Confessions of a Kirkus Reviewer
The editors and staff of Kirkus Reviews, which Nielsen Business Media is shuttering after a 76-year run rather than try to sell it off with the Hollywood Reporter, Billboard and my former employer, Back Stage, were located approximately 30 feet from my desk. Maybe it was 35. Whatever the measurement, they were a clear shot from my chair, and their work area looked like a Bastille of books imprisoning workers in their cubicles, plus there were books stacked imperiously high in bookcases squired from who knows where and squeezed into any stretch of wall or corner, such as the one near the bathrooms. The temptation was to swipe a book on the way in; the foreboding “Do not touch these” sign, however, was hard to ignore. No, no bathroom reading for Kirkus books. This was, as they say, business.
I have nothing but good things to say about the Kirkus staff. They were friendly, generous of heart and spirit, and it seemed to me they had the most unenviable job on earth: choosing what to review from the tens of thousands of books published every year. There must be some remote or complicated calculus at work, I thought. How else can a very thin World War II memoir, with a grainy photograph of some unnamed G.I. on the cover, outrank a far thicker World War II memoir, with a grainy photograph of a battlefield on the cover? Were there genre quotas? Did publishers pay premiums for a prominent review? The journal’s 5,000 yearly reviews were drops of ink in the publishing bucket. Was it all whim?
I can’t say that I ever found out. Nor, in fact, did I ask. I didn’t consider it any of my business. When I applied to be a freelance reviewer, I did have previous experience working for a fee-for-review service called Clarion Reviews. That name took the place of an earlier service, called ForewordReviews, for which I had written about 20 pieces, all sadly lost when the company was renamed and rebranded and its website relaunched. Foreword and Clarion each paid $50 per review, so Kirkus’ pay, also $50, seemed fair. (Only later did I learn that Publishers Weekly pays $25.) Unlike Clarion/Foreword, meanwhile, Kirkus reviews are not bylined, so while I knew I could put my service to the pubishing universe on my resume, I would never have the opportunity to share a specific clip. The anonymity of the reviewer was of paramount importance to Kirkus, and you always had the vaguely frightening sensation that the contract you signed would be enforced, that coming out of the reviewing closet was no trifling decision but, indeed, a statement of professional suicide. No matter: it was a nifty challenge reading a book, reviewing it, receiving remuneration for the review, trying to fathom the author’s intent, trying to determine the book’s fundamental value to the market and to the reader, and trying to articulate that viewpoint in a comprehensive but short piece (320 words, please hit it on nose) that would unquestionably mete out the appropriate justice.
I reviewed about 15 books for Kirkus. It was a continual embarrassment to me that I couldn’t read the books and write the reviews on time. Even when things were relatively slow at Back Stage, inevitably I’d accept three new assignments from Kirkus at precisely the moment Aristophanes would grant his first interview in 2,000 years or some other major news would land on my plate and consume my nights.
I did, of course, actually read each book, and by no means am I convinced that all book reviewers do so. Often I would wonder, especially while battling through the most tedious books, how full-time book reviewers fulfill the mandate of their jobs without brandishing sawed-off shotguns and laying waste to their colleagues — or, even better, to the authors, editors and publishers who present their handiwork for public consumption, promoted valorously by their bedraggled publicists. Following the news that Nielsen would fold Kirkus, there have been no end of sarcastic, Schadenfreude-laced commentaries about the brand, especially the so-called harshness of Kirkus’ reviews. Frankly, I never thought the reviews were over-the-top difficult, but I did find them far too stylistically uniform. Indeed, what the outside world may not realize — and in the end, it made no real difference to the end of the story — is that the style guide for Kirkus was almost Soviet in the way it, well, bureaucratized the English language; conforming one’s writing to the style felt like a ghoulish Orwellian nightmare of do’s, don’ts and how-dare-yous. That the Kirkus audience largely had devolved into librarians and library-lovers I have no doubt: the magic of the perfect Kirkus piece was not to treat English like playtime in a jungle-gym but rather a slow, steady, uneventful drive. If reading a Kirkus review was a bout of the maddening or the deadly dull, imagine having to write them.
I finally concluded that I should stop. I also concluded that one cannot, and maybe should not, make a freelance or a fill-time living by undertaking such work. If Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times really does read every word of every book she reviews (I have no reason to believe to the contrary), what impact does that have on someone’s life and schedule? How quickly does one’s sensitivities to language and style wind up ground down to the bluntest blade? Is it feasible, is it desirable, to segue from a 1,000-word David Foster Wallace novel to one of those aforementioned World War II memoirs and grade them with fairness, accuracy and wit?
Given the challenges of my Nielsen salary, freelancing was always a necessity. Reviewing for Kirkus, despite its various challenge, was a happy necessity for the time I was doing so. I was thrilled to interview editor-in-chief Elaine Szewczyk for Metromix.com when her first novel, I’m With Stupid, was published in 2008. Bless managing editor Eric Liebetrau for ignoring the clock far more than any editor should — being in the Nielsen gulag, he understood my workload. I feel a true kinship with them as they face the unemployment line; their “here’s hope we meet again” posts on line speak to their common decency as toilers in vastly reshaped media landscape. Another time, another place — yes, absolutely. That’s an ending I would gladly review.
Leonard Jacobs is the founder and editor emeritus of The Clyde Fitch Report.