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Mob Rule in the Book World

18 October 2017

From The National Review:

American Heart, a young-adult novel to be published in January, is a kind of Huckleberry Handmaid’s Tale, only with Muslims. In a dim dystopian U.S. of the near future that’s been overtaken by a nasty “patriotic” movement, a white girl is oblivious to the burgeoning horror of Muslims being placed in internment camps, but she experiences an awakening and decides to strike out against them to rescue a Muslim immigrant from Iran, who is in hiding and needs to flee the country to save herself. Ho-hum, says the experienced observer. Since 9/11, the Left has been spooking itself with scary tales about how the anti-Muslim Inquisition is going to start any minute now.

So: another attempt to troll conservatives about our supposed persecution of Muslims. Nothing new. When the left-leaning book-industry site Kirkus published a favorable review of the novel, though, it was a gonzo-Left outlook that launched attacks on Kirkus, with denunciation popping up at publishing-chat sites such as Goodreads. Reviewers of the review (most of whom evidently hadn’t read the book in question) insisted that Kirkus’s favorable take on American Heart amounted to inexcusable support for a supposedly abhorrent “white savior” narrative. In other words, the hero of a book about persons of color can’t be white. But if American Heart’s author, Laura Moriarty, had written the book from a person of color’s point of view, that would have been cultural appropriation.

You may not have heard of Kirkus, but it carries influence in the book world because it, and its longtime rival Publishers Weekly, are the established trade publications that run early reviews sparking bad or good buzz months before the book is published. Because the reviews in Kirkus and PW run so early, they carry disproportionate weight. They signal book-review editors (I was one for four years) that certain books are important and worthy of coverage. They signal booksellers which books might be worth ordering by the crate and promoting. A star from Kirkus is like a thumbs-up from Roger Ebert or a “fresh” rating from a Rotten Tomatoes critic. The star is everything. “You got a star in Kirkus!” is a delightful message to hear from one’s book publicist.

. . . .

After publishing that starred review of American Heart and finding itself chastised for it by a small and silly mob, Kirkus did a strange, perhaps unprecedented thing. It backed down. Its editor-in-chief, Claiborne Smith, publicly flogged himself for publishing the review in the first place, saying it “fell short of meeting our standards for clarity and sensitivity” (though the clarity of the review was not in question), then re-edited the review in hopes of appeasing the Goodreads progressives, making sure now to flag the book as “problematic.” He also took the extraordinary step of removing the star to placate the pitchforks-and-lanterns crowd. I’ve never heard of that happening before in the 84-year history of Kirkus. (Smith declined to answer whether the move was unprecedented.)

“We do not bend to peer pressure or cultural criticism,” Smith told Slate. That is correct: He does not bend in the face of peer pressure or cultural criticism. He crumples in the face of peer pressure and cultural criticism. He curls up into the fetal position in the face of peer pressure and cultural criticism. He disintegrates and begs for mercy in the face of peer pressure and cultural criticism. His action is astonishing, craven, ridiculous. It did not need to be so. Kirkus is a tiger in the book world, or at least a collie. This amounted to surrendering to a squirrel. In the centuries-long tradition of critics and their editors who take it as a given that honest criticism will usually displease someone, and that such displeasure cannot be allowed to alter judgment, the routine thing for Smith to do would have been to shrug.

Link to the rest at The National Review

PG posted the OP because it relates to traditional publishing and its marketing and promotion activities. It may also inform decisions indie authors make about marketing, promotion and other aspects of the businesses they operate.

PG understands that The National Review, like Slate, The Huffington Post and other sources of posts on TPV, has a well-known political stance. He also knows that contemporary political disagreements in the US quickly devolve into acrimony and name-calling that result in heat without light.

PG requests that the comments not descend into a left/right political argument.

The internet is full of locations where full-throated political disagreements continue 24/7. It’s not hard to find a place to insult someone who has different beliefs than you have if you’re inclined toward that sort of thing.

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59 Comments to “Mob Rule in the Book World”

  1. I have political opinions about this post. Also, I’m not going to share them.

    • I, too, have political opinions about this post. Consequently, I’m absolutely certain that your political opinions are not just wrong-headed, but downright dangerous.

      In deference to our Host’s request, I shall refrain from calling you [redacted], [redacted], or even [redacted-redacted]. Take that!!!!

    • I have political opinions too. Unfortunately, sharing them doesn’t put any money in my pocket.

      Time go work on my WIP.

  2. I find it ironic the authors advising against political stances on Twitter are also lecturing authors like myself for avoiding discussing politics at the moment.

    Then somebody comes out with a book like this, where politics is literally the very nature of the book. This is why I no longer pay attention to just some yahoo that likes to hear themselves talk about writing advice.:/

    • In one way or another, politics is the nature of all books.

      • Only because pretty much everything has been politicized over the last fifty years or so. When I was a kid, most books were just books. Today most of those books would be impossible to publish without a point-and-shriek mob yelling about how evil they are.

        Fortunately, it can’t last for long, because either people will learn to tune them out, or we’ll get a civil war.

        • I think it’s more likely that when you were a kid, you (a) read kids’ books, which tend to be simpler and more innocent of Big Issues, and (b) didn’t yet have the maturity or sophistication to notice the politics in books. Because pretty much every book above middle-grade level (and even some of those) reflects political issues/thoughts/opinions in there somewhere, however subtly or even unconsciously on the author’s part.

          • I was thinking of writers like Enid Blyton, who must be a Fascist Tool Of The Patriarchy by now, simply for writing books where kids behave like kids.

            • I think you’d be surprised if you read back over some of your childhood favorites at what kind of subtext they have.
              As a child these things either go over your head, or they match the beliefs that you are surrounded by, so you don’t notice anything out of the ordinary.
              My personal experience rereading some Enid Blyton books as an older teen was that they were extremely patriotic (as were many childrens books published in the forties and fifties. Some were paid propoganda even,) and there were a lot of lesbian characters. In fact girls boarding schools seemed like the place to hook up with a life partner.
              I’m guessing today those things would cause the books to be considered political within certain groups of people.

      • Challenge accepted, J R Tomlin.

        You know my politics. They’re almost 180 degrees of yours. I challenge you to read my story Memoirs of a Snowflake and find anything that disagrees with your politics whatsoever.

  3. I would be curious to know just how many critics Kirkus faced before they did what they did.

  4. I like the point they made about a white ‘savior’ not being allowed, but doing elsewise would have been ‘cultural appropriation’. Truely can’t win for losing these days. I’m thinking that when I finally publish, I won’t have an author photo or even the sketch I usually use (I won’t HIDE it though). I’ll use a picture of my dog or something. Oh wait, she’s white too…DANG.

  5. Love it or hate it, we’re stoking conversation about the book, so they win.

  6. It’s not hard to find a place to insult someone who has different beliefs than you have if you’re inclined toward that sort of thing.

    And this is pretty much what the OP is about. It seems as if no one is allowed to have a differing opinion, right or left, without the hordes descending upon him. (Him in the generic sense, including him and her, just in case anyone was going to take me to task for a perfectly common usage that used to be understood by everyone before it became fashionable to be insulted by everything.)

  7. “Just in case anyone was going to take me to task for a perfectly common usage that used to be understood by everyone before it became fashionable to be insulted by everything.”

    The fact that you felt the need to make this aside says something significant about your politics. 🙂

  8. IMO it says something significant about ALL politics. I recently committed the error of engaging with someone (not a PVer) on social media regarding the “fact” that using he or she is a writer’s hate crime. I kid you not about this. I’m not going to get political here but I shudder to think where this might wind up in future, if it’s at this extreme now.

    • There’s a reason zombie stories are so popular right now.

    • I’ve grown more partial to the singular “they” in recent years. I find it particularly useful for political discussions on Facebook!

      https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/singular-nonbinary-they

      • The singular “they.”

        The link leads to examples of just how ancient the singular “they” is in English usage. I like the ones from the Bible (going back to the 1300s) and Jane Austen.

        I get the impression that Warriors Against Singular They believe themselves to be fighting a rearguard action against barbarians at the gate. You know, against those heathens who say “literally” when they mean “figuratively.” 😉 Everybody can stand down on “they.”

        • I use the singular “they,” but not because “he or she” is a hate crime. It just flows better and reads less awkwardly.

          Now I’m tempted to use “he or she” just to melt some snowflakes.

      • Repost — three links puts a comment in moderation. So reposting with a single link: The singular “they.”

        The link leads to more links and examples of just how ancient the singular “they” is in English usage. I like the ones from the Bible (going back to the 1300s) and Jane Austen.

        I get the impression that Warriors Against Singular They believe themselves to be fighting a rearguard action against barbarians at the gate. You know, against those heathens who say “literally” when they mean “figuratively.” 😉 Everybody can stand down on “they.”

      • I am surprised how often and easily sentences can be recast in the plural without changing the meaning and satisfying the most punctilious “no singular they” fanatics.

        For example, “a writer is a sclerotic idiot when they insist ‘they’ is always plural,” can just as well be said “writers are sclerotic idiots when they insist ‘they’ is always plural.”

        See? The fanatics can’t protest the second version.

      • Last week on Baen’s Universe Slush, a writer posted a story that used ‘they’ and ‘their’ vice ‘he’ and ‘his’ and ‘she’ and ‘her’. Went over like a lead fishing weight. Every Barfly panned that practice. No exceptions.

        Just so you know.

        YMMV.

  9. This is so damn weird. In a stupid way. It’s akin to where people think just saying the words “black” or “Mexican” automatically is racist. Even if the words are used in the context that has nothing to do with race, e.g. “black sabbath” (actually happened). When did it happen that talking about a topic means endorsing it? And why is no one willing to smack down these crybullies?

    So, no American Heart because the protagonist is the wrong color (Queen Noor or Googoosh would confuse the hell out of these people).

    No To Kill a Mockingbird because the vocabulary and plot reflect the time period, which is “badtime.” Perhaps — if it hasn’t already happened — we’ll see protests against the autobiography of Frederick Douglass or Anne Frank because even though they’re the right color, their experiences are “triggering.”

    I keep wondering where the adults are in this. Real adults, who have a principle or two that they’re willing to stand up for. I wouldn’t have read American Heart because the premise is a perfect example of why I avoid “social upheaval” dystopians in the first place. But seriously, the book’s issue can’t be explored? To talk about politics in an non-lecturing way = endorsing badthink?

    The cynical part of me would write a “social upheaval” dystopian about how these controversies are part of a long con to make 1984 come true.

    The Kirkus editors are spineless dweebs.

    • “I keep wondering where the adults are in this.”

      The general recommendation on the US blogs and web forums I read now and again seems to be at least a hundred miles from the nearest big city.

      • The adults are in short supply in this world. Little wonder, considering how our schools and universities have become little more than daycare facilities.

        • There are plenty of adults around, but they’ve looked a the mess the kids have created and decided they’d rather go to a bar than clean their dirty diapers. Or, in this case, move to rural Arkansas with lots of guns and MREs.

          I read a really interesting academic book called The Collapse Of Complex Societies about twenty years ago, whose basis thesis is that societies grow in complexity over time until they reach the point where adding complexity costs more than the benefits it provides. Then they collapse, because there’s nothing else they can do.

          When the author wrote it in the 80s, he went to some lengths to point out that he didn’t believe it applied to modern Western society, but thirty years later I think it’s pretty obvious that we’re beyond that point.

          The changes required to save the West are pretty clear and simple, but they’re impossible to implement because it would raise masses of opposition from those who benefit from the decline. Just look at how much trouble Trump is having just trying to roll back some of the worst excesses of the last twenty years.

          So people I’ve known online for years–many of them the people who’ve built and operated the infrastructure that keeps America going–are moving to Arkansas and waiting for the cities to burn.

  10. The best response to this is more books with a White Savior. Lots more.

    Free speech and press are not maintained by placating people who want to eliminate both. They are strengthened by exercising them.

    Anyone recall how upset independent authors were a few years back when Amazon (or maybe maybe another eBook retailer) banned porn?

    How about National Banned Book Week? Lots of good support there.

    Free political speech and press are more important either porn or Huck Finn. The effort to suppress political speech today is stronger than anything the churches ever mounted against Holder Caulfield.

  11. Censoring is applied for religious, political, social, and many other reasons. Since everyone has a i-megaphone today, everyone can censor what’s not appropriate. The problem ends up at the writer’s keyboard, what should they do? If a book will offend no one it will be like bland food, no one will care for it. If you add spice it will be tasty but woe on you. Now if we would live under fascism or communism (perish the thought) it would be easier because the rules are laid down, but you’re limited to choose only from the PC rules.
    But we live in freedom, a nebulae of left, center, right political views, religious, atheist, racial, cultural, sexual, animal-rights, spiritual, and any other persuasion you can imagine under the sun. Try to navigate through this and write a book is only half the pain.

    • “… but you’re limited to choose only from the PC rules.”

      But the rules aren’t even straightforward enough to work with; for far too many rules that say you can do ‘this’ there’s another in there somewhere that says you can’t.

      This is a better/safer time for those still using pen names, as there is nothing that you can say that won’t offend or trigger some idiot just looking for any excuse to be offended or triggered.

    • The problem ends up at the writer’s keyboard, what should they do?

      There is no problem. The author can write the book, and say whatever he wants. Then he can sell it. Consumers can buy it. Then he can do it again.

      If the author chooses to write a book that keeps one faction or another happy, then he can do that.

      In a free society some people won’t like the book. OK. They might say the book is awful and violates the norms they set for the author. OK. Their tastes and preferences are none of the author’s business.

  12. ‘You may not care about politics, but politics cares about you – and your children.’

  13. As writers, I think we all need to memorize the following phrase and use it as often as required:

    ‘You object to my book? Fine. Go and write a better one.’

  14. It’s so hard to know what to think about these things sometimes. I mean, I’m pretty liberal in my outlook, and I’m uncomfortably aware of how privileged I am for no reason other than the color of my skin. I do my best to remain sensitive to the issues people of other skin colors face.

    But then I run across something like this, or like a piece I encountered a few weeks back seriously agonizing over the propriety of using darker skin tone emojis if you’re white, and I start to wonder where sensitivity ends and neurosis begins.

    • I’m uncomfortably aware of how privileged I am for no reason other than the color of my skin.

      I’m comfortably privileged because my parents both completed college, married before I was born, fostered a learning experience in the home, encouraged us all to excel, and impressed upon us that we were the masters and managers of our own lives. Straight up middle class American values.

      I am very grateful for that, and am comfortable enjoying that privilege and passing it on now that I have the opportunity. It is privilege we can all pass on.

    • “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”

      Anyone who uses the term “white privilege” unironically is a hypocrite and a racist.

  15. this is so funny
    Kirkus? PW?
    You mean these dogs who dont sign their own reviews with their names because they are done by know-nothing college students and grad students.

    I cannot believe anyone still takes these two dinos seriously

  16. I can’t remember ever having sought out a review of a book before purchasing it.

    I’ve glanced through reviews that popped up some place I was already looking, but none ever incited me to purchase anything.

    The few times I’ve read a review of something I’d already read, it was either a blatant hit piece, risibly overwrought praise, or so unrelated that I wondered if the title was mixed up with something else.

    I guess somewhere, someone might care what some marketer or reviewer thinks of a book, but unless the reviewer managed to snowball discussion, who cares? Reviews of Dale Brown’s work range from “pointing and hooting” to rabid excoriation, but he’s still a best-selling author. For that matter, same for Mickey Spillane.

    • I can’t remember ever having sought out a review of a book before purchasing it.

      I have always wondered what percentage of books have been purchased after the consumer read the review. Or, how many were rejected after reading a review.

      On Amazon, everyone sees the star score. It’s impossible not to see the stars sitting right next to the title. But, do people actually read the reviews? I confess that the stars influence me. I have been conditioned all my life to recognize stars as an indicator of quality, and lack the intellectual strength to eliminate the immediate reaction.

      I suspect Amazon has an indication of review reads because they can monitor clicks on review material.

      Are reviews vastly overrated?

      (Truth in posting: I never read fiction reviews when purchasing for my own use.)

  17. The only time I ever bought a book based on an author’s recommendation, I was horribly disappointed. Oh, this was also an award-winning book where I spent the entire book waiting for the plot to start.

    A few years back, I was talking with an office colleague who was reading a NYT bestselling book, and hadn’t I read it yet? She was quite startled when I pointed out that I select my reading material based on my own interests, and not based on something like NYT.

    This also reminds me about the article PW posted a few days back about someone who didn’t know how to rate books. My immediate thought was “how ridiculous! You rate books based on whether *you* enjoy them or not. Anything else is secondary.”

  18. I read reviews on Amazon and they’ve saved me from spending a considerable amount of money buying books I know I wouldn’t have enjoyed. They’ve also led me to buy books I wouldn’t have taken a second look at that have led me to following more than one series of an author I likely would never have heard of. Reviews are a double-edged sword but smart authors will take the good and give the bad an “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the story I told.” Disparaging a potential customer is stupid.

  19. You have to wonder about Kirkus backing off from a review written by a Muslim woman. She didn’t seem to have an issue with the book, but way to bow to pressure.

    From what I understand the controversy is about the book, the MC “takes too much time” coming around to not being an evil little white girl! SMH No one told me there was a time limit to personal growth.

    I’m about as liberal as they come, and I’m tired of all the outrage. Where will it end? Are we going to start some more wars because a character in a freaking book of fiction doesn’t behave “right”?

    I can’t shake my head anymore, it’s giving me a migraine.

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