Friday, February 11, 2005

The Denver Post
book beat

Paid reviews bound to hurt Kirkus' reputation
By David Milofsky
Special to The Denver Post

Sunday, February 06, 2005 - The news that Kirkus Reviews, one of the oldest and most distinguished review outlets, has decided to take payments from publishers in return for reviews in a new online service known as Kirkus Discoveries has generated a predictable uproar in the publishing industry. Publishers or authors who want their books to be noticed will pay Kirkus $350 for a review or $95 for a selected lifestyle title in a listing.

It’s a little like hearing that Consumer Reports has begun taking money from manufacturers for reporting on their tires, refrigerators and microwaves.

Founded in 1933 by Virginia Kirkus, a children’s books publisher, as a private service for bookstores, Kirkus now serves as a resource for libraries and journalists. In the beginning, Virginia Kirkus mailed a bimonthly review to subscribers and reviewed all the books herself, sometimes as many as 700 a year. She was rumored to be accurate in her predictions 85 percent of the time, though “accurate” in this case probably referred largely to commercial popularity. She was also legendary for her ability to pick “sleepers” among the books that cascaded across her desk, a talent of special value to smaller booksellers with limited purchasing budgets.

In later years, the anonymous Kirkus reviewers who became known for their high (some would say unfair) standards, established Kirkus as the gold standard among review services that provide advance information on books. Although Kirkus’ circulation of 3,000 is dwarfed by competitors like Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, which also publish reviews in advance of publication, Kirkus does not accept advertising in its print version and its reviews are generally considered to be more influential. Perhaps because of its reputation for being tough, a Kirkus review can have a disproportionate influence if the reviewer likes a book. Sally Kramer of the Cincinnati Public Library, for example, was quoted recently as saying if a book got a favorable review in Kirkus, “We’re very likely to purchase it just because of that.”

All of which makes the idea of Kirkus offering reviews for sale more egregious to traditionalists. Kirkus executives, predictably, are spinning their new venture as an opportunity. "Kirkus Discoveries," they say, "is a paid review service that allows authors and publishers of overlooked titles to receive authoritative careful assessment of their books."

Cynics might wonder how much authority $350 can buy these days, but Jerome Kramer, managing director of Kirkus' parent company is untroubled by this. "We want to see Kirkus become more visible across the board, and we want to serve a wider spectrum of the publishing community," Kramer says.

No argument there, but the wider spectrum in this case likely will not include small press or university publishers, but rather those with pockets deep enough to pay for what amounts to advertisements masquerading as reviews.

Even more troubling: Kirkus apparently will withhold negative commissioned reviews at the publisher's request. While not acknowledging directly that this would be the case, Kramer says, "If someone is desperately unhappy with the review and wanted it to be removed from, I imagine we would do that."

In a way, it makes sense. After all, if the publisher is paying for the review, why shouldn't they be satisfied with it? And writers who've complained for years about Kirkus' reputation as the killer among reviewers will receive only sweetheart notices in the future, as long as they pay for the privilege.

To be fair, the commissioned reviews will run only online, and Kirkus still will publish its print version free of advertisements. But the distinction between the two outlets is likely to escape many readers. It's fine to say that Kirkus' well-earned reputation for toughness and objectivity will survive in the magazine, but in matters like this, one fears a slippery slope.

Of course Kirkus is not alone in its concern for the bottom line. Publisher's Weekly, which enjoyed a virtual monopoly in the book business for decades, recently fired its longtime editor in the wake of a 10 percent drop in circulation. According to The New York Times, PW, which also was known for running no-nonsense anonymous reviews of most significant books, now plans to run feature articles and become more of a general service magazine.

While there are many possible explanations for PW's drop in readership, including a shrinking market and the conglomeratization of publishing, it's obvious more readers are looking to the Internet as a more immediate alternative to magazines for information about books. Publisher's Marketplace, for example, reports receiving 25,000 hits a day on its website and as noted in this space last month, new literary weblogs are appearing daily and demonstrate energy and growing sophistication about publishing.

Sara Nelson, PW's new editor, naturally disagrees with this interpretation. "I do think there is a good size civilian population that is fascinated by books and the book business," she says. "Find a group of three people, and two of them want to be writers or have a book idea. Everyone I know belongs to a book club."

Membership in a book club or the desire to write a novel does not necessarily translate into a fascination with the ins and outs of publishing. At least one alternative explanation would be that the literary audience has become less passive and more active, that people, especially young people perhaps, are more interested in joining the literary conversation than in watching or reading about famous authors or big book deals in New York or Los Angeles.

Yet even those who might regret PW's descent into mainstream publishing would agree that it's a stretch to compare that with Kirkus selling review space. Traditionally, reviewers have received a token payment for their work and sometimes, but not always, the book. What's going on at Kirkus is plainly a radical departure and not just because the publication's integrity is being compromised.

As a former Kirkus reviewer, I can only say it's deeply disappointing to hear rationalizations from a corporate spokesman of a practice that seems not only wrong but plainly unethical. Readers of reviews have certain rights, including the right to open the review section with the expectation of an honest, unbiased judgment, whether they agree with the reviewer's opinion or not.

David Milofsky is a novelist and professor of English at Colorado State University. - Book Beat

Sunday, February 06, 2005

February 4, 2005
The New Noir, Not Always by Men or by Americans

Noir is the perfect example of how a popular form goes classic. Video stores devote shelves to noir films. Theaters mount sold-out festivals; we crowd in and cheer at the first sight of those terse, lurid titles on-screen: "Double Indemnity," "Naked City," "I Wake Up Screaming." Playwrights, poets and performers create noir characters and scenes. We read novelists like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and Jim Thompson - once deemed pulp - in respectable Library of America volumes.

The best television drama still thrives on noir traditions: cities that are corrupt from top to bottom, law officers as cynical as the criminals they pursue, people driven by greed (for money, power, sex), and a pervasive sense that everyone has hidden motives and nothing is what it seems. "Law & Order," with its clockwork plots of social and psychic blight that end bleakly or ambiguously, has entered rerun eternity. The tales of multilayered corruption and complication in "The Wire" make repeat viewing both necessary and pleasurable. (George Pelacanos, one of the best contemporary noir novelists, writes for "The Wire." So does flashy Dennis Lehane, whose pre-"Mystic River" thrillers were his best.)

In the 1980's, the small, resourceful Black Lizard Press began reissuing noir novels of the 40's and 50's in all their pulp glory: small volumes on thin paper with steamy, stylized covers that seemed to say: "I'm a piece of lowlife memorabilia. Don't pass me by."

In 1990 Vintage bought Black Lizard; its first reissues were upscale and sleek. Now, Vintage has reissued a much bigger selection of these books in their original formats, both famous and obscure. You may know titles like "Shoot the Piano Player," but what about "The Damned Don't Die"?

It seems noir is busting out all over. But why now? Ann Douglas, professor of literature at Columbia University, is writing a book about the form called "Noir Nation." As a genre, noir took off in the late 40's, she said, adding,"Its golden age coincided with the first 10 years of the cold war and of the U.S. as an openly imperial power." Its resurgence is hardly accidental now, she said, when conservatives talk about a new kind of war between good and evil and reclaim America's right to be an empire.

"Noir is a critique of power," Ms. Douglas went on. "It operates on Balzac's premise that every great fortune is the result of a great crime. Power and money are ugly and they rule. You enjoy it but you don't forget it." At the very least, noir offers an alternate reality - moments of real passion, a bleak code of honor, and a need for freedom amid corruption. At its best, noir offers a map of subversion.

Noir was a brainchild of the United States. And most of the creators of classic noir - novelists and screenwriters, directors and cameramen - were men. Women were their mysterious, sometimes villainous, always seductive objects of desire. It should be no surprise, then, that in the 1970's female writers started creating female detectives with the cynical integrity of the classic men. (One of the first of these writers, Marcia Muller, remains one of the best.)

Right now, though, some of the best writers of modern noir come from outside the United States - Sweden's Henning Mankell, for instance, whose Kurt Wallander mysteries move from local and national politics to global economics and (in Ms. Douglas's phrase) "transnational psychopathy."

Some of the most original writers of this imported noir are women. Noir has always shown that greed and chaos are as close as the company we work for or the politicians we vote for. The best female writers are adding families to that list - with a vengeance. And if male writers have explored the eros of violence, these women explore the violence of eros.

I found a telling remark that seemed to foreshadow this trend in "Detour," one of the few classic noir tales by a woman. In this clever 1953 novel by Helen Nielsen, a burly, thickheaded law officer sneers, "This is a sheriff's office, not a court of human relations."

But noir is a court of human relations, and some crimes are beyond legal restitution.

In the Scottish writer Denise Mina's forceful trilogy ("Garnethill," "Exile," "Resolution"), Maureen, the central character, is an alcoholic; a working-class underachiever in Glasgow, fighting the legacy of a sexually brutal family.

Glasgow is also the city of noir brutality in Louise Welsh's sinister "Cutting Room." As a drug dealer observes, "You know, Glasgow imports more baseball bats than any city in Britain, and there's not a single baseball team in town." The narrator is a witty, dissolute gay man of 43 named Rilke, who works in an auction house. While assessing the estate of a rich Glasgow merchant, Rilke comes across pornographic photographs that suggest a young woman has been killed in the making of a snuff film. Unsure of his own motives, he decides to find out.

Ms. Welsh is such a good writer she can afford leisurely scenes that give us the texture of Rilke's life but don't help solve the mystery. Why should they? This isn't how life works. It is Ms. Welsh's elegantly edited version of how a noir unfolds in real time.

Two of the best female new-noir novelists I have read are Japanese: Miyuki Miyabe and Natsuo Kirino give us an underworld that has moved quietly above ground. In this quotidian world no one is heroic: not the criminals and not their pursuers. Men and women get equal time as objects of desire and menace.

Both writers take the full measure of Japan's boom-bust economy of the 1980's. In Ms. Miyabe's coolly harrowing "All She Was Worth," money is the engine of lust: mergers and scams have turned consumers into addicts. Everyone borrows, some steal and a few kill. Her new novel, "Shadow Family," will be published this month: it involves a husband and father who creates a second, altogether different family on the Internet.

Ms. Kirino's "Out" has just been published in paperback by Vintage, and it is superb. It begins on a factory line where women assemble box lunches. Four are part-time night shift workers; by day they are hardworking, unhappy homemakers. When one kills her husband in a fit or rage, the others band together to hide the crime.

Sisterhood? More like the desperate need for money, and for the ringleader, Masako, a desperate need to break free of her life. Masako is a fascinating character: stern, relentlessly smart; a crime-solver and a criminal. Ms. Kirino writes of Masako's growing solitude: "When stones lying warm in the sun were turned over, they exposed the cold damp earth underneath, and that was where Masako had burrowed deep. There was no trace of warmth in this dark earth, yet for a bug curled up tight in it, it was a peaceful and familiar world."

The New York Times > Books > Critic's Notebook: The New Noir, Not Always by Men or by Americans

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