A non-binary and queer reader asked if I would be willing to post their anonymous review of Noteworthy, by Riley Redgate, as they did not feel comfortable posting it openly. I care deeply about creating space for trans and/or non-binary readers to share their thoughts about trans and/or non-binary literature. I am including the anonymous review below. (Please note that this is not my own review of Noteworthy; I have not yet read this book.)
Noteworthy is, unfortunately, a mixed bag for me. I enjoyed Riley’s debut novel Seven Ways We Lie, despite finding some issues with the asexual and aromantic representation within. It was one of the first books that allowed me to see a character feel exactly how I felt in high school, with dating and kissing and these pressures around both finding love. So I was extremely excited for Noteworthy (even though I have a strong aversion to a cappella performances, don’t really know why…)
But I’m sad to say that while it did extremely well in some regard, it failed in other areas.
Let’s start with the positives. The depictions of sexuality and how it’s fluid were done very well I think. Now I can’t speak specifically to the bisexuality aspect of Jordan’s journey, because that isn’t really my lane, but the way Redgate discussed Jordan discovering and coming to terms with her own sexuality, talking about past experiences and eventually coming to the conclusion that she is in fact bisexual? I thought that was done extremely well, and it’s really something that YA needs more of. You never know who needs stories like these. Also: Thank you Riley for actually using the term ‘bisexual!’
I enjoyed the cast very much as well. Jordan/Julian is very well developed, and an interesting POV to follow (I haven’t read many books from the theater kids POV). And each of the boys from The Sharpshooters is definitely their own character that brings something different to the cast, though I do feel like a few of them fell to the wayside in order to give others more time. Which is just par for the course really, because characters like Isaac and Travis definitely have more going on than John or the Freshman.
We also see Jordan struggling with family finances and money, having to always consider their options, how/when they can get somewhere, if they’ll even be able to. Redgate doesn’t really shy away from the details here, and again, it’s something we need to see more in YA novels.
Unfortunately, Noteworthy also gets a lot wrong with its representation, at least for me. And according to the other reviews, threads, and opinions I’ve seen from enby, trans, genderfluid, and genderqueer readers, I’m not the only one.
Jordan disguises herself as a boy named Julian in order to join, and compete with the boys a capella team. On the surface, this may not seem problematic, but as the book explores this more and more, I just kept seeing issues.
The problems didn’t really strike me as overt until Jordan is looking at safe ways to bind her chest, and discovers that she is, in fact, on a blog dedicated to finding safe ways to pass as a trans male. Here Jordan goes into a few paragraphs, describing how guilty she feels, and talking about two students on campus. One of whom is genderqueer, and the other who is a trans woman.
But, that’s about it.
There are a few sentences here and there. Times where Jordan finds the line between her being a boy and being a girl have blurred a little. But other than that, we really don’t get much to explore here. The genderqueer and trans characters are given one mention, and then never brought up again, as if they’re the new ‘gay best friend who appears in the first chapter and then vanishes from the story’ trope. Redgate focused on the cis-gaze of being trans and ‘passing,’ for large portions of the book, but also very heavily during this scene, and that really hurt.
Things are also discussed in a clearly gendered way. There are a few instances of equating a period as something only women deal with, and that it’s a symbol of womanhood. You also have a pseudo-potential love interest for Jordan in one of the boy’s sisters, but the second she finds out Jordan isn’t a boy, all interest is gone. Which is a very heteronormative and borderline transphobic way of presenting this ‘twist.’ I know this gets complicated, and the character in question can’t help who she’s attracted to, but I personally don’t believe this was Redgate’s place to unpack this kind of narrative.
At least Redgate does avoid this character having some big transphobic rant about how Jordan ‘betrayed’ or ‘deceived’ her or something.
The cover and chapter headers also include the typical ‘male’ and ‘female’ gender symbols. You know, the Mars and Venus ones? Not Redgate’s fault, but really book designers? I rolled my eyes so many times.
There is also blatant homophobia, but one big moment that stuck out to me happens about halfway through the book, Jordan (as Julian) is intoxicated, and Issac is taking her to her dorm, but then Jordan asks to stay in Isaac’s room instead. And there’s a split second where Isaac thinks Jordan (as Julian) is going to kiss him I guess? Cue the next day where Isaac (again, thinking Julian is a cis boy) outs Julian to their whole group. Without consent. He just assumes this thing about Julian, and proceeds to spill the beans to their whole a capella group.
That scene then leads directly into a moment where one of the boys (I’ll reiterate because this can get a touch confusing,) thinking Jordan is also a gay boy, proceeds to come out to Jordan. Honestly, I could sit here and unpack some of this mess for hours. But I’m just sitting here, racking my brain, wondering how Redgate thought any of this was appropriate. At least the other boy is rightfully pissed off when it comes out that Julian is really a cis, bisexual girl, but still, there’s no reaction to Jordan being ‘outed’ and that mess really pisses me off, in any form of media.
Then we have the typical ‘boy is closeted and a total bully’ trope that I’m honestly so tired off. Thankfully he’s minor, and Redgate does do her best to flesh him out in the handful of scenes he appears in, but really, it wasn’t needed. Or at least could’ve been done with more tact.
Honestly, I don’t know if this book could’ve been improved upon had Redgate explored gender as much as she explored sexuality. I’m very apprehensive when it comes to books about trans/enby/genderqueer and fluid characters written from the cis gaze. Ironically, that’s sort of what Noteworthy ended up being. I’m not sure if it could’ve been fixed with sensitivity readers, maybe they could’ve reigned in on some of the micro-aggressions and more problematic aspects, but I really think the premise is one of the roots of the issue. Stories like this weren’t thought much of in the early 2000’s (i.e. She’s the Man) but nowadays, we’ve grown, and we can see the larger issues in things and discuss them. And really, I don’t think cross-dressing stories have a place in 2017.
It’s been told to me (not naming names, but the person who told me this has spoken to Redgate) that Redgate isn’t overly fond of the book jacket alluding to the idea that Jordan ‘identifies’ as or may be non-binary (though I never once thought this was an enby POV book, but maybe that’s my fault for not paying attention to the description?) Which is fair, because authors typically won’t write their official book jacket descriptions, and that can lead to issues (see Ramona Blue’s original description coming off as biphobic and homophobic.)
I’ve also been told that Redgate didn’t want to write just one or two trans/enby characters just to have them be there in the background for the explanation and reactions to Jordan cross-dressing, which in all honesty seems just as hurtful as Jordan has that scene (when she finds the blog about passing and binding) where she talks about the genderqueer and trans students at her school, and then never brings them up again. I don’t really know if having a trans or enby member in the a capella group would’ve solved anything because, like I mentioned before, I’m wary when it comes to cis authors unpacking these topics, and that’s not something you could’ve avoided writing trans and enby secondary characters into a narrative like this.
At the end of the day, I didn’t hate this book. There were things to love about it, but most of the time, it made me extremely uncomfortable, to the point where I didn’t want to finish it. But since so many people are recommending this pretty hard, and I’ve seen only a handful of people speak against the problematic aspects, I figured I needed to review it. Especially when a few of my trans and enby friends told me they’d been looking forward to it, but were now going to avoid it.
With it being such a mixed bag of good vs. bad representation, I have to say that I’d be careful with who I suggest this book too. If you’re trans/non-binary/genderqueer or fluid, I’d highly suggest passing on it. If you’re gay, or are uncomfortable with subjects like being outed without consent, I’d also suggest skipping. Or, if you are going to try and read it, be wary.
Note: for more trans and/or non-binary reviews of trans and/or non-binary literature, please see my (continually updated) list of links to them. Here are a couple other reviews of Noteworthy written by trans and/or non-binary reviewers:
- Review by Shenwei, a non-binary/genderqueer/genderfluid reviewer
- Review by C. T. Callahan, a non-binary author