Quick background explanation. When a poster on the Child_lit list server asked why Kirkus Reviews was mean, she was jumped on by a horde of affronted reviewers who claimed three things: 1. Kirkus isn't mean anymore. 2. Anonymity is fine. 3. Reviewing is hard work, and it isn't fair to criticize reviewers.. The only writer who responded immediately was the wonderful Jane Yolen. A day later, I added my two cents. After my post went up, I was flooded by emails from writers, readers, book sellers, and even a publisher or two, thanking me for speaking up. Here's what I posted.
I've never lurked or posted here, but the cries of, "Fight! Fight!" drifting across the school yard brought me scurrying over to watch the action. It's pointless and potentially dangerous for writers to complain about reviews. (With exceptions made for our demigoddesses, of course.) At best, such complaints are seen as sour grapes. At worst, they're converted to hemlock. But common sense was never my strength, so I'm going to open my mouth just long enough to address three issues.
Is there first-hand evidence that the unfair harshness of Kirkus is not merely a distant memory? Yes. The review of Hidden Talents was so breathtakingly mean-spirited that I had to wonder whether I had injured the reviewer at some point in her past. See for yourself—the review can be found on Barnes and Noble's web site. It was flat-out nasty, and there's no excuse for that. I wasn't sure whether to post here, but when I revisited that review, and discovered it was even more brutish than I'd remembered, I knew I had to speak out. Granted, I'm not the best one to judge the fairness of a shot aimed at my heart or groin, but this is not an isolated case. Whenever writers meet, we exchange Kirkus horror stories. Since Kirkus is often the first to review a book, it is also often the first to gore a new novelist. This is the sort of sting that lingers. It doesn't take much talent to tear something down. Anonymous cheap shots don't serve any purpose other than to make the reviewer feel clever.
This raises the second issue. Anonymity taints all the reviewers in a magazine. Whenever I encounter anyone who mentions that she reviews for Kirkus, my only thought as I back away is that this might be a person who took a cheap shot at me. (Okay, I have a second thought, but it involves a free glass of amontillado.) Even if only one reviewer in an issue is inaccurate, illogical, or nasty, the blame touches the entire anonymous group. The talents of novelists run from abysmal to magical. Reviewers are no different. Some are brilliant. Many are good. Others are skilled at dangling unjustified assertions. For example, a reviewer for Kirkus felt the stories in my latest collection featured "often-nonsensical plots." This is a sloppy, ambiguous phrase. (I offer this example not as a quibble, but as a single specimen of a problem that permeates these reviews.) I'm assuming the reviewer meant that many of the plots are nonsensical, and not that individual plots are each nonsensical in many spots. Either way, it was an assertion given without support. Since my background is in logic and philosophy, I'd be reluctant to accept a claim that I'd unwittingly unleashed a flurry of nonsense on an unsuspecting world. I can't resist mentioning that a friend of mine—a scholar who specializes in Faulkner—checks all my manuscripts for flaws. (In return, I read his scholarly papers to make sure they are sufficiently obscure. Whenever I spot a passage I can understand, he revises it in order to preserve his academic status.) He, who can navigate the densest of literature with ease, found no gaping plot issues in my modest tales. Neither did my highly educated editor. Obviously, someone is confused. I know my friend's credentials. I know nothing about the reviewer. Who am I to believe? Who are you to believe? Does it matter? Not really. Most of you know my books, and you know which readers will enjoy them.
Third—reviewing isn't hard work. Migrant labor is hard work. A double shift spent cleaning toilets for minimum wage is hard work. Reviewers write by choice, for a variety if reasons. The motivation could artistic, intellectual, altruistic, or egotistical. The same holds true for novelists. The world doesn't need your review or my novel. Which doesn't mean we can't create something of value. The best novels enrich lives. The best reviews illuminate a book. I've learned from praise and I've learned from seeing my weaknesses articulated in an intelligent fashion by reviewers whose names I recognize and whose thoughts I value. I've received both glowing and negative reviews from many sources. I respect SLJ, Booklist, VOYA, KLIATT, BCCB, and many others. It's a symbiosis. Kirkus is the only magazine I feel contempt for. And, darn it, when they start doing things like selling reviews to self-publishers, I just can't resist making fun of them. Kirkus is not sacred. It is subject to the laws of gravity, grammar, and decency.
I hope the length of this post does not detract from my main message. Quite simply, Kirkus has been a bully. One parting thought. As others have already pointed out, there is a delicious irony when a reviewer bristles at criticism. Fortunately, this doesn't seem, for the most part, to be a vindictive community. However, if anyone feels compelled to respond to my honesty by trashing my next book, so be it. But please have the courage and decency to whisper your name in my ear when you hand me the hemlock.
P.S. I give full permission to anyone wishing to post this elsewhere.