Culture

Mob Rule in the Book World

Inset: Cover of Laura Moriarty’s American Heart (via Amazon)
The editor in chief of an influential book review reveals himself as an enemy of books.

Like many of the most comical clashes, the one involving a hotly disputed review of the forthcoming young-adult book American Heart is an intra-Left donnybrook. If you don’t share the paranoid Left’s fear, as expressed in the book, that Muslims are about to be rounded up and put in internment camps, the fight between this faction of bat-spit crazies and an even more unhinged group to its left is grindhouse entertainment — the bloodier, the better. Such brawls are not only amusing but also fortifying to the Right: How many conservatives are born in a moment when the clouds part and the thought, “Hang on, that can’t be right” lingers in the mind? The closer the association between the concepts “progressive” and “deranged,” the better.

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.

Claiborne Smith has made a strong case that a species of jellyfish should be named after him.

Instead, Smith has made a strong case that a species of jellyfish should be named after him. Perhaps in a future episode of The Simpsons, Homer will advise Bart, “Son, if standing up for a principle ever requires the smallest amount of courage, pull a Claiborne Smith and run.” When the Claiborne Smith–edited edition of The Collected Speeches of Winston Churchill appears, we will not fight them on the beaches, we will not fight them in the streets, we will always, always, always surrender. Then we’ll beg forgiveness and also deny that we yielded to pressure.

Those who care about the printed word should remember the name Claiborne Smith, which is why I keep repeating the name: Claiborne Smith. Claiborne Smith, despite editing a book-review journal, is an enemy of good books. Running stories through a “white-savior” filter would banish Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Blind Side to the not-okay list. It’s far too reductive, too simplistic, too mob-like. A book review shouldn’t be subjected to a heckler’s veto. What is criticism if not a person’s forthright, uncorrupted appraisal of the merits of a work? Changing your opinion because you’ve been shouted at is no less craven than changing your opinion because you’ve been threatened by an advertiser.

American Heart was, we now learn, approached in hazmat suits and with Geiger counters from the very beginning, and all of the way through the process. A guy named Mohammed carrying a smoking suitcase with wires sticking out of it would have an easier time boarding an airplane than this book has had on its journey to publication. Moriarty, the author, boned up on Iranian culture before writing it, then she gave it to two Iranian-immigrant friends for their input, according to Slate. Then she gave it to a Pakistani-American Muslim for more screening. She passed it to a professor of color who makes it something of a specialty to criticize white-savior narratives. Harper, her publisher, then did the same kind of thing all over again, subjecting the book to several “sensitivity reads,” meaning it sent the book out to sworn-in members of the PC police in hopes of ferreting out any offensive material. Kirkus, which in Claiborne Smith’s cringing, pleading editor’s note, revealed that it matches books about minorities with critics from the same groups (“books with diverse subject matter and protagonists are assigned to Own Voices reviewers — writers who can draw upon lived experience when evaluating texts”), chose as the book’s anonymous reviewer “an observant Muslim person of color.”

After all of these gestures of goodwill, all of this sensitivity, and enough bowing and scraping to please Kim Jong-un, still Claiborne Smith managed to convince himself that the problem was his insensitivity, not the mob’s irritability and irrationality. On the left, the arc of culture bends toward lunacy.

    READ MORE:

    American Heart Targets the Outrage Mob

    Why American Heart Author Can’t Win

    The Handmaid Tale’s Lunacy

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