The End of the Kirkus Circus
The allegedly stunning news of the demise of Kirkus, the review-newsletter, has rocked the publishing world. Or not. I can't tell. There have been some sorrowful comments out there, but a surprisingly strong flow of Twitters and posts basically saying, "Screw Kirkus!" You see, Kirkus delighted in slamming authors--except for that damned Stephen Elliott! Everybody loves Stephen Elliott. I think he's bribing people.

Yes, I got slammed by Kirkus a few times. Uh. Most times. One thing publishers are good at is a vengeful trick where they take a mixed, or hostile, review and find the word or two that might sound positive and stick it in among the blurbs on your book cover. A passive-aggressive tai chi move that uses the enemy's own momentum to throw him across the room. My last book, f'r example, got savaged by a rabid reviewer in San Fran--a delightfully unhinged rant that is quite funny, in a John Cleese losing his shite kind of way. Natch, Little,Brown culled some positive-enough words from the paper (admittedly, the bizarre feature had, on the same page, my public evisceration and a column by the books guy saying my book was quite lovely and an editor's pick...go figure). A publisher's karmic revenge, perhaps. Now, every time you see a vaguely non-death-threat blurb from Kirkus on my books, it's a safe bet to assume there are some "in-yo-face, Kirkus!" kung fu flips happening.

Part of the glory, and the crap, of the journal was the fact that all reviews were anonymous. This afforded a veneer of even-handedness to the procedings. Reviewers could say exactly what they thought. It also created the perfect medium for pay-backs, assaults, muggings and revenge plots.

May I tell you a story? I'm not saying it's true, but I'm not saying anything else, either. Imagine you move to a southwestern city. You're researching a life-long project about a Yaqui saint. This city is the center of the Yaqui people in North America. In this city, there is a writer everyone warns you to steer clear of. But you think that's sour grapes, and you meet the fellow and find him blustery and pompous, but good for a laugh. He knows everybody.

Now, imagine that you are a little baffled because your first novel has come ot the year before. You're new to the whole getting reviewed thing. And you revere all those journals, like Kirkus. But your Kirkus review is a bit--well, not negative, but dismissive. That's OK, that's the way the game is played and you take hits like a big boy. However, what the review says about your book is simply wrong. It gives no evidence that the critic actually read the book! But, hey--it's Kirkus. You're green enough to wonder if the wise reviewer saw themes in the meta-text that you missed. because there's NO WAY a critic could go off half-cocked.

So, imagine that you get an invite to the southwestern writer's inner sanctum.

What if this blustery fellow admits to you with great self-satisfied chuckles that he is the reviewer for Kirkus of many "if not all" southhwestern and border-themed books. What if he shows you the stack he has lined up for future reviews. What if he, in generosity, offers to hook you up so you too can crank out little reviews for $40, or was it $25? And what if you see your first book at the bottom of a discard pile, and the reviewer admits to you that he doesn't actually read the books--ho, ho,ho--he looks at the first chapter and the last chapter then "bullshits."

Well, you weigh the possible friendship against the accidental revelation that he didn't read your book and subsequently wrote a completely incorrect review of it based on his utter misunderstanding of the characters. Well, you don't say anything because it sounds like the kind of whining people expect authors to do. And first novels often bomb. This one did. Roll on, baby! Too much southwestern sushi, karaoki, Jackie Chan matinees and coffee clatches to enjoy with this new community to spoil it with kvetching.

However, as many people seem to do, you have a falling-out with this primate. And after that, every book gets a body-slam. Maybe not the Yaqui book. Maybe that one got a positive review, or positive enough to seriously give evidence of someone else doing it. It's funny. It's also irritating because you know who's doing it. I'm certain other writers had suspicions that the impartial judges of the anonymous critico-sphere are well-known to them, but they can't do anything, say anything.

If this were to happen, it would be a trivial bit of business, interesting only to you and your wife and maybe your editor. It affects nothing, really. People who buy and read your books don't read Kirkus. It doesn't affect the war, taxes, the price of gasoline, or the shrinking habitat of snail-darters in desert aquifers.

It's just ritual hazing. And now it's over. On the one hand, I am sorry to see it go. On the other hand, ahhhhhhh....

All you can do is write to you limits, never publish what you're not proud of, and damn he torpedos. Your dog will always love you. Oh, and you can try really hard to read the books you review.

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