Kirkus Reviews is a magazine, though few readers of its work have ever
seen a copy. Like the Michelin guides, it’s known for verdicts spread
across the publishing world, bringing good books to first attention and
helping to sweep aside huge piles of dross. A Kirkus review is
short—fewer than four hundred words—and written to a form. There’s a
one-line précis to start. There’s a paragraph of plot and character
summary, culminating in formal assessment. And there’s a quotable
verdict of one line or one word
(“Stunning”).
Kirkus’s main virtue is its comprehensiveness: it gets through
hundreds of titles even in a slow month. To people who stock shelves, it
can be orienting, and, for publishers, it is a geyser of back-cover
praise. Kirkus gets its authority from its scale, yet readers
generally encounter its reviews individually, book by book.

Kirkus has been getting reviews of its own recently, after deciding to
remove a star—its marker for exceptional books—from a young-adult title
and revising the accompanying review. At first, it praised “American
Heart
,” by Laura Moriarty. The novel, to be published this winter, is
about a fifteen-year-old white girl from Missouri who supports
Muslim-detainment camps until she meets a Muslim woman whom she helps
escape to Canada. (The novel is said to echo “Huckleberry Finn.”)
Kirkus took down the review, and its editor-in-chief, Claiborne Smith,
responded to public concern that “American Heart” was a “white savior”
narrative: a story about a person of color who relies on the compassion
of a white protagonist for rescue.

The book’s female Muslim reviewer, he
wrote,
was “well-versed in the dangers of white savior narratives.” Even so, he
seemed to override her first assessment. In interviews with Kat
Rosenfield
,
of Vulture, and with NPR,
Smith acknowledged that Kirkus removed the star after noticing the
book’s white point of view. A new, charier review of “American Heart,”
meanwhile, replaced the original,
noting that the white heroine’s “ignorance is an effective worldbuilding
device, but it is problematic that Sadaf”—the Muslim woman—“is seen only
through the white protagonist’s filter.”

Kirkus says that the reviewer merely updated her assessment in a way
that was “listening” to public complaint. Yet the controversy rattles
on, especially because the emendation touches on a broader change, from
late 2015, in how the magazine writes about children’s and young-adult
fiction. Reviews now explicitly note major characters’ skin colors.
Reviewers of books for young readers are given special training to help
“identify problematic tropes and representations,” and the reviews
themselves are assigned to what Kirkus calls “own voices”
reviewers—that is, writers who share an affinity of “lived experience”
with characters in the book.

To understand why Kirkus’s decision to revise its review of “American
Heart” is insidious, it is helpful to look first at what the magazine
has done right. There is nothing unacceptable about removing a book’s
star, for the same reason that there is nothing unacceptable about
adding one: editors who bestow a distinction of their own invention are
entirely entitled to take it away. There is also nothing wrong with
trying to balance point-of-view biases in writing and reviewing. In
fact, there is a lot to like. The Kirkus editor responsible for
instituting these policies, Vicky Smith, has written about her
rationale, which appears sane and well-considered.

“Over and over, I’ve heard from parents, librarians, teachers, and kids
themselves that it would be wonderful to read books about black kids, or
Indian kids, or Native American kids who are just being kids instead
of being oppressed in some way,” Smith
explained.
If you start noting ethnicity to make those books recognizable, she
pointed out, you really ought to report whiteness, too. Smith conceded
that all of this gratuitous description can read strangely, and anyone
who makes a survey of Kirkus’s young-adult reviews will agree. “The
torment that has followed the young white woman since freshman year
disappears,” one
review
reads.
Another:
“Lyra, Gemma, and Pete are white, Caelum has dark skin, and a number of
important minor characters are described as having dark, black, or brown
skin.” O.K., well, thanks. Still, the laborious specificity seems a fair
price for a chance to nudge American fiction toward a state that better
reflects American society. Some awkwardness and growing pains are
inevitable in a moment of change.

That is not what’s going on with the “American Heart” review.
Circumstances conducive to contemporary enlightenment were in place from
the start: an observant Muslim woman, presumably given Kirkus’s sensitivity training, was assigned a review about a book featuring a
female Muslim character; the protagonists’ races and relationships were
adequately described. The reviewer published her assessment. Then, moved
to reconsider either by her editorial superiors or by public response
(or both), she allowed Kirkus to publish an update to her judgment.

In doing so, Kirkus, one of the country’s most prolific book reviews,
has somehow managed to misapprehend both the nature of reviewing and the
nature of books. As I’ve written in this
magazine
,
criticism exists in different flavors, but its defining feature is an
individualism of response. That response can be wise or unwise, popular
or unpopular. A reviewer can squander authority by seeming too often at
odds with good judgment. But, without critical autonomy, the enterprise
falls apart. The only reason to hire a critic, instead of giving a
megaphone to the crowd, is that creative work—books most of all—isn’t
processed as a collective. People make sense of art as individuals, and
their experiences of the work differ individually, too. A reviewer
speaks for somebody, even if he or she doesn’t speak for you.

To assume otherwise risks the worst kind of generalization. I went to
high school in San Francisco at the height of the multiculturalism
movement. My freshman curriculum did not include “The Catcher in the
Rye,” “The Great Gatsby,” or “Moby-Dick.” We read, instead, “Their Eyes
Were Watching God” and “Bless Me, Ultima,” and other books showing the
range of American fiction. I’m glad. (One can read “The Grapes of Wrath”
anytime.) I remember finding Hurston’s novel brilliant and Anaya’s novel
boring. I did not conclude, from these feelings, that African-American
literature was interesting and Chicano literature was not. Why would I?
The joy of books is the joy of people: they’re individuals, with a
balance of virtues and flaws. We are free to find—and learn our way
into—the ones that we enjoy the most, wherever they come from.

That specificity of response is what Vicky Smith
seems to encourage by opening the full canon of new work to new readers.
It’s also, though, the diversity that Kirkus has smothered by issuing
a “correction”—the editor’s word—on the political emphasis of a
published response. Although it’s easy these days to forget, a politics
is a practice of problem-solving, case by case, not a unilateral set of
color-coded rules. If certain inputs guarantee certain outputs, what’s
in play isn’t politics but doctrine. Kirkus, admirably, is trying to
be on the progressive side of a moment of transition in our reading. But
its recent choices aren’t about progress, or about helping young people
find their way through many voices. They’re about reducing books to
concepts—and subjecting individuals who read them to the judgments of a
crowd.

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