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.

Michael Thomas’ Big Book

Last week Michael Thomas won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his 2007 novel, Man Gone Down, the story of a black man’s desperate struggle over the course of a few days to keep his family afloat. The award is largely notable for its hefty payout—something on the order of $140,000—and the novel itself is largely notable for, if nothing else, proving that the New York Times Book Review still has some pull when it comes to anointing authors. Man Gone Down made the NYTBR’s list of ten best books of the year, and has sold 50,000 copies—very impressive for a debut literary novel. With the award, Grove/Atlantic plans to print 10,000 more.

But the novel itself is problematic, in part because it only clumsily fulfills the ambitions that the Times and the IMPAC award ratified. It is a Big Book by design—a statement, like Invisible Man about what it means to be a black man in America—and Thomas is clearly a writer with high literary ambitions. In an interview with the Irish Times shortly after winning the award, he enthused about reading Thomas Mann at 15 and routinely mentions T.S. Eliot. What’s disappointing about the novel is that Thomas occasionally shoves in Big Book longueurs designed to broadcast its bigness, already clotted with a lot of detailed plot points about the unnamed hero’s past shortcomings and present-day frustrations. A typical moment where the rhetorical symphony breaks out:

I was supposed to have been somebody. I was full of promise. “What happens to a dream deferred?” “How can you mend a broken heart?” What if you don’t keep your promise? But who made it for you? If not you, then why is it yours to keep? I was supposed to have been somebody—not anybody—somebody who mattered and to whom things mattered. I was born a poor black boy of above-average intelligence and without physical deformity. I was born a poor Indian boy of above-average intelligence and without physical deformity. I was born a poor Irish boy of above-average intelligence and without physical deformity. I was born a poor black boy of above-average intelligence and without physical deformity, and therefore I should lead my people. It didn’t work out that way. Even my father felt he could shake his head at me. “When you were a little boy you were so full of light…”

And so on. It’s a novel I very much wanted to like—it keeps coming close to feeling like a coherent statement about indebtedness and race and class. But ultimately it feels like a novel about a guy who needs to pay some creditors.