It seems that lately all I do is try to show the book community how much ableism is ingrained in society and thus in publishing and the community of booklovers. I can’t help it, because time and time again I stumble upon things that I feel like needs talking about. Well, today I am here with another thing I think is important to discuss that was just too big and complicated to just drop in a Twitter thread.
I decided to dedicate April to read books about and written #ActuallyAutistic people to enjoy the representation of people like me and to celebrate Autism Acceptance Month. The title I picked up this weekend, and absolutely adored (review coming later) was Marieke Nijkamp’s Even If We Break. It’s a book about a group of 5 friends slowly falling apart, so they decide to go for one last weekend with their Role Playing Game (RPG) that brought them together originally before parting ways forever.
The book has an incredible cast of trans, queer and disabled people and the book really deals with struggles related to those identities, such as ableism, transphobia and trauma. I share identities with most of the cast members and I loved how authentic the representation felt and how the character’s disabilities, struggles and trauma were closely woven into the story instead of an extra layer on top. I didn’t expect anything less as the author is non-binary, autistic and disabled and a big disability advocate.
But then I went to Goodreads to mark it as ‘read’ and saw it only had a 2.97-star average. I was surprised and confused when I saw it, but didn’t think anything of it right away. But I am a curious creature, and I often read the reviews of books I liked, just to see other’s perspective. That’s when it became clear to me why this book was rated so low: a lot of people genuinely didn’t understand what was portrayed in this book and how closely tied it is to the plot, probably from a giant lack of exposure to disability and trans representation, especially in this genre.
I am writing this post to discuss how internalised ableism in the book community, not to tell that people’s opinions are wrong or to convince people to 5-star the heck out of this book. Ableism is everywhere: in readers, publishing and society in general is showing, but often not recognised by the general public. Underexposure of the narratives of marginalised groups can create misunderstanding, harm or even danger, which is why representation matters and especially written and created by people from the group that is represented. Representation teaches people about people unlike themselves and how to be respectful and accepting of them, it let’s them get to know them.
We like to think that people are kind, but when there is something they don’t understand (properly) or don’t know a lot about, they rather go into offense or dismiss it altogether. This happens a lot with disabled people; society rather shoves them under the rug than actually treat them like regular people, or avoids talking about traits and symptoms of disabilities, whether physical, mental or neurological, making society unable to recognize the difference between someone having a bad time and a depressed person. Think about it: how often have you dismissed someone because you think they’re ”quirky” or ”awkward”? How often did you someone making random noises or movements was ”weird”? They might be autistic and behaving how their brains are wired, but you might not have realised those are traits, because the only autistic ”example” you have ever seen is Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory.
”But how does this relate to that book?” I hear you ask. After reading almost half of the critical and negative reviews on Goodreads for this book, I noticed a pattern of people on one hand praising the representation, but continue dismissing the parts where trauma is discussed and presented authentically, the autistic character shows her traits and where the struggles of the characters are shown as annoying and dramatic. I don’t think any of these people had any ill intent, but it’s dismissal and passive ableism is there.
“The representation was good, but that’s where the good parts end.”
It just feels wrong that so many people point out that the diversity is the one or one of the strong points of the book and then continue to rant about the rest of the book, as if the representation and diversity is just an extra brownie-point layer on top of the story, while the core of the story is based around their struggles and trauma, both related and not to the characters’ marginalised identities. The plot would literally not be the same if those weren’t there. Trauma and mental illness are just as much a disability as having a condition making you need crutches. Those aspects are part of the representation.
People are so little exposed to disabilities and trauma, that they fail to recognize them and their traits, and rather see people struggling as ”whiny” and ”dramatic”. A lot of people were irritated by the fact the characters kept lying to their friends and never opened up about how they felt. The thing is, if any of these people knew something about trauma, struggling with disabilities and dealing with whatever phobia out there from people around you, they would know that keeping things for yourself is a very common trait when your mental wellbeing has been knocked around a lot. When the world around you keeps smashing in your face that what you feel doesn’t matter, whether that’s true or not, eventually you shut everyone out about your truth.
With how the book community currently treats diversity, it has become an autopilot response that diversity is a great thing and the highlight of a book, without actually paying attention to the nature of it. It makes me wonder whether people actually care about the diversity and representation, or just use it as a pet on the back saying ”I just read a diverse book” without looking too much into the details.
This brings me to the flipside of this coin and the reviews. While the above shows passive ableism in the form of ignorance, there was more going on. In a lot of reviews, people who openly admit to not share identities with the representation presented, state that the diversity was forced and just a way to get the plot going and they criticize an #OwnVoices author for not adding enough depth to the characters’ diversity. They then proceed to also say they can’t relate or connect to the characters.
“The diversity feels forced.”
“The diversity is just used to get the plot going.”
“I can’t connect with the characters.”
“The representation is one dimensional.”
It irks me so much that so many people are downplaying the diversity in this book, while they clearly don’t have enough knowledge and authority on the subject, and therefore one of the few books with disability representation where the disability isn’t a tragedy is being set as a bad book, just because they don’t feel comfortable about it. There are plenty of people expressing they don’t like this book for a number of reasons, including just not vibing with it or enjoying the premise, which are totally fair and those reviews are there for every book. But a majority of the reviews I read rate this book low for reasons rooted in ignorance and ableism, whether intended or not, making it seem like certain parts of the book aren’t any good period, while these reviewers just didn’t get or enjoy them for reasons other than the quality of the book.
Something that stood out for me is that number bigger than I’d like to admit of these low reviews were by people who are (cis)abled and a lot of them got ARCs of this book. Meanwhile, there was a relative low number of #OwnVoices reviewers who did. It shows how important it is that review copies fall into the right hands; I am really sure that a lot of the reviewers who left a low rating just pressed ”request” on NetGalley and Edelweiss, because the cover looked cool without looking at the premise, and expecting a cishet-abled normative story like most books (and even movies) in this genre and treating it as such.
What I am trying to say with this post is that we need more diversity, and we specifically need more representation of disabilities, whether they are mental, neurological or physical. We need it to expose people to all these different narratives so they become more normal and mainstream so everyone is somewhat familiar with them, not just those who are disabled themselves and people close to them. We need the representation so disabilities get actually talked about and recognised, even they aren’t clearly spelled out on the person’s or character’s forehead. But we also need the disability representation so people can appreciate it properly and look at it with basic education, otherwise you end up with a lot of ignorance because the story doesn’t fit in the ”poor disabled kid that needs a cure” or abled-normative narrative.
The poor reviews on this book are a mere example of how the disabled narrative is treated in the book community and by publishing; it’s just super apparent with this book and it’s ratings, and the 2.97-star average really catches the eye. But ableism, whether passive or active, whether intentional or not, or rooted in genuine ignorance, it’s everywhere. In the book community, in readers, in publishing, but also society as a whole. It might just not be as apparent or no one has spelled it out for you yet. It’s an uphill battle, but awareness of the problem is the first step towards leveling the playing field.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is. A lot of what I mentioned in this post can be said about any marginalised identity. The difference is that there is a whole difference in how often people talk about it and how willing people are to listen. The fight for diversity and representation is an uphill battle for every marginalised group, but the scales are different. When talking about diversity, whether in a conversation online or making diverse book lists, LGBTQ+ and POC-related topics are always dominating and disability isn’t always mentioned or properly included.
Ask yourself if you can name five LGBTQ+ authors, then 5 AOC and then 5 disabled authors and then compare how easy each question was. Ask yourself how many books with disabled characters you have read and how many of those were written by disabled authors. I am not trying to make anyone feel guilty or defensive over the numbers, I just want to create the perspective. It’s really easy for people to think that there are too little of a type of book, but they don’t realise there are even less of another. The other day I spent an afternoon trying to find #OwnVoices autistic fiction and the total number I ended up with from releases, both traditionally and indie published, from over the years that was less than the amount of F/F books published by traditional publishers in a year. If I started reading now, I could be done with my list by the end of the year while I wouldn’t even make a dent in the F/F fiction that’s currently out.
Society is created around abled people, whether that’s physical, mental or neurological, and people are trained to ignore and dismiss disabled people and their needs. You see this in the book community too. Everyone is for diversity, but disabled people keep being forgotten. My goal is to advocate for disabled people being equally mentioned in the diversity-debate and one day I’d love to see booktubers make videos about their favourite books with chronic illness representation and see bloggers write recommendations of books written by neurodiverse authors. Until then, the diversity everyone aims for is not complete and books like Marieke’s won’t even get the chance they deserve.
This post was not written to attack any of the reviewers of Even If We Break by Marieke Nijkamp, nor is it intended to tell people their opinions are wrong or to rate this book high(er). This post is written out of frustration about problems apparent in the book community and I want to raise awareness to a problem, using reviews on Even If We Break by Marieke Nijkamp as an example. I do not want or endorse any harassment of reviewers of this book or similar review(er)s. Quotes used in this post are paraphrased, interpolated statements based on common themes in a dozens of reviews.