Kirkus Reviews, 1933-2009

Update, March 28, 2013: This post was written when it appeared that Kirkus would be shuttered for good. Happily, that hasn’t happened. But out of respect for the publication’s policy of keeping the identity of a book’s reviewer anonymous, I’ve edited this post to remove references to specific books I’ve reviewed for the publication.

This one hurts: Kirkus Reviews has been shuttered. I regularly reviewed books for the publication for most of the past five years—mostly fiction, though I recently had more nonfiction assignments. Why the shift? Beats the heck out of me—in all the time I wrote for Kirkus , I never got a clear idea of the publication’s inner workings. The books arrived. I reviewed them. More books arrived.

I understand why some people felt that reviewing for Kirkus was a grind. The format had a Tayloristic rigidity—short summary sentence, review graf, pithy final-assessment sentence, all of it clocking in at 350 words, tops. Though the editors there knew my general interests, I didn’t get a vote on what was sent to me to review. In short, it wasn’t a job for reviewers who cared only about books they felt pretty certain they’d like. Which speaks to the most contentious and, I think, admirable aspect of the magazine—that Kirkus‘ reviews were more negative than positive. Conventional wisdom argues that this is because the reviews were written by large passels of smug know-nothings who used their anonymity as a blunt instrument. I prefer to think Kirkus served an uncomfortable truth—most books are mediocre. For my part, I can say that I never wrote a negative review that I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting my name on, and that only rarely did I feel compelled to fire both barrels.

Did all those negative reviews have any kind of impact? On authors’ emotions, sure: A few have taken the news of the publication’s closing to register their unhappiness with it. If nothing else, Kirkus may have been the most powerful and fearsome hurt-feelings generator in the history of publishing. But my lukewarm review of what would become a New York Times best book of the year sure didn’t influence much. And, contrary to Kirkus hate-everything reputation, I never received a directive about what tone to take, and I did write my fair share of positive, even starred reviews. In my more self-congratulatory moments, I like to imagine that I did a little something for a debut novel that seemed to get a goodly amount of attention following my rave, and one book-review editor at a national newspaper has told me he decided to cover another novel largely on the strength of my Kirkus endorsement.

But I didn’t keep reviewing for Kirkus because I was hoping to have some kind of effect on book sales. I kept writing because, for one thing, adhering to those strict demands required a certain skill—writing short while fitting everything you want to say is tough, and I enjoyed honing that craft. (It wasn’t bad training for blogging.) But I mostly kept doing it, and kept loving doing it despite all those crummy books, because it built an element of surprise into my reading habit. I blog about American fiction because it’s the category I love best and the one I figure I can blog about most consistently without feeling like I want to shove my head in a blender. But I don’t feel obligated to stay in that category, and Kirkus assignments forced me out of my comfort zone. I think every critic could stand to pick out a book at random every so often, just to test one’s prejudices; it’s a time-consuming exercise, but it helps give you clearer sense of your likes and dislikes. If I can’t have that experience as a reviewer, I’ll pursue it as a reader.

My wife once asked me if it ever felt like a burden, getting all of those books in the mail—nearly all of them falling short of what I’d consider very good. I replied by saying that I always had high hopes that the next batch of books might contain one I’d really, really like. You have to allow yourself to be pleasantly surprised every so often. When getting that package of books in the mail stopped feeling at least a little bit like Christmas, I’d know it was time to get out of the book-review racket. In all the time I reviewed for Kirkus, I never lost that feeling.

7 thoughts on “Kirkus Reviews, 1933-2009

  1. Yup. Its cover price was something ridiculous—$35, I think—but its business wasn’t in individual-copy sales. It mainly got bought (though apparently not well enough) through subscriptions to libraries and review outlets like newspapers and magazines. I’ve also been told that movie and TV producers read it, looking for tips on stuff to option, but I’m not sure how true that is.

  2. I review for Quill & Quire, Canada’s trade publication,and while my byline runs with each review, I accept whatever is assigned to me for the same reasons – in the midst of disappointing books, there may be a gem I would have overlooked based on personal biases.

    I still feel very sad about Kirkus’s shutting down because it’s one less venue, and that makes losers of us all – once again. But some unexpected place will either pick up the slack or more likely, create a new space where the slack can start over fresh.

  3. Thanks for this behind-the-scenes look, Mark. What you say reminds me of what I’ve heard editors (of lit mags and books) say–that they don’t want to be rejecting ogres. They truly long to find something they love in the towering stacks of manuscripts. And I believe that. I’ve been a reader for lit mags and competitions, and I have certainly felt that way, so open to falling in love, so frequently let down. Still, I do think the volume tends to harden and jade. The time pressure tends to have a similar effect. At the same time, I tend to agree about the number of mediocre books that make it through the process. That said, I’m glad those packages never stopped seeming like gifts though.

  4. “Most books are mediocre” – If there was a way to make that my reviewing catchphrase, I would. I wrote a few months ago about how I think there’s an importance to negative reviews but it’s this one point here that nails it. Actually, this whole post kind of nailed it. If ever a justification to read and review, it’s having “high hopes that the next batch of books might contain one I’d really, really like”.

    Well said.

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