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Kirkus Reviews may have been annoying, but its successors are inane

The rise of free-associating customer reviews -- think Yelp and Citysearch -- makes the demise of the book-reviewing publication downright sobering.

December 17, 2009|Meghan Daum

When news came last week about the closure of Kirkus Reviews, the 76-year-old book-reviewing publication that catered mostly to booksellers and librarians, a lot of people were pretty mean about it. OK, not "a lot" as in the number of people who went to see "The Princess and the Frog" last weekend. But even as they wring their hands at yet another sign of the demise of print media, plenty of authors and publishing insiders are gloating. The New York Observer, which still covers the book business with the same gimlet-eyed pluck it did in the industry's more glamorous days, offered up a few delectable if less than charitable quotes.

"Hearing about their closing reminded me that they were still publishing," said literary agent Ira Silverberg.

Esther Newberg, an executive vice president at International Creative Management, allowed that she was "sorry people were losing their jobs . . . but it's never been a publication worth anything. . . . And so that's it. Good riddance."

Kirkus, you see, was notoriously harsh. Whereas Publishers Weekly often seems like a booster for the trade, and Booklist, another book industry magazine, usually manages to find something nice to say about even the most mediocre prose, Kirkus took no prisoners. On Dave Eggers' bestselling and much-revered memoir, "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," Kirkus proclaimed: "It isn't."

Alrighty then!

But like that impossible-to-please crank who haunts every writing workshop or book club and makes everyone else feel like a middlebrow chump, Kirkus was both maddening enough that you were inclined to dismiss it and estimable enough that you really couldn't.

I well remember the day my agent looked at me soberly and said, "Your novel got a not-great Kirkus review." Having already received a not-even-good Kirkus review for my previous book, I could only reply with a (tediously adolescent though not all disingenuous) "Yeah, so?" But it also kind of stung.

I still feel more "Yeah, so?" than "Oh no!" about the end of Kirkus. But for all my indifference, I will say this in defense of Kirkus (and professional review publications in general): At least the critics had some cred.

Granted, at Kirkus many of those critics were anonymous freelancers who were paid about $50 per review (an executive salary compared to Publishers Weekly, which in 2008 dropped its rate from $45 to $25 per review). But as dangerous as it can be to instill power in reviewers who work for cheap (and are therefore less experienced), there's now an even more menacing form of arbiter in our midst: the customer reviewer. And he works for free.

Bound by conventions of neither spelling nor grammar, nor by the need to put anything (plot, theme, typeface, anything) in context, the customer reviewer is so enthusiastic about his own opinions that he not only reviews diffusely and emphatically (showing no fear of the Caps Lock key), he reviews just about every person or thing he comes in contact with.

That's right, you no longer have to be an author, musician or filmmaker to be subject to the haphazard views of people who don't have to sign their names to their rants. Thanks to websites such as Yelp and Citysearch, everyone and everything from hairdressers to dry cleaners to supermarkets -- my local Vons has no less than 14 reviews on Yelp, many quite prickly -- can be praised or pummeled online for all to see. In fact, so exhaustive is the selection of reviewable entities that you have to wonder if innocuous, inanimate objects aren't next -- "This U.S. Postal box adequately receives letters, but I find its placement on the corner to be lacking and its hinges overly squeaky."

I know, I know. The whole phenomenon is supposed to coalesce into some kind of equal-opportunity jubilee. It's supposed to be a healthy, if occasionally gratuitous, manifestation of democracy itself. And as much as I gripe, I'll admit that it can be helpful to read what others have said about various products and services, though too often it seems as if it's one guy with an ax to grind or a lot of guys who never quite explain themselves enough for me to figure out whether to believe them.

Whether you're for or against this new model of judgment-passing, you have to admit that the concept of "reviewing" -- indeed, the entire idea of what constitutes value -- has been turned on its earin a way that goes beyond online versus print. No longer an intellectual or aesthetic or logical exercise drawing from objective facts (e.g., what's in the book), careful observations and real expertise (sometimes called connoisseurship), reviewing is more and more simply a vehicle for personal narrative.

Too often, customer reviews read like diary entries: "We ended up buying two small white potatoes" chimes a Vons patron unhelpfully on Yelp. Too often, the pretense of sharing advice devolves into oversharing the contours of one's navel.

And that's why the passing of Kirkus deserves to be mourned. Sure, it was a captious beast. Sure, its reviews sat on many authors' Amazon pages like indelible stains. But unlike the bedlam of the customer opinions that can pile up on those pages like graffiti on a bathroom wall, Kirkus' reviews were real.

Everyone's always been a critic, and never more so than today -- but at least Kirkus valued the job enough to pay $50.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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