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Heart of the Matter

I am not going to get into the relative merits of American Heart, because I haven’t read it. But I do want to speak to the questionable wisdom of revising a published review or removing a star from a published review, both of which Kirkus did in the case of this book. (Vulture has just published a good summation of the whole controversy, if you need catching up.)

True story: We once gave a star to a book by mistake. Something slipped up between editorial and production and no one spotted this stray star prior to publication. But we lived with it—the book was one we liked well enough, and we had discussed starring it, and it simply would not have been fair or even quite doable to try and take it back. So as far as the author and publisher and Horn Book and our readers go, that book got a starred review. Because that’s what we said.

Fine, we gave the benefit of the error to its subject and never told them. (Yes, I feel so strongly about this that my grammar is overcome.) And in a case where we make a factual error, we’ll run a correction. We try to avoid those here by fact-checking every review and sending those slated for the Horn Book Magazine to the publisher of each book. Sometimes they will spot a misnamed character, for example, and sometimes the name of a character has been changed, or an error we spotted has also been spotted internally and corrected in the finished book. We are happy to make these kinds of corrections prior to publication. (And never does a publisher come back with, “Um, could you maybe like it a little more?”). And once it’s published, it’s done.

But to change a review or pull back a star because you changed your mind, or your readership disagreed, or you’re being dragged on Twitter? No, no, no. I can’t think of any hypothetical instance where I believe this would be a good idea. Any review represents a particular moment in time for the reviewer and reviewed. If public outrage or moral awakening has prompted you to a new way of seeing the book, go and sin no more, taking what you learned in the instance to shape your reviewing in the future. But don’t try and walk back what everyone knows you said. And review editors:  for God’s sake, stick up for your reviewers.

Reviewers and review editors all have regrets. Sometimes the reviewer has changed, sometimes the world has changed. But to rescind a declared judgment is to betray a premise of book reviewing itself, that any review is a snapshot of its moment. No backsies.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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Comments

  1. Mr. Sutton, this is one of the most brilliant and for me spot on commentaries I’ve ever read here or anywhere else. Bravo!

  2. Kiera Parrott says:

    Do reviewers, review editors, and review journals not have a right to change their (our) minds? I’m not talking about being peer pressured or shamed on social media. I’m talking about a genuine reflection and admission that something failed in the editorial process. If part of the effort around diversifying publishing and libraries involves looking critically at institutions with great power and privilege, doesn’t it necessarily mean stepping down from our ivory towers and interrogating our own editorial judgements? i don’t know if stripping a star is what I’d do. But we have to be able to admit when we screw up and get it wrong. Otherwise I think we risk losing all credibility with our readers. And, ultimately, become irrelevant.

  3. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Sure, I often change my mind about some particulars in a review I’ve written or edited. But if that review is part of the record (published) it should stay that way. Remember that in this case, the review itself spawned a lot of the conversation about the book. Own your part in it and, if you’ve been convinced you were wrong, resolve to do better.

  4. Are you saying, Roger, that it is wrong for you or any editor to publicly say, later, that you’ve changed your thinking, after having heard other points of view?

  5. Publications and blogs can and should re-review anything that they want in light of changed thinking or consideration, but sending a previously published (whether in paper or online) review down the memory hole by deleting it or substituting a different review for it evokes the strategy of Ingsoc.

  6. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    Hi Debbie, I was just posting a P.S. that addressed this when you rang. ;-). I’ve been following the discussion re THE SECRET PROJECT, and, while I don’t agree with everything you say or want, I think you’ve made some good points that have colored my thinking about the book, and I’m not shy in acknowledging that. But this is kind of an easy example because I was the reviewer of that book for HB as well as being the boss so any egg goes right to my own face! Do I stand behind that review? Yes. Would I write it differently today? Maybe. But the fact that I might review it differently today is largely dependent on information I got subsequent to writing the review, and reviews don’t get the benefit of hindsight.

  7. Genuinely wondering–what would it look like to issue a star, and then issue a statement that says “we gave it a star, and that star is staying because it represents a view at a moment in time, but now our view is different, and here’s what we think now.”
    Would that be a feasible thing to do? Or once you issue the star, are you bound in future (public) communication to stick to the fact and content of the star–implying that you can’t also do something else that reflects that (new) moment’s view?

  8. Oh, and, I agree with Anonymous of 10:33. I think it’s really important to document any edits, changes, or revisions, give a timeline of events when you make changes, and preserve the original so that people can read it as it was first published. Obviously the extent and scale on this can vary based on import, but I think you need to do something along these lines to maintain integrity. Otherwise it’s a) Erasing, rather than owning, your errors; and b) Really confusing for readers.

  9. Roger Sutton Roger Sutton says:

    AJ, there have been lots of books I’ve starred that I wouldn’t star today, because the book landscape is different, changing with every new book published. And of course, the world and the reviewer change, too. This is the problem with taking a review (or star) back–you’re trying to inject what was essentially breaking news with the benefit of hindsight, and you can’t have it both ways. In any instance where I disagree with a formal Horn Book judgement I believe in being circumspect (but honest) out of respect for the original reviewer as well as for the original context.

  10. Tks, Roger.

    I think the Kirkus/American Heart moment is going to be on the Timelines of milestones that people in children’s lit write. The timelines for the last few years are going to be very full! Books withdrawn/Books withdrawn for revision… Most of this due to social media.

    I was shocked that Kirkus withdrew the star. I like what Kiera said above, about admitting when review journals screw up. Public conversations about such things are vital to the development of books, reviewers, editors… all of that. It is excruciating, exhausting, and exciting, all at the same time.

  11. Laura Marie says:

    I’ve been following the conversations both on Twitter and the articles that have followed. Allie Jane Bruce’s comments reminded me about EW’s revisiting of old reviews and how they discuss how their review would be different now and why. It is within those words that we witness the shift in thinking, the morphing of time, those small and large revelatory moments. Those conversations that Debbie speaks of are incredibly important and move us forward–wiser and ready to challenge a broken system that suppresses and silences. Conversations are now shifting to the decision by Kirkus to change the review rather than discussing why the book was really problematic to begin with. But, I’m optimistic . . . even as Debbie says, “it is excruciating, exhausting, and exciting,” we are talking, and that is a very good thing.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Debbie Reese, is your position regarding revised reviews in line with Kirkus, that the old review should go away forever, or with Allie Jane Bruce, that the old review should remain for posterity as well as the new review?

  13. Anon at 1:18 PM,

    With Allie Jane Bruce. We learn from each development in a book discussion. That’s why I did not delete my first review of THE SECRET PROJECT. Both are still there. The second one is an effort to be more comprehensive but it is still causing confusion for some, so I am thinking about how I might address that confusion.

  14. I’m a woman of color. I don’t have social media accounts, but I’ve followed the discussion about American Heart — which hasn’t been a discussion — on Twitter. What disturbs me the most about Kirkus’ decision to alter the review and to revoke its star is that it was not done because the anonymous reviewer had a change of heart on their own, but because of pressure applied by others. Because, as you wrote, Mr. Sutton, they were “being dragged on Twitter.”

    On Twitter specifically I see authors and others with large Followings declare that certain books are “problematic.” They demand that the books, which, too often, they themselves have not read, not be published or not be purchased by libraries and bookstores. They claim to speak not for themselves, but for the world of Children’s & YA Literature, as arbiters of what is acceptable, safe and harmless for all readers, especially young ones. Such books as American Heart, A Fine Dessert, and A Birthday Cake For George Washington will hurt children, they say. We must protect the children.

    This is exactly the same argument I heard during my nine years in a children’s library, from parents who demanded that the library pull Charlotte’s Web, A Chocolate War, Heather Has Two Mommies, and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. It’s what’s said today about George and This One Summer. They don’t want their children to read these books, so the books should be removed so that no children can read them, in order to protect them.

    There is no difference between those books and American Heart. None.

    If American Heart is problematic — I don’t know if it is, because I haven’t read it, and if you haven’t read it you don’t know, either — then the solution is not to demand that others dislike it, but to discuss, with others and with its intended readers, whether it is problematic. To have one’s class or reading group ask, “What makes it problematic? Why? Quote specific examples. How would you have revised it? Does everyone share your opinion? If they don’t, do you accept that? If someone liked this book, what would your opinion of them be? Why?”

    We none of us have the right to tell others what they can or cannot read. If we don’t want to buy, see or read the work, we can choose not to. We don’t have the right to prevent others from reading, in this case, American Heart. But this is just what the social media pressure on Kirkus wanted to do, by refusing Kirkus’ original starred review and demanding an unfavorable one, which of course would influence bookstore and library buyers’ decisions about whether to purchase it. And I’ve witnessed, on Twitter in particular, a backlash against anyone who says they plan to buy, or just read, American Heart, as I did against those who liked A Fine Dessert.

    Kirkus was cowardly. They caved under pressure, so from now on any group can expect the same response if they pressure Kirkus about any book review with which they don’t agree, from Rush Limbaugh’s godawful fake histories — my opinion — to Sparkle Boy.

  15. Rodger, thanks for illuminating the fact checking part of your book review process. Horn Book has always seemed to me to be among the most deliberate and careful of reviewers, but they are also commonly the last of the major review magazines to publish a review. Kirkus, in my observation, is often among the first. I would assume they gain some prestige and influence by being the first review out of the gate.
    But now I’m wondering if that might have been part of the problem. I know a few freelance reviewers. They are underpaid and over-pressured to deliver reviews on a tight deadline. I wonder if the initial reviewer had been given more time and money, would she have delivered a more nuanced review? I wonder what would have happened if Kirkus had waited another month and looked at the book more carefully and perhaps called for a second in-house opinion or commentary by a panel of recognized experts. They might have decided that the star was not warranted. Or perhaps, based on more thorough research, they may have decided that the book was in fact on solid ground even as it explored uncomfortable territory. And had solid evidence to back up their review. Mistakes get made in publishing all the time and rushing magnifies those mistakes every time. If one of the results of this incident is a willingness to take publishing both books and reviews at a more deliberate speed, I think everyone–most of all readers–will be well served.

  16. Sounds like journals and magazines need to crowdsource all reviews and opinion pieces that are not by acknowledged thought leaders. This will also help alleviate the professional liability associated with being the solo author of a piece that has a wrong note, or that doesn’t exactly capture the zeitgeist. But all past work should remain available for viewing – it’s a crucial part of the edifice of our current self-esteem. Plus, most of us – if thrown back on thinking only about the future – would not have much to say.

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