Kirkus Reviews Reviewed
Photograph by Duncan C.
From The New Yorker:
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.