November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Anonymous Book Reviews: There Is a Good Reason for Them

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Whenever I speak at conferences, or even at informal gatherings of people from the children’s book world, I can always count on one question: “Why are Kirkus’s reviews anonymous?” Even if it’s left unspoken, there is always an implied follow-up: “Is it to free you up to be so nasty?” I suppose that with Kirkus’s 80-plus-year reputation for gloves-off reviewing, it was natural that I, an editor at Kirkus, be asked to comment in this space about anonymity in book reviewing.

It’s my understanding that the biggest reason Kirkus’s reviews are anonymous is that when founder Virginia Kirkus began her service, she wrote all the reviews herself. A canny businesswoman (you had to be, for your startup to survive the Depression), she evidently had a good enough sense of brand management to want to maintain an authoritative, unified voice, even after she began to hire freelancers.

150306_Up4Debate_VickySmithTo be honest, anonymity does make it easier to write and publish a negative review than if it were signed—I’m not going to deny that, though editorially we work to avoid out-and-out nastiness. In our very clubby industry, it’s not unusual for reviewers to find themselves seated next to authors at an event, and nothing throws cold water on a party atmosphere like introducing yourself as the person who just summed up an author’s book as “sluggish and overwrought.”

Perhaps, as one of my colleagues (and countless authors) has suggested, reviewers should have the cojones to proudly byline negative reviews, but that’s a hard standard to enforce in a connected society. Recent events have demonstrated that the stakes can be higher than just party awkwardness. When YA author Kathleen Hale went beyond grousing about an online negative review and actually stalked its writer last October, the community of book reviewers suddenly got uneasy. While measuring any direct response to the Hale incident is probably impossible, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that some reviewers have soft-pedaled their criticism since—or simply decided not to comment at all.

And that is a bad thing. In the film Bambi, Thumper quotes his father’s advice: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.” While that is a solid foundation for social success, it’s a terrible watchword for a book reviewer. The reviewer’s responsibility is primarily to a book’s potential purchasers and readers. If the person who is about to spend several hours of precious free time with a new book and/or plunk down anywhere from $15.99 on up for its purchase doesn’t deserve to know that it’s “sluggish and overwrought,” then who does?

Read a book author’s counterview:

“Anonymous Book Reviews: License to Be Cruel

I would argue that anonymity is just as important for honest, positive reviews as for negative ones. Anonymous reviewers get to avoid those awkward moments when meeting a panned author or illustrator, that’s true—but they don’t get to claim the warm, fuzzy feelings when meeting an author whose book they’ve fawned over, either. Since Kirkus’s reviews are anonymous and my name as children’s and teen editor is the only one on the masthead, I am often thanked for the positive ones. More and more, I feel uneasy with such gratitude. I try to deflect: “It was a great book.” I do my best not to say, “You’re welcome.”

Thumper’s father no doubt also told his son, “If someone thanks you, say, ‘You’re welcome.’ ” No one is “welcome” to a positive review, though—the book needs to earn it. And each new book needs to earn it on its own merits, free of influence from an earlier rave’s leftover warm feelings. With anonymity, a reviewer is free to grapple directly with a book’s strengths and defects without regard to relationship or personality. Readers of anonymous reviews know they are getting an honest opinion—and so do a book’s creators.

Vicky Smith is children’s and teen editor at Kirkus Reviews. When she’s not editing anonymous book reviews in her home office in Maine, she can be found cycling the coast, tending her bees, and reading, of course.

Are Anonymous Book Reviews Necessary?
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Comments

  1. Sylvia Firth says:

    As a reviewer for many years. I believe I should be identified as well as be prepared to stand by what I write. I do not need to attack the author or be cruel in a review,…just honest. Authors, I am sure, do not knowingly write a book that may be seen as not the best Prospective buyers, in this age of tight budgets, need trustworthy, reliable opinions to guide their purchases.

  2. I’m not an author, just a librarian and I get a hoot out of some of Kirkus’s pithier putdowns – “not worth the paper it’s printed on,” indeed! I do tend to trust their reviews more than other journals because of the sometimes brutal honesty. Really, though, I tend to ignore review bylines even when they are offered, as they usually are by other professional journals. I trust the editorial control of the journal more than the reviews of any particular person.

  3. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley says:

    As a published author AND a Kirkus reviewer, I can’t afford a buy line–I’ve been published by 3 major houses, and between them, my agent, and my friends who are writers, I have too many people to potentially offend (though I won’t review books by close friends). But as a parent whose children attended a school with a teeny-tiny library budget, I strenuously believe bad reviews are good things. We couldn’t afford to waste money on poorly written books.

  4. Kimberly Brubaker Bradley says:

    *byline. Autocorrect.

  5. Lisa Silverman says:

    I am a reviewer and a librarian and my name is on my reviews. However, I would feel much more freedom if my name was left off. I guess that is obvious. But it seems sort of dishonest to be asked to do that. Plus, librarians read enough reviews in journals to get a sense of which reviewers they like and which ones they avoid. Once I noticed that for some reason, SLJ had sent every single book about a specific topic to one reviewer and that made a difference to me because I decided to find reviews of some of those books elsewhere.

    • I think signed reviews are crucial. They tell you who the reviewer is, and they move us past a lot of assumptions about “objectivity” and the like. We all have a history, a point of view, an identity. When we “norm” something–we’re actually privileging a rather narrow view of how-things-ought-to-be or what-counts-as-good.

  6. Michelle Bisson says:

    As a book reviewer for many years, and a children’s book editor and publisher for many more, I think it’s a disservice to readers not to sign reviews. For every reader who pays no attention to bylines, there are five or ten more who, over time, will evaluate their purchases based on how a particular reviewer thinks. It’s no different than it is with, say, movie reviews: I tend to agree with David Denby and disagree with Anthony Lane. This is part of making educated purchases. As for the reviewer’s freedom to say what s/he thinks, and it’s being a small world: c’est la guerre. Finally, I think it’s very important for readers, especially young readers, to understand that reviews are written by specific people, and are the fruit of a particular person’s mind, rather than cranked out by an anonymous machine.