe what a poem was ‘doing’, but rarely did they mention if it was doing it well or why. Rarely did they compare to other poets, disabled or not.

Similarly, in the two instances (one only 20 words long) where the book was negatively criticized, the critiques were uselessly vague. Fair enough if you don’t want to lambast specific poets, but there are ways of writing critically without evisceration. We were instead left with references to ‘some poems’ and ‘many poems’, but no examples, and therefore no way to know what might have failed. One reviewer made generalizations based on not feeling personally represented – a frustrating criticism often enacted by white and otherwise privileged critics.

Do non-disabled reviewers not view our work as worthy? Are people afraid to seem ableist? Are they not bothered to research? (This also goes for disabled writers who can enact lateral ableism if they don’t learn to write cross-disability criticism.) Without extensive studies of reviews, it’s hard to say if lack of detail indicates reluctance to engage with disabled work. My instinct says it’s potentially just a safe way of writing, like a plot summary. Slip-shod, but not categorically ableist. It’s hard to distinguish between problems with bias and problems with review-writing in general.

A highly laudatory review of SAW randomly compared a poem – about the author being surveilled by the government and accused of ‘faking’ – to Lars von Trier’s The Idiots. (Film plot: a bunch of non-disabled people play-act impairments in public, to access their inner ‘innocence’ and call out society’s judginess; complete rubbish fire.) The inferred connection just isn’t there. I highlight this not only because it demonstrates ignorance of disability politics, but also because it’s a kind of non-disabled reviewing I call: ‘Name Something, Anything, You Know About Disabled People, Go!’

Another effusive critic said: ‘good poetry without waving a political flag’. Huh? Framing politics (read: politics of the oppressed) as inherently antithetical to good art is deeply problematic. And many of us were definitely waving.

SAW also received intense praise framed with: ‘None of these writers feel sorry for themselves’. As if it was expected we should (but that it would be wrong anyway). Remember, these have all been ‘good’ reviews, most of them great.

Through studying tendencies in disabled and D/deaf arts criticism, we can examine who’s writing it, how little opportunity/experience reviewers have of such art (even if disabled themselves), how rarely reviewers (feel able to) offer criticism regarding quality, what biases emerge, and how to avoid tropes that feature as a result. I dream hard of a future with adequate, and eventually excellent, criticism of disabled and D/deaf art.

Stay tuned for next month’s (shorter!) piece on D/deaf work from Stairs and Whispers, and a British Sign Language video by Bea Webster about D/deaf arts criticism in general.