When Reviewing is Political

In a recent (Oct. 23) New Yorker article, Nathan Heller condemned Kirkus Reviews’ response to a controversial book review. American Heart by Laura Moriarty was initially praised by its Kirkus reviewer, but the review was later modified and the book demoted due to public criticism over the apparent “white savior” trope in the novel. The novel tells the story of a white Islamophobe who initially supports detainment camps for Muslims living in America. But after befriending a Muslim woman, the former-Islamophobe helps her new friend escape from persecution. Kirkus has acknowledged that it altered its review of Moriarty’s novel as a result of public outrage over the initial review.

In the article, Heller called Kirkus’ response “insidious”, an attack on the reviewing industry. He argued that book reviewing should always be an individual affair; it should not be influenced by a crowd.  The Muslim reviewer who was assigned American Heart had high praise for the novel, so Kirkus should have accepted her review.

A growing number of review companies, like Kirkus Reviews, have started to assign “Own Voices” reviewers to books featuring minority characters. The demotion of Moriarty’s novel is, therefore, only the most recent development in a new movement in the publishing and reviewing industries. YA readers seem to be the most sensitive to the way minority characters are represented in fiction. The “Own Voices” movement is built on the assumption that the best social justice-themed books are written by authors who have an intimate understanding of the issues they are addressing.

It is clear that from the very start Kirkus was concerned about the representation of Islam in American Heart. The novel’s demotion seems to me to be the next logical step in Kirkus’ “Own Voices” agenda. The “Own Voices” movement considers authors and characters from a political perspective. American Heart should be reviewed by a Muslim because a non-Muslim does not really know what it’s like to be Muslim. The Muslim reviewer, author, or character does not represent herself alone. Concern for good representation stems from the assumption that individuals can represent and speak for the groups to which they belong.

I am still not sure how I feel about the “Own Voices” movement. I am not a YA reader, and most identity-centered books are aimed at young adults. But if we are OK with the practice of assigning reviewers to books based on social identity, we should also be OK with reviews influenced by the judgements of a crowd. Politics always concerns more than one person, and social justice is necessarily political. The Muslim reviewer of American Heart was no traditional reviewer. When Kirkus assigned her to that novel, it expected her to consider the novel through a political and social lens. She was chosen because she was Muslim, a member of a world-wide group. Critics of her review felt that she overlooked the “white savior” motif in the novel. This is a motif that she should have been able to identify because of her identity. The reviewer had forgotten that she represented more than just herself. She had forgotten that she represented a people.

The shift toward reviewing based on the judgments of a crowd began when Kirkus assigned American Heart to a Muslim reviewer because she was Muslim.