I DIDN'T KNOW WHAT KIRKUS REVIEWS really was, even though you see it quoted all the time on the backs of books. But when my friend Liza, who wrote for them, said I should write for them too, I told her, "Sure." I sent Liza's editor some clips--a couple things I'd written for a national magazine where I had worked. The editor called me and asked me to come see her. "I'd love to have you write for Kirkus," she said.
I still thought there was some other stage I'd have to go through when I got there, like she'd ask me "What did you study?" or "What do you know about?" or something. But she just gave me a page of instructions on how to write the review--300 words, one-sentence opening and closing paragraphs, and a big graph in the middle--and how to e-mail it in, along with a little contract--40 dollars a pop. The normal thing was to do one per week, she told me. My mom, who used to be a librarian and knew what Kirkus was, thought it was neat.
I quickly learned that by virtue of being the first publication to review books (about three months before their publication date) Kirkus' reviews were anxiously anticipated. I had a novelist friend with a new book coming out around then. He got a kind of dismissive and stupid review in Kirkus. He explained to me that there was some kind of vendetta or idée fixe at Kirkus by which they always gave him negative notices. Leaving aside the fact that they had, I later discovered, given at least one of his books a glowing review, I now knew that this was wrong. Kirkus was in fact a shifting assemblage of folks like me, whose several hours' worth of time was worth a couple of twenties. I doubt that any of his reviewers had even been around Kirkus for more than one of his works, although I have to admit I don't really know, since I never met anybody there besides the receptionist and my editor (unless you count Liza).
I reviewed books about everything. Mythology, modernist literature, the Rodney King case, African history, hallucinogens, and Martin Luther King, Jr. come to mind, without actually consulting my files. Even on those topics about which I had a formal education, it seemed that I'd probably forgotten too much of what I learned to bring any formal expertise to bear. I felt weird about my qualifications every week, but never for very long. At that pace, I didn't have much time to think before I had to e-mail the review into oblivion and start the next book.
The arbitrariness of this sudden minor position of power that I, of all people, had stumbled into, showed me what "impartial" reviewing became when taken to its limit. To an author, it must seem like a nightmare. Still, I don't think it worked out all that badly. From mountains of galleys that loomed all around her office, my editor took care to pluck out some interesting obscure books that otherwise would have been, or probably still were, destined to pass largely unnoticed. Most of the books were boring--kind of all right or sort of bad--in either case hard to do justice to in less than 300 words. It gave me great pleasure, though, to craft just what I wanted to say about the really bad ones and the really good ones.
In fact, especially with regard to the bad ones, my nothing-to-lose position seemed to fulfill the best intentions of impartiality. I read one book, a popular history about Japanese WW II crimes in China, that I knew would attract only endless flattery and adulation, even though it was a terrible book. I knew that in spite of any influence Kirkus might have, my review wouldn't really change that (my editor told me that a major magazine had already contracted to run an excerpt). Still, I wrote exactly what I thought; my editor expressed her agreement, and I'm still happy that I got to publish that. I was even happy that it was anonymous, that my opinion and my voice were cloaked in whatever institutional authority Kirkus had.
Still, you can't keep that up for all that long. The main reason I'd slaved away for such little money was to accumulate published clips, and after I had a couple dozen or so I stopped. With my enlarged collection of clips, I wrote to some editors at magazines and got a light string of assignments. It was really easy, in fact. There can't be that much competition. I don't think that many people want to write about books, actually, as compared with writing about movies or about themselves or whatever else.
I was real excited about it, for a while, but not for long. If I got assigned a book not of my choosing, it was the same as at Kirkus, only worse. The book was usually just as bad, but I had to write about it at greater length, which meant more time in which to procrastinate, to put off actually thinking about the book while still worrying about it, so that by the time I got down to writing I was sick to death of the whole endeavor, but hadn't even put any real thought into it. Often, I ended up writing a piece I was ashamed of, worthless even for using as a clip to get a better assignment. This escalated until I finally wrote a piece so bad that I decided to stop writing book reviews.
I tried to think about why I wanted to stop and what, if anything, was meant by my aborted career in book reviewing. The theme of this supplement--"conflict of interest"--serendipitously turned out to be the key. The mainstream practice of book reviewing, adhered to by places like Kirkus as well as most newspapers and magazines, is predicated on the notion of a disinterested critique--a judgment delivered by an Olympian critic, or by a writer playing the role of a dispassionate reading machine that measures a book according to some arbitrary yardstick (cobbled together, most likely, from years of reading other reviews of the same kind). It's a false position, or just a sad one, to take toward literature--to write about books, but to disclaim an interest in any particular books or authors. (It reminds me of a story by Eileen Myles, in which she remarks of the snotty staff of a certain New York City bookstore that they "love literature so much they hate it.")
Even worse, it denies the most powerful interest at work in a book reviewer, the one that can't be avoided--self-interest. Writing about books means juxtaposing yourself with literature, associating yourself with it. For me, it's like a massive crush, almost literally: I stopped writing reviews because my interest in books has led me quite naturally into a position of a "conflict of interest" with regard to the literature I love the most.
I once wrote a review for the magazine where I worked, about an author I was quite literally obsessed with. I had stayed up all night reading his first novel, and had an ambition I had never really felt before--to write like this, to be like this, to be as near to this as possible. It was just like falling in love. I read all of his books and I looked up his old articles in various magazines in the public library. I discovered that he was coming out with a book of essays, and I decided to ask the literary editors at my magazine if I could review the book. Luckily, they were kind of flighty, and without paying much attention to me or to the book, they said yes.
My review was, more than I knew at the time, an article about myself, an explanation of why I thought this writer was perfect. And in part, and this I acknowledged privately and with embarrassment, it was a sort of open letter to the author, demonstrating to him that I understood, I got it right. That aspect of the review, its epistolary quality, I came to accept when the author wrote me a real letter back, acknowledging the one thing I had dreamed of ever since I had read his novel--that I had gotten it right.
We stayed in touch, and became friends after a fashion--and the irony is that for that very reason, I now feel that I can't write about his next book. Nor about many of my other favorite authors, who--because I live in a town where lots of writers live and because literature is a real part of my private life--I know not just from their books, but in real life. And so, I'm going to stop writing, and start reading again.
Jonathan Taylor used to write for Kirkus Reviews, BookForum, and The Nation.