The latest skinny on Kirkus’s penchant for censorship

I’ve written twice (here and here) about American Heart, an upcoming young adult (YA) novel by Laura Moriarty (out January 2018), and how Kirkus Reviews dealt with it unfairly. The book is about a hypothetical America in which Muslims are put into detention camps, like some Japanese-Americans (citizens!) were during World War II, and in which a white girl, initially in favor of such camps, changes her mind when she helps a young Muslim boy escape to Canada.

The book was initially given a favorable review by Kirkus, one of the three big pre-publication review sites that’s important in determining whether libraries order new books and whether people buy them. The review, written by an “observant Muslim woman of color”, was very favorable, and in fact Kirkus awarded the book a prized “star” for its quality. That’s a big boost in attention and sales. You can see the original review at the second link above.

Then a regressive Leftist group called “YA Twitter”, devoted to policing YA books, ginned up a social media campaign of outrage, all because the book was seen through the eyes of a white girl, and was supposedly a “white saviour” novel. (Moriarty says this is wrong.) It’s clear that many of those who complained to Kirkus hadn’t read the book, as it hadn’t been released: they were operating solely on the book’s summary on Kirkus and Amazon. Yet the book was very favorably reviewed, and given a star, by what would seem to be a reviewer who would be the most captious: a religious Muslim woman.

Well, Kirkus caved in the most cowardly way: the star was removed and the review changed, with these rather negative (and clearly anti-Trump) sentences added (see my comparison of both reviews at the second link above):

Sarah Mary’s ignorance is an effective worldbuilding 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.

A thought-provoking, chilling read with a controversial premise.

The book was suddenly “problematic” because it was, in effect, a case of cultural appropriation: the book apparently should have been told through a “Muslim filter”.

I was upset about this because it shows how the Regressive Left can effectively censor a book they don’t find ideologically congenial, thus molding the politics of young people to their liking. It’s thought policing. We should be just as upset about this as the Left was when the Right tried to censor Lesléa Newman’s pro-gay book Heather Has Two Mommies (1989).

Now, in a piece at Vulture, Claiborne Smith, the Editor-in-Chief of Kirkus, who had some ‘splaining to do, tries to ‘splain what happened. What ensues is cowardsplaining. The first piece of news is that this kind of alteration had never happened on Smith’s watch:

Yet while investigating criticisms may be business as usual, Smith admits this is the first time during his tenure that a review has been pulled and altered in this way.

The second piece of news is the Kirkus tried to get Moriarty to remove both reviews from her personal Facebook page (you can see them at the second link above), citing the “fair use” doctrine. But that applies to using Kirkus excerpts for publicity, while Moriarty was trying to show how Kirkus changed her review. I suppose Kirkus has a legalistic argument here, but it seems likely they were simpy embarrassed at having what they did made public:

On Tuesday, after Moriarty posted the text of both reviews in a comment thread on her personal Facebook page, the magazine [Kirkus] reportedly called her publisher repeatedly to demand that she take the comments down. (Smith describes this as a standard fair-use issue — authors and publishers are only permitted to excerpt 35 percent of a review for marketing purposes.)

More repugnant is this third piece of newsKirkus changed the review by simply deciding themselves (after social media outcry) that it needed alteration and then “persuading” the Muslim woman who first wrote it to bend to their will. Does the folowing sound like the Muslim reviewer had much input into the changes and what was to be said?

.  . . while the Muslim woman who wrote the original review was involved in the editing process — “the decision to retract the star was made in full collaboration with the reviewer,” [Smith] says — altering the review does not appear to have been her idea in the first place. According to Smith, Kirkus concluded internally that edits would be made before reaching out to the reviewer.

“We wanted her to consider if changing what we thought was sort of reductive word choice, and adding deeper context, is something she thought might be appropriate,” he says, though he emphasizes it was ultimately her call: “I did not dictate that to her. She made that decision on her own.” (The word choice in question likely refers to text in the original review that referred to Sadaf as “a disillusioned immigrant,” which some commenters took exception to.)

Smith is simply covering his tuchas here. Had Smith or the other editors not come down on her, and told her what changes needed to be made, and that the star had to be removed, the review would have stood as originally published. For what choice does a paid reviewer have if she doesn’t want to alienate her bosses? Again here’s how Smith responds to the “cynic’s” claim (which is also mine) that Kirkus told the reviewer what needed to be changed:

“We wanted her to consider if changing what we thought was sort of reductive word choice, and adding deeper context, is something she thought might be appropriate.”

Sorry, but I simply don’t believe that. I’m sure they told the reviewer what changes they wanted, and of course she had to assent. That’s surely what Kirkus means by saying “she made that decision on her own.” Some “decision”! It’s like saying a Saudi woman makes her own decision to cover up when she leaves the house. I share the cynical take described by Vulture:

Kirkus’s critics are skeptical of that claim; among the more cynical takes on the controversy is that Kirkus used the reviewer’s identity as a shield, only to then suppress her voice when it didn’t toe the line. Smith bristles at that: “It’s like no one believes that this reviewer has a mind and can change her opinion. Is that so difficult to believe?”

Yes it is—when the reviewer’s job is on the line. Sorry, but Smith is being a spin doctor here, and I don’t believe him. In the end, though, he admits he removed the star because of public pressure based on the book featuring a white point of view (my emphasis below):

The answer isn’t necessarily clear. Would Kirkus’s reviewer have changed her mind independently, even if the review hadn’t been pulled for evaluation? Or did she feel pressured to alter what had proven to be a deeply unpopular opinion when asked if she wanted to, even without explicit instructions to do so? What is clear, though, is that the choice to un-star American Heart reflects something noteworthy about Kirkus’s framework for critique — one in which a book’s value is determined not just by the quality of its storytelling, but also by its politics. The sentence added to the review indicates that writing the book from Sarah Mary’s point of view remains an admirable choice from a craft perspective (“an effective world-building device”), but wrong from a moral one (“it is problematic that Sadaf is seen only through the white protagonist’s filter”). And while Smith says the call-out of said problematic element is not meant to dissuade readers from reading the book — “If readers don’t care that this novel is only told about a Muslim character, from the perspective of a white teenager, that’s fine” — he acknowledges that Kirkus does care, and does judge books at least in part on whether they adhere to certain progressive ideals. When I ask if the book’s star was revoked explicitly and exclusively because it features a Muslim character seen from the perspective of a white teenager, Smith pauses for only a second: “Yes.”

That tells us something about Kirkus, and it’s not pleasant. Well, let us see if Kirkus removes stars (or downgrades books) in the many similar cases when one culture or sex is described by members of another. There go future Huckleberry Finns and To Kill a Mockingbirds, as well as Shindler’s Lists. I doubt they’d carry out this viewpoint policing as a matter of course, because it’s simply insane. Kirkus did it because a group of offended ideologues objected: it’s not policy but simply kneejerk reactivity.

Now we see that Kirkus judges books not on their quality, but on their adherence to certain tenets of “progressive ideals,” which apparently including not writing about one culture from the viewpoint of another. Is that a way to judge books? I don’t think so.

22 Comments

  1. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 21, 2017 at 11:03 am | Permalink

    And what about the Canadians? The poor Canadians, oppressed by the stereotype of having a safe country for those fleeing tyranny! The book should have been written through a Canadian filter. Instead, we see Canada through an American filter as the other. The nice other.

    I’m outraged.

    If it isn’t obvious, I’m being sarcastic.

    • Posted October 21, 2017 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      It’s a fair point. Every non-Muslim – including Justin Trudeau – who speaks up on behalf of Muslims is a ‘white saviour’ for appropriating Muslim’s experience of prejudice to signal their own virtue.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 21, 2017 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        BLM actually calls Justin Trudeau a white supremicist. .

  2. Posted October 21, 2017 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    I hope every positive review of the book makes reference to Kirkus’s cowardice in this matter and YA Twitter’s hysterical campaign. It falls absolutely within fair use to quote the original review and contrast it with the current one.

  3. Historian
    Posted October 21, 2017 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    This incident reflects the growing tribalism of American and perhaps Western society. Those who support such a concept like to refer to American society as a stew rather than a melting pot. This viewpoint is not only manifested on the Left but the Right as well with the white support for Trump. It has been the historic mission of progressives to work to integrate minority populations into the whole. That seems to no longer be the case. As I have commented before, “identity politics” may be a smart electoral strategy for Democrats (this is up for debate), but as simultaneously Republicans play to the hilt white Identify politics, the social glue of the nation is coming apart. If this trend continues (which shows no signs abating), more social upheaval is in our future. In my view, the only thing that will reverse this social fraying is when all groups feel they can prosper and not at the expense of other groups. In other words, American society must be viewed by all as not a zero-sum game. We are nowhere near that point.

  4. BJ
    Posted October 21, 2017 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    All of this begs a far more alarming question: if this is how the YA community and Kirkus treats a book that clearly ticks nearly every box regressives want (except for the “filter” being a white character), how can any book that is in any way even only slightly left-leaning — not to mention centrist, conservative, or simply devoid of political commentary — ever find success in this particular area of literature? An area of literature, I might add, that is purposefully produced for young minds, and thus the censorship of which is even more insidious and malicious.

    How many areas of culture will the regressive portion of the left infiltrate, take over, and then proceed to censor and mold to their narrow and ever-narrowing ideological requirements, before the adults in the room say “enough”? You know, places like Kirkus are supposed to be the adults, not the ones who cower in fear and bow to the whims of politically motivated mobs. Like many places, I guess the hordes have already invaded Kirkus.

    • BJ
      Posted October 21, 2017 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      And, lest anyone think this is somehow an isolated incident of regressive mobs trying to destroy any book or author they deem unfit to be exposed to the minds of young adults/the public, here’s an article about how the deeply regressive YA community of activist bloggers, twitterers, and reviewers targets and attempts to fell such writers: http://www.vulture.com/2017/08/the-toxic-drama-of-ya-twitter.html

      • Steve Gerrard
        Posted October 21, 2017 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

        I don’t mind if there is a group on Twitter that wants gripe obsessively about some issue. Haters gonna hate, etc.

        I mind a great deal when organizations pay too much attention to them, as Kirkus has done here. A group of 300,000 on Twitter represents 0.1% of the US population. Kirkus needs to know that the rest of us think they are being ridiculous.

        • BJ
          Posted October 21, 2017 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

          I would agree about the group on Twitter, if all they did was gripe. In addition to trying to get reviews changed like they did here, they flood places like Goodreads with reviews (they number one site where people post reviews of books and extremely influential when it comes to wider success, especially in YA), posting as many viciously negative reviews as possible when they decide a book or person needs to be taken out, to the point where they can take a rating from five stars down to one.

        • danstarfish
          Posted October 21, 2017 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

          +1

  5. yazikus
    Posted October 21, 2017 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    This reminds me of a book I read years ago- The Terrorists of Irustan. I thought it was great at the time. I recommended it to a number of people. Years later, I reread the book and was somewhat horrified at some of the content I hadn’t really picked up on. I don’t really recommend it anymore- but it is an interesting starting point to examine how my views have changed over time. I don’t wish I hadn’t read the book. I would never tell another person not to read the book. That is the point of books, no? We read them, we think on them, incorporate ideas into our own set. And we grow while the book might not. And later we are able to reflect on what we’ve learned and where we came from. Then we read more books. This whole thing seems highly ill advised.

    Tl;dr – Mo books, mo better.

  6. Posted October 21, 2017 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, you may have mis-edited the post a bit? The quoted paragraph “We wanted her to consider …” is repeated.

  7. Posted October 21, 2017 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    “When I ask if the book’s star was revoked explicitly and exclusively because it features a Muslim character seen from the perspective of a white teenager, Smith pauses for only a second: “Yes.””

    I wonder whether a novel featuring a white teenager from the perspective of a Muslim narrator would be eligible for a star.

    I also wonder whether Smith has read the novel, or is he just going by the social-media pressure, mostly from people who have definitely not read it?

  8. Posted October 21, 2017 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    I just had a look at the book on Amazon. The UK site has one review (five stars) and the US site has none at all. After JAC published his last post, there were a number of reviews on the US site (average 3.5 stars) including many containing the phrase “white saviour novel” and little else.

    I wonder if Amazon have just deleted all the reviews because so many of them were blatantly done without reading the book (including some of the good ones).

  9. Posted October 21, 2017 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    Don’t wish to sound overly dramatic here, but…

    First they come for the writers and artists…

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted October 21, 2017 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

      I think you’re right and the first thing I thought is I don’t ever want to write fiction now because it’s not worth it. So how many authors were scared away from writing about really important things? We will never know.

  10. DrBrydon
    Posted October 21, 2017 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    It seems to me if you are trying to get across the idea that X are good people, via fiction, the story has more of an impact if told from the standpoint of Y, who comes to the revelation through the story. In this case it sounds like Z is missing the point, as well as being censorious.

  11. Ken Kukec
    Posted October 21, 2017 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    Had Moriarty told the tale of the Muslim character, Saraf, via a first-person narrative, she’d have received even more grief from the cultural-appropriation crowd. Christ, look at all the shit William Styron was made to take for The Confessions of Nat Turner.

    • Jake Sevins
      Posted October 21, 2017 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      You beat me to it Ken: I agree. If Moriarty had attempted to write from Saraf’s point of view, it would have upset the regressives even more.

      I’d wager that the only acceptable author for a book containing characters X, Y and Z is an author who’s identity group coincides with the most oppressed of the three (which is sometimes hard to identify; see: Oppression Olympics).

  12. Posted October 21, 2017 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Somehow the ‘filters’ got heavily stained, no common-sense or reason could penetrate it.
    The manufacturer of said ‘filters’ refused to acknowledge there was a problem, issuing this advice:
    Check your ‘filter’ manual for correct colour and mesh density.

  13. Posted October 23, 2017 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    If one can review a book from within the culture it is about, how does one do that for a book about a *fictional culture*?


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