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The Unintentional Gatekeeping of the Single Access Point

Thursday, March 8, 2018 - 07:42

Lately I've been thinking about a topic in the general field of literary gatekeeping. To some extent, these thoughts were inspired by my new venture as a contributing book reviewer at The Lesbian Review. One of the reasons Sheena has been urging me to join the reviewers there is that they didn't have anyone who specialized in historical fiction, so for the most part, historical fiction simply wasn't getting reviewed. And since historicals are a favorite genre of mine...

But when you think about it, that's a big responsibility: to be the primary reviewer for a specific genre at a review venue. Historicals are only one of the genres I read (I'll be reviewing other things for TLR as well--probably mostly mainstream books with lesbian protagonists). And I'm not a prolific reader, not in comparison to most professional reviewers. (Though I have to remember that when the reviewers you hang out with include people like James Nicoll and Liz Bourke, you can get a skewed notion of reviewer reading prowess!) So that means that even with the relatively small size of the lesbian historical fiction output (and it hadn't really hit me how small it is until I started putting together the forthcoming books segement for my podcast), I'm going to be filtering what I read (and therefore what I review) based on my own idiosyncratic tastes.

That means that there are topics and subgenres within lesbian historical fiction that probably won't get reviewed for TLR at all simply because I'm not reviewing them. For example, I'm less interested in reading 20th century historicals, not very interested in the most popular formula for American western/frontier stories, and not really interested in books with significant erotic content. As an individual reader, that's just my taste. But as a reviewer, that filters out some significant market segments. It's neither fair nor right, but it's a thing.

The Lesbian Review isn't the only review site that has this sort of de facto gatekeeping. For example, I love reading the reviews and columns at Smart Bitches Trashy Books (a general romance review site). Although historical romance is a major interest of the site, and although there are occasional reader requests for recommendations for f/f historical romance there, the sole SBTB reviewer who specializes in lesbian romance isn't interested in historicals. So they don't get reviewed. And one of the unintended consequences of that is that the reader threads asking about lesbian historical romance have the mistaken impression that there's essentially none being published. It's not only an inadvertent gatekeeping of publicity, but an inadvertent gatekeeping of knowledge itself. Similarly, review venues that cover the whole LGBTQ spectrum but have a single reviewer to represent the entirety of L fiction are going to reflect that one person's specific reading tastes. (And I can pretty much guarantee you that those tastes will be contemporary romance.)

Any time that access to a field goes through a single person, we can get the illusion of representation without the reality. This is a constant issue in discussions of diversity in the book world, whether it's the one POC agent at a literary agency or the one "diverse book" on a publisher's line-up. By definition, a single access point cannot be "diverse" and a full sense of the field requires triangulation from multiple viewpoints. But the effect can't be laid on the shoulders of that single access point. Each agent, each reviewer, each acquisitions editor (each writer for that matter) can and should reflect the things they absolutely love. What the world needs is more loves--more different loves from different angles.

This isn't a critique of the venues that host those single-point inadvertent gatekeepers. Especially in the field of book reviews, the work is mostly done as a labor of love. It's a field where "shoulds" can kill any interest in continuing at all. Rather, it's a caution to consumers. Never assume that what you see is all there is to get. Never narrow your information sources down to a single venue. Because you're going to miss some great books that way. I know I do.

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