Redacted Kirkus star prompts debate about “censorship” in YA

Kirkus Reviews ignited a controversy in the publishing world when it decided to pull its starred-review for Laura Moriarty’s American Heart in October, after the publication was heavily criticized on Twitter for lauding a book which several book reviewers, editors, and authors deemed offensive to Muslim Americans.

American Heart imagines a future in which Muslims in the United States are sent to detention camps, and the narrator is a 15-year-old white girl who has to overcome her prejudice to help a Muslim woman in danger. Critics accused the novel of perpetuating a white saviour narrative and focusing on a white protagonist’s feelings about islamophobia instead of the experiences of the Muslim characters.

The original review Kirkus published was written by a Muslim reviewer, who spoke positively about the book and gave it a coveted star. The book had already been criticized by on social media by those who had read advance reader copies (ARCs), but a prominent publication awarding it stirred up the discussion and was met with further protest.

Kirkus then pulled the review, replacing it with a new review which acknowledges that “Sarah Mary’s ignorance is an effective worldbuilding device, but it is problematic that Sadaf is seen only through the white protagonist’s filter.” In a statement to Vulture magazine, Kirkus Editor-in-chief Claiborne Smith said that “the decision to retract the star was made in full collaboration with the reviewer.” However, this was met with a mixed reaction in the publishing industry, as some questioned whether it was a form of censorship to cancel the original review due to online pressure.

It’s not the first time that the YA community online has been accused of censorship. Vulture published a controversial article in August, “The Toxic Drama of YA Twitter,” which discussed the heavy criticism online of Laurie Forest’s debut YA fantasy novel, The Black Witch, ahead of its publication this year. A book blogger who had received an ARC published a nearly-9,000-word review criticizing the novel as perpetuating racist ideas and describing it as “the most dangerous, offensive book I have ever read,” and her tweets about it went viral. The book’s publisher, Harlequin Teen, was then flooded with emails asking them to drop the book, and many reviewers, authors, and other Twitter commentators encouraged their followers to avoid it.

There is an important dialogue to be had in the publishing community about how this form of call-out culture creates a taboo around certain novels and can pressure readers to feel that they aren’t allowed to engage with them to form their own opinions. But what’s missing from the mainstream media’s conversation about censorship in the YA community is recognition of the fact that reviewers have just as much right to voice their criticism online without being censored either.

The discussion of “censorship” has focused so heavily on the idea that reviewers are trying to censor readership of the books they are criticizing, without reflecting that it is vital that those reviewers still need to be free to criticize what they deem offensive in any book they’ve read – just as they would if they found a book boring, or poorly written, or full of plot holes. Reviewers receive ARCs in order to get the word out about books ahead of their publication, but it would be dangerous to set a standard where publishers assume reviewers will only say positive things in exchange for the ARCs they’ve received.

After all, publishers can stand to benefit from increased pre-orders and sales if there’s a lot of positive word of mouth around a book before its release, but the book should deserve that praise in order for the reviewer to maintain their credibility, and for readers to continue to trust them as a source upon which to base their purchases. That needs to be true whether the reviewer is an individual with their own blog, a fellow author, or a writer employed by a publication such as Kirkus.

It’s a complex situation: Review journals such as Kirkus should be able to stand by their reviews in the face of criticism if they believe that what they’re written is a fair assessment – no large publication or small blog should be made to change the verdict of their review of any book because of pressure from a crowd. However, when the reaction to a review suggests that it has caused offence to a marginalized group of people, reviewers should also be able to admit their oversight and wrongdoing if they come to believe they were mistaken with their original assessment.

Readers have the right to form their own opinions on the books they read, and reviewers have the right to be as negative in their criticism as they feel any book deserves. Both of these elements must be considered in any discussion of censorship in the YA community – it is not as black and white as one group of people trying to censor another.

Regardless of where one sides in this particular conflict, it has set a precedent that reviews at established journals such as Kirkus are subject to change due to public lobbying, and that even prestigious stars can be revoked as a result. The relationship between publishers and reviewers has value in the marketing process, and therefore whether you agree or disagree with Kirkus’s redaction, it is important to examine the conflict to evaluate how it stands to affect that relationship.

Kabriya Coghlan