Gatekeeper or good riddance? (Kirkus post mortem)

This weekend, my husband was on a mission to acquire a Ronco rotisserie. (You know. Ron Popeil? “Set it and forget it!”) He loves the low-tech, purist food that comes out of it. The box promised an instructional video, but Gary didn't expect to need it. We both laughed when we discovered it was an actual video. As in VHS tape. Not only is it useless (we haven’t had a VCR since the dawn of the current century), it indicates a messenger out of touch with its audience. We figured it out quite handily on our own.

Dear ones...the publishing industry is like the timeless Ronco rotisserie, always evolving and being repackaged, but forever cooking up succulent books which will be eternally user-friendly in their low-tech purity. Kirkus, with all due respect to what it was back in the 1930s, had become an irrelevant, irritating VHS tape, which -- for those few still equipped and inclined to use it -- featured a modicum of "instructional" info, but mostly obnoxious voices, inadequate lighting, and tragically bad hair.

Last week when it was announced that Kirkus' plug was being pulled, Chip McGrath, former editor of the New York Times Book Review, said in the Observer:
It was an early warning system. At the very time that we’re inundated with stuff, that’s the moment when you also need some gatekeepers, tastemakers, guides. Not that any of these are foolproof, but without them, it’s just sort of chaos.
I don't disagree in principle, but I'm not as eager as McGrath to bestow "gatekeeper" status (along with an open ended power trip ticket) without considering the source of Kirkus reviews: anonymous, poorly paid writers, who were willing to emotionally and materially damage working authors on a conveyor belt basis in exchange for forty bucks plus an ort for the ol' clip file. (Snark clips especially well.)

I'm more inclined to agree with the statement issued by ICM co-chair Esther Newberg:
I'm sorry if some people have lost their jobs. I want to make that part very clear. But it's never been a publication worth anything. The reviews were almost always negative and not helpful in any way. And so that's it. Good riddance.
My feelings toward Kirkus softened somewhat after I read this post by former Kirkus reviewer Mark Athitakis on Thursday. Would that all Kirkus reviewers had been this smart and thoughtful. Sadly, they were not, and even Athitakis says this about the books he was assigned to review:
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.
I have to go with conventional wisdom here. Books speak to particular audiences, and "recovering English majors" is not the widest demographic, nor should they be presumed the smartest. How is it more "admirable" for a book to be reviewed by someone not predisposed to like it or, more honestly, predisposed to not like it? (Because the majority of books are mediocre, right? Why even approach them without prejudice?) By that logic, barbecue cook-offs should be judged by totally unbiased vegetarians. A child of the 60s, I keep hearing "Let Mikey try it. He hates everything!"

A review of the latest in a sci-fi or thriller series has no value if the reviewer is ignorant of its history and scorns its fan base. A review of a fantasy or romance novel has no value if the reviewer holds the genre in contempt. A review of a vampire novel or celeb memoir has no value if the reviewer feels compelled to begin with the blustering disclaimer, "Of course, I'd never read this tripe voluntarily, yeegawdz, no, heh..." A review eviscerating the debut novel of a tender new voice in literary fiction has no value if the reviewer is using it as a vehicle to showcase his or her own cleverness. A review has no value if the reviewer hasn't read the book.

Kirkus dished up all of the above at times, and those reviews were plugged into Amazon listings as a matter of format, unchallenged year after year, as reviewer pay got lousier and reviewers (understandably) grew more cynical and mean-spirited. Way too much credence was given to iron-fisted smack-downs and knee-padded love fests that carried the esteemed name “Kirkus” but were often backed by no more objectivity or expertise than anonymous "Amazon shit-talkers" (a spot-on sobriquet coined by Mike Riggs in his excellent "Kirkus is Dead, Long Live Relentless Positivism.")

One of my goals for 2010 is to expand our book coverage here on Boxing the Octopus, but you won’t see any book trashed in this space. I'm open-minded, but I have very little experience reading certain genres. Rather than trash a book I couldn't connect with, I'd rather use my time and keystrokes talking about a book I did connect with. If I haven't read a book, I'll say that up front. I can’t pretend to like a book I don't, and of course, there's room for mixed feelings, but I intend to adhere to Big Mama's Rule of Book Blogging: "If you can't say something nice...you're just an asshole."

No matter how brilliant, cynicool, and sophisticated you are, there’s always a way to be kind, and sometimes that means saying nothing. Silence will more effectively euthanize a truly mediocre book, so let’s not pretend the old hate spew is a public service. I'm not advocating mamby-pambification of literary discussion, but I find snark for snark's sake offensive. It damages people on a personal level and stinks up the work environment with vitriol and animosity at a moment when cooperation and kindness are needed.

Personally, I think kindness is making a comeback. Considering the source has already become a necessity. The need to identify and speak to a targeted audience in the blossoming marketplace is obvious. Kirkus failed to move into that future. I don't see its demise as another sign of the apocalypse; I see it as another cob web being cleared away. I'll have no trouble finding books I love without the guidance of our late great “tastemaker.”

Set it and forget it, baby.

Update July 2011: Kirkus managed to save itself by offering paid reviews to indie authors. Here's my take on that. (Really, I don't bitch that much. This just happens to be a topic that gets under my skin.)

Comments

Loved this - and very much agree. Thanks!
David Lubar said…
Excellent post. Too bad the typical Kirkus review wasn't this witty and well written. (Or this true.) Many writers share your feelings on this.

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