Kirkus retracts a starred review because of ideological impurity detected in a young adult book (long before it’s published)

Kirkus, along with Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist, are the three “biggie” pre-publication sites that can help make or break a book, for they issue reviews before a book is published, and orders for books are placed based on those reviews. Starred reviews (only one star is ever given) are particularly prized, as those are the books that these sites deem particularly good, and can boost sales. (I attribute the initial good sales of Why Evolution is True to stars given by the last two sites.)

Now, however, we have a case of one site, Kirkus, withdrawing a star it gave an upcoming book, American Heart (out January 2018), after the book was attacked for being ideologically impure. I’ve never heard of any of these sites withdrawing stars, though it may have happened without my knowledge; but this act is particularly invidious.

One account of what happened, and the only one I’ve seen, is by the author of the book, Laura Moriarity, on a public note on her Facebook page. The book itself clearly deals with sensitive material: detainment camps for Muslims. First, here’s Amazon’s summary of the book:

A powerful and thought-provoking YA debut from New York Times bestselling author Laura Moriarty.

Imagine a United States in which registries and detainment camps for Muslim-Americans are a reality.

Fifteen-year-old Sarah-Mary Williams of Hannibal, Missouri, lives in this world, and though she has strong opinions on almost everything, she isn’t concerned with the internments because she doesn’t know any Muslims. She assumes that everything she reads and sees in the news is true, and that these plans are better for everyone’s safety.

But when she happens upon Sadaf, a Muslim fugitive determined to reach freedom in Canada, Sarah-Mary at first believes she must turn her in. But Sadaf challenges Sarah-Mary’s perceptions of right and wrong, and instead Sarah-Mary decides, with growing conviction, to do all she can to help Sadaf escape.

The two set off on a desperate journey, hitchhiking through the heart of an America that is at times courageous and kind, but always full of tension

This is a counterfactual, of course, and clearly not anti-Muslim but designed to inspire both empathy and discussion. But even this scenario was enough to bring out the Pecksniffs. As Moriarity notes on her Facebook post (note that the reviewer that originally gave it a star was “an observant Muslim and a woman of color”):

. . . You may or may not have noticed, but even though the book isn’t due out until 1/30/18, it already has a very low rating on Goodreads. This is because a group, profiled in Kat Rosenfield’s “The Toxic Drama on YA Twitter” for Vulture, has been bombarding American Heart with one-star reviews because they don’t approve of the idea of the book and because they are assuming it is a white-savior narrative. (Actually the main character realizes, accurately, that she alone can’t save anyone, but you would only know that if you’d read the book.) Most of reviewers on Goodreads openly admit to not having read the book.

I was encouraged last week when Kirkus Reviews gave American Heart a starred review (starred as in ‘this is great!’ not one star like the mad people on Goodreads), calling it a “moving portrait of an American girl discovering her society in crisis, desperate to show a disillusioned immigrant the true spirit of America.” The Kirkus reviewer, an observant Muslim and a woman of color, called the book “sensible, thought-provoking, and touching . . and so rich that a few coincidences of plot are easily forgiven.” (Okay, okay, fine, I’ll take it.)

As one may have predicted, the book’s very vocal critics (again, this group is made up almost entirely of people who have not read the book) were outraged by the starred review. That’s fine. That’s their right to free speech. What has both surprised and disturbed me, and what I think would be surprising and disturbing to anyone concerned about censorship and free speech, was that this morning, Kirkus announced it was retracting American Heart’s starred review.

Here’s Kirkus’s announcement:

A Note from the Editor in Chief

It is a policy of Kirkus Reviews that books with diverse subject matter and protagonists are assigned to Own Voices reviewers—writers who can draw upon lived experience when evaluating texts. Our assignment of the review of American Heart was no exception to this rule and was reviewed by an observant Muslim person of color (facts shared with her permission). Our reviewer is an expert in children’s & YA literature and well-versed in the dangers of white savior narratives. She found that American Heart offers a useful warning about the direction we’re headed in as far as racial enmity is concerned.

The issue of diversity in children’s and teen literature is of paramount importance to Kirkus, and we appreciate the power language wields in discussion of the problems. As a result, we’ve removed the starred review from kirkus.com after determining that, while we believe our reviewer’s opinion is worthy and valid, some of the wording fell short of meeting our standards for clarity and sensitivity, and we failed to make the thoughtful edits our readers deserve. The editors are evaluating the review and will make a determination about correction or retraction after careful consideration in collaboration with the reviewer.

At Kirkus Reviews, we will continue to evaluate editorial solutions for better reflecting the expertise of our reviewers and their uniform appreciation for responsible portrayals of marginalized groups. We appreciate the discussion of these issues and celebrate the free exchange of opinions and ideas.

This issue of “wording” in the review makes no sense to me except as a reaction to a lot of flak Kirkus was getting from someone. What in fact seems to be the case is that the book was written from the wrong point of view: that of a white protagonist. This is supported by the sentence in the review which I believe has been added at the same time the star was removed (my emphasis):

 Sarah Mary’s ignorance is an effective world-building device, but it is problematic that Sadaf is seen only through the white protagonist’s filter. Still, some will find value in the emotionally intense exploration of extremist “patriotic” ideology, the dangers of brainwashing and blind spots, and some of the components of our nation’s social fabric that threaten to destroy us, such as segregation, greed, mistrust, and mob mentalities.

Remember, the mob who bullied Kirkus into removing the star almost certainly hadn’t read the book, because it isn’t out yet, and the only way you could read it would be in the galley proofs whose issuance is carefully controlled by the publisher. What we have, I strongly suspect, is another baying mob trying to shut down a book without really knowing what it says. (Moriarity claims that the “white savior narrative” is completely bogus.) But that’s okay, for a non-Muslim protagonist is all that’s needed to touch off such a fracas. Never mind that an “observant Muslim woman of color” was the reviewer.

Moriarity makes a final comment:

I know there are many things to be outraged about right now. But Kat Rosenfield’s article, referenced above, shows that what is happening to American Heart is not an isolated incident, and that one dystopia currently in play is that books for young people are being suppressed based on a political group’s interpretation of whether or not the *idea* of a book falls in line with their narrow guideline of what is “acceptable” for young readers.

Finally, it’s not the Right who is causing this kind of suppression (I won’t call it “censorship, but it comes close). Guess who? People like Liz Phipps Soreio, the Seuss-censoring Cambridge librarian. Below is how Rosenfield characterizes the group YA Twitter, which tried to shut down the book The Black Witch:

YA Twitter, which regularly identifies and denounces books for being problematic (an all-purpose umbrella term for describing texts that engage improperly with race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other marginalizations). Led by a group of influential authors who pull no punches when it comes to calling out their colleagues’ work, and amplified by tens of thousands of teen and young-adult followers for whom online activism is second nature, the campaigns to keep offensive books off shelves are a regular feature in a community that’s as passionate about social justice as it is about reading. And while not every callout escalates into a full-scale dragging, in the case of The Black Witch — a book by a newcomer with a minimal presence online — the backlash was immediate and intense.

Based almost solely on Sinyard’s opinion, the novel became the object of sustained, aggressive opposition in the weeks leading up its release. Its publisher, Harlequin Teen, was bombarded with angry emails demanding they pull the book. The Black Witch’s Goodreads rating dropped to an abysmal 1.71 thanks to a mass coordinated campaign of one-star reviews, mostly from people who admitted to not having read it. Twitter threads damning the novel made the rounds, while a Tumblr post instructing users to “be an ally” and signal boost the outrage racked up nearly 6,000 notes. Sinyard kept a running tally of her review’s circulation; “11,714 views on my review of THE BLACK WITCH and .@HarlequinTEEN and .@laurieannforest have not commented,” she tweeted. (That number eventually swelled to 20,000.)

Yes, the Left can do anything legal it wants, and has a right to object to a book and its rating by Kirkus. But it shouldn’t be holding books to such purity tests, nor should Leftists be objecting to books that they haven’t read. And Kirkus shouldn’t be bowing to public pressure when evaluating such a book. After all, who would be the most captious reviewer of Moriarity’s book? A practicing Muslim woman of color! Yet it was such a woman who gave American Heart a star—the star that was later removed when the thugs appeared.

43 Comments

  1. Harrison
    Posted October 16, 2017 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    I think the end result of the left’s campaign to ban and silence even discussion of troubling issues will be an inability to ever complain about anything because such complaints are self-triggering.

  2. DrBrydon
    Posted October 16, 2017 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    The fact that these journals bear such an influence upon library purchases gives them a semi-official character which makes any ideological position particularly objectionable. Add to that that the group they are kow-towing to is led by authors who are, in this case, competing with the author of the book in question makes the situation worse. We all accept the need for special interest groups, but when special interest becomes entangled with commercial interest, one must employ additional safeguards. Libraries, to the extent that they aren’t staffed by cat-in-the-hat hypocrites, should consider whether rely on just a few publications is the correct way to do things.

  3. Posted October 16, 2017 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    That plot is “Huckleberry Finn,” obviously, another book the regressive left denounces.

    • harrync
      Posted October 16, 2017 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

      My thought, too – Huck was just another “white savior”. You know, I used to admire those “good Germans” [and Danes and Dutch, etc.] who hid Jews from the Nazis, and wondered if I would have had the courage to do the same. Now I realize they were just a bunch of egotistical “white saviors”.

      • Posted October 16, 2017 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

        Mark Twain’s point was that Huck had a natural sense of justice and what was right. This kicked in when he learned Jim was a runaway slave.

        He was friends with Jim by then, knew he was a good person. But Huck’s moral virtue trumped this, and he knew his duty was to do the right thing and turn Jim in. To the law and then to Jim’s owner.

        Do you laugh, or cry, or become horrified? That’s Twain putting your perspective into gear. He wanted to use this case of upside-down bigotry to paint the picture of the monolithic, unquestioned mindset of people and a full culture that considered humans as property, with no trace of doubt. This culture conveyed the mindset right down to a spirited young boy.

        What did Huck do? He committed a sin and a crime. He helped Jim escape. He feels the appropriate shame and guilt of it.

        Translating today, it would be a challenge to every stereotype, every prejudice. This is what makes Huckleberry Finn immortal.

  4. Posted October 16, 2017 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Great post!

  5. Posted October 16, 2017 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    Would the result be any better if the author wrote the book from the POV of the Muslim character? After all, the author is white: that would be cultural appropriation.

    Young-adult novels aren’t my world, but it’s a shame to see any author locked down under the double bind.

  6. Randy schenck
    Posted October 16, 2017 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    Yesterday, To Kill A Mockingbird and today this. Reviews of books not read? Speaking of not read yet, I just received my copy of, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump. I may not get to it right away, I hate to stop another book midway. As the book cover says, the Goldwater rule has kept the professionals from discussing this issue. However, many have argued that the duty to warn supersedes professional neutrality.

  7. Jeff Rankin
    Posted October 16, 2017 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    “instructing users to “be an ally” ”

    Newspeak for: “DO AS YOU ARE TOLD OR BE UNPERSONED”

  8. Posted October 16, 2017 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    I’ve pre-ordered it for my Nook. Larry Correia always emphasizes that the goal of an author is to get paid. Great sales beat bad reviews.

  9. Mike Deschane
    Posted October 16, 2017 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    I have pre-ordered a copy and will share it with my 11 year old granddaughter.

    Damn the scolds!

    • Leigh
      Posted October 16, 2017 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

      Yes. I also pre-ordered this book and hope that many, many, many people do the same.
      How can we know how to judge this book without reading it? Every year I celebrate Banned Books Week. I guess now I will have to start celebrating Pre-published Banned Books Week.

      I’m going to suggest that my book club add this one to next years list of books to read. From the description it sounds like this book might be read along with Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here.” The two might make a good comparative study.

  10. Posted October 16, 2017 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    I’m thinking of ordering it just out of spite for the idiots who don’t want it read.

    • Posted October 17, 2017 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      A good idea – like my grade 9 and 10 English teacher who *deliberately* taught controversial texts (and even said he was doing it to the students).

    • Posted October 20, 2017 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      My thoughts exactly!

  11. Ed Hessler
    Posted October 16, 2017 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Thanks very much for posting this.

    When I see the phrase “(we)celebrate the free exchange of opinions and ideas,” I’m always nervous. It is becoming a throwaway tagline.

    It seems to me that when a reviewing organization reviews a book, the review should stick and the organization should take responsibility for that decision.

    Free exchange of opinion and ideas can follow.

  12. Posted October 16, 2017 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    I’m a Liberal and I will personally both buy and read this book. I don’t usually read fiction, but I am now interested in this story thanks to this review. I am against censorship and the suppression of our freedoms of conscience by anyone, whether conservative OR Liberal. These fellow Liberals/leftists (As we are called here) should have at least read the book before reviewing it and give it an honest appraisal before just trying to bash it.

  13. Posted October 16, 2017 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Anyone got a link to the review that Kirkus didn’t like?

    • Laura Moriarty
      Posted October 16, 2017 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

      Review Issue Date: November 1, 2017
      Online Publish Date: October 10, 2017
      Publisher:HarperTeen
      Pages: 416
      Price ( Hardcover ): $17.99
      Price ( e-book ): $12.99
      Publication Date: January 30, 2018
      ISBN ( Hardcover ): 978-0-06-269410-2
      ISBN ( e-book ): 978-0-06-269412-6
      Category: Fiction

      Starred Review

      Fifteen-year-old Sarah Mary will do anything for her sensitive younger brother, but she never thought that would mean running from the law. The setting is the Midwestern United States; the time is the not-too-distant future. A Muslim registry is in effect, and Muslims are being bused to detention centers called “safety zones” en masse. This doesn’t bother Sarah Mary, a strong-minded, fiercely loyal, and protective teenager whose mother has abandoned her and her younger brother, Caleb, to their ultraconservative Christian aunt. (The whole family appears to be white.) Her indifference is forced to change when Caleb’s compassion for Sadaf, a Muslim in hiding, gets her involved in a plan to help this Iranian woman escape. Together, Sarah Mary and her new companion face extreme dangers, prejudices, disappointments—and unexpected kindnesses from their fellow Americans as they fight nearly impossible odds to get Sadaf through several states and over the border undetected. Moriarty creates a frighteningly believable setting of fear and violent nativism gone awry as she traces their journey to help Sadaf find the freedom she sought when she immigrated to the United States. By turns terrifying, suspenseful, thought-provoking, and touching, this book is so rich that the coincidences in the plot are easily forgiven. A moving portrait of an American girl discovering her society in crisis, desperate to show a disillusioned immigrant the true spirit of America. (Fiction. 13-18)

  14. Craw
    Posted October 16, 2017 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Remind me to ignore Kirkus reviews from now on.

    Proof again that twitter is destructive suck hole. Why can no-one stand up to twitter mobs? All kirkus had to do was say “we place more faith in reviews by people who have read the book” and move on. They couldn’t muster the courage.

    Bad on goodreads too. Why accept reviews of unpublished books at all?

  15. Posted October 16, 2017 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Let us hope that like all similar kerfuffles, the additional publicity will generate sales. Maybe she can get the book banned in Boston, too.

    And why is filtering the world through an author’s sensibilities and cultural filters wrong? Isn’t this what fictional books are for? Or need we get the Propagandist’s Office permission by submitting the ms. to censorship ahead of time? To make sure the words used don’t, gosh, upset anyone. I sure wouldn’t want to know what people really thought about me or the things I do, that would be real feedback and might lead to actual change for the better.

  16. Posted October 16, 2017 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

    I only heard of the situation in the fiction writing community, which is similar to atheism. Their Elevatorgate was a massive inflammation called RaceFail 09 (2009), i.e. two years prior.

    The situation is simply that Intersectionality is a creeping and stealth movement, almost nameless, but when it finds a target (or someone who disagrees) it causes such inflammations. The Critial Race Theory framework, into which this belongs, is a postmodernist framework, and it’s perhaps the reason it took over bloggers and writers first.

    Their demands are quite bizarre, since writers or creators cannot do the right thing, even if they wanted. If the story was told through a Muslim character, written by an author who isn’t Muslim, it’d be Cultural Appropriation proper. You could leave out any other characters but of your own “identity”, but then they’d be baying about lack of diversity.

    • BJ
      Posted October 16, 2017 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      Regarding your last paragraph: that is a persistent feature of modern social justice. No matter what you do, you have transgressed, and thus any time the group feels the need to destroy you, they always can. No matter who you are, where you place on the Hierarchy of Oppression, how you behave, etc., you are always running afoul of several rules at any given moment. If you do one thing, you’ve broken a rule, and if you do the opposite, you’ve broken a different rule. It’s much like life under the Soviet Union: there were so many laws, you were always breaking some, and if the authorities ever felt the need to haul you in and/or silence you, they always had pretext for doing so.

      You’re only safe until someone or group decides they want to destroy you.

      • Craw
        Posted October 16, 2017 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

        It’s all about power. The actual complaint is only ever a pretext. Pretexts don’t need to be consistent.
        Did you see the Christakis video? That was all about the mob demanding submission. They started with a straight forward calm demand. Then it escalated to a personal demand, then to crying, then to shaming about not knowing names, then to angry shouting and insults, all the while with bursts of finger clicking from the mob. Crybullies in action.

      • Chris Swart
        Posted October 16, 2017 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

        In-groups and out-groups. They want to destroy anyone that threatens the boundaries of their in-group. Since the boundaries are plastic, they attack most everybody that rubs them the wrong way, no matter how irrational it may be.

        • BJ
          Posted October 16, 2017 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

          They’re just as vicious with the in-group, so it’s a sort of self-sustaining system of cruelty. Everyone within the group knows they can be destroyed and shunned at any moment. I don’t know what keeps them around beyond the general human tendency to resist large change (in social group) and fault (ideologically).

    • Posted October 16, 2017 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

      Obviously the answer is simple: white people shouldn’t write books.

  17. ladyatheist
    Posted October 16, 2017 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    I don’t get it. Why is the white savior narrative “dangerous?” What is the danger?

    • Posted October 16, 2017 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      The little ones might be enticed to Wrong Think. Can’t have that or it will be the re-education camps for them.

    • Craw
      Posted October 16, 2017 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      It’s bad theology. White people might wrongly conclude there is a way to expunge their guilt through good acts rather than by (SJW) faith alone. Absolution can only be granted, never earned.

    • Posted October 16, 2017 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      “People of color don’t need saving, they just need for white people to stop colonizing, and pay with retribution wealth and affirmative action for their construction of racism, which continues to enslave even today.“

      “Don’t do any ‘saving,’ just get out of the way of our power. Our culture is beautiful, stay away from it.”

      I think the Regressive Left thinks the notion that ‘whites’ should or could ‘save’ people of color is insulting, patronizing, and toxic. It’s a dangerous meme for young people to encounter, since they might get the impression there is “something wrong” with POC, that a “healthy and whole” white person can fix.

      Thus, “we don’t want any text that champions a white helping or saving us. One star.”

  18. Chris Swart
    Posted October 16, 2017 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    I’m not interested in the book, but I just ordered it. This kind of stuff really pisses me off.

  19. Laura Moriarty
    Posted October 16, 2017 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    What a balm to stumble upon this post (and the smart and often funny) comments after a very long day at the online office. I won’t hover, but thank you. I don’t know if you will (or would) like the book, but I’m a fan of you.

    • BJ
      Posted October 17, 2017 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      Best of luck to you, Laura. I hope your book finds success 🙂

    • Posted October 21, 2017 at 6:20 am | Permalink

      Thanks for your kind words, and I hope you see–from here and elsewhere–that there are many people on your side.

      Kirkus’s action, which I’ll write more about today since the boss has explained his decision, are execrable.

    • Laurance
      Posted October 21, 2017 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

      Hello, Laura…I’m a Laura, too, and I’m going to order your book as soon as I can get off this wifi and back to my own computer.

      Is there any way we can tell Kirkus that their crappy behavior is motivating us to go and buy the book and support the author?

      (I did much the same years ago when I paid full price for the hardback Satanic Verses rather than wait to see if I could get a cheaper paperback. I wanted to support Salman Rushdie. I’d already read Midnight’s Children and wanted to stand up for him with my $$$. Oh, and in case anyone asks if I actually *read* it, yes I did, three times. It’s deliciously funny. Hard work, but well worth it.)

  20. Jake Sevins
    Posted October 16, 2017 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    Presuming that is the real Laura Moriarty, what a nice gesture for her to leave a compliment. And I fully agree with Prof Coyne that this episode is thoroughly troubling (though I have not, obviously, read the book).

    Unfortunately this kind of ideology policing seems to go on quite commonly without a “star revocation” event to highlight it. We must protect people from provocative ideas lest we all become unhinged I guess.

  21. Felix K
    Posted October 17, 2017 at 3:36 am | Permalink

    Obviously, the retraction of the review is a clear instance of quasi- censorship. However, I see another big issue lurking beneath the surface here. To quote Kirkus’s announcement:

    “It is a policy of Kirkus Reviews that books with diverse subject matter and protagonists are assigned to Own Voices reviewers—writers who can draw upon lived experience when evaluating texts. Our assignment of the review of American Heart was no exception to this rule and was reviewed by an observant Muslim person of color”

    Why does it need “Own Voices” reviewers? Why can’t any knowledgeable and thoughtful reviewer criticize a work of fiction? And in the present case, how does the lived experience of an “observant Muslim of color” actually relate to an imaginary future in which all Muslims (presumably regardless of external appearance or stated belief) are forced into concentration camps? Note that the review in question is perfectly fine, it’s just that I think this shouldn’t be a matter of policy.

    By already having adopted such a policy, Kirkus then had little choice but to go further and futher down the path of identity politics. Obviously, they’re already trying to pander to Regressive Left attitudes by assigning “Own Voices” reviewers and now the inevitable has happened: They’ve been criticized for not being pure enough and now have no counter-argument left at their disposal. Thus, retraction was the only option.

    A truly liberal, non-regressive review site would a) not select its reviewers on the base of identity and b) not give in to calls for censorship. After all, fiction is all about discussion, both within a specific work and on a meta-level.

  22. Lurker111
    Posted October 17, 2017 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    I hope to hell that the author demanded her Kirkus Review fee back. (For those of you who don’t know, authors & publishers PAY Kirkus a hefty fee for an “unbiased” review.) Because Kirkus by this act has certainly breached contract.

    In my opinion.

    • Laura Moriarty
      Posted October 17, 2017 at 9:31 am | Permalink

      I actually didn’t pay for my review. With all of my books, my publisher has paid, and I think the idea is that you pay for a review (or your publisher pays) and you don’t know if it will be good or bad, but the publisher or author takes the risk because a lot of libraries and booksellers and other book reviews pay attention to Kirkus, as they are usually the first ones to review.

  23. Posted October 17, 2017 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Would it be too much to ask to have Kirkus document their policy on reacting to criticisms of reviewers? 😉

  24. Diane G.
    Posted October 20, 2017 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    sub


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  1. […] UPDATE: According to a private email, the author of the book, Laura Moriarty, has kept a copy of the review on her own website. https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2017/10/16/kirkus-retracts-a-starred-review-because-of-ideo… […]

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