What I’ve Learned Reviewing 7,500 Books for Kirkus

Feb 23, 2023
Dimitris Passas

NOTE: This article is a republication- Source: Kirkus (by Gregory McNamee).

Many years ago, I attended a concert by the English punk band Gang of Four. Opening for them was an out-of-tune, out-of-time, trembling quartet so bad that I confidently said to a friend, “These guys are never going anywhere.”

These guys were R.E.M. They went somewhere.

The prediction business is tough, and I’ve tried not to indulge in it overmuch. Certainly, in the 30 years I’ve been writing for Kirkus—reviewing something like 7,500 books, writing features on 600 or so more—I’ve often been tempted to deem a favorite a sure-fire bestseller and a disliked one a guaranteed failure. I haven’t for good reason, for the vagaries of taste and the marketplace see to it that the wrong dogs often bring home the squirrel. Though reviewing is an emphatically subjective practice, I’ve tried to be as objective as possible, judging those books (or dogs) on their own merits.

Indeed, fair-mindedness is key, for every book deserves a fighting chance. When I came aboard in 1993, Kirkus had a reputation for snark, a reputation only infrequently supported by reality. I’ve always aimed for qualified kindness; having written many books of my own, I know all too well that it’s usually thankless, usually unremunerative work. Still, when authors attempt to game their allotted 15 minutes too greedily or advance some inhuman agenda—and recent years have seen too many—then, sure, their books are fair game for satire, snark, even savaging. The hard truth, though, is that most books, even the worthiest, soon disappear no matter what we say about them, while a few horrible ones enjoy undeserving good fortune. You never can tell.

Over three decades, what stand out in my mind are less the bad books than zeitgeist-y trend-spotters that themselves sink into the oblivion of flawed prediction. All those years ago, soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, America was going to be the world’s sole superpower and peace and democracy would prevail everywhere. Instead we came perilously close to seeing both disappear here at home, while war and totalitarianism are the world’s daily bread. All those years ago Japan was surely soon to be the world’s leading economic power. Now it’s China, as book after book proclaims. (If it were up to me, bookish Iceland would rule the planet.)

Some trends are noxious, as with the recent flood of memoirs by political functionaries, some defiant, most begging absolution. Other trends are neutral, though I’m not sure how many more memoirs by NFL players and coaches the world really needs. Still other trends are emphatically positive. Among the best, I think, is the growing number of diverse voices speaking for communities that were badly underrepresented when I started out.

I’m grateful to have been on hand for the good with the bad, grateful for having had the opportunity to read all those books, which have taken me into realms of knowledge I scarcely knew existed and introduced me to authors whose work I would never have encountered otherwise. Another 30 years seems unlikely, but I’ll hope to file a few thousand more reviews before I go.

Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.

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