I'm sampling a few of the Booker nominees. The Booker prize is given out by the British for the best novel of the year. As a rule, the novels are literary. There have been some wonderful books in the past, so I looked forward with huge anticipation when this nominee had a historical novel set in Japan, specifically during the period that the country was opened up to western trade via the Dutch East India Company and their trading post on Dejima island outside Nagasaki.
With this book, however, I ran into the old conflict between literary quality and commercial success. The author clearly aimed for both, and the result jars.
There are fascinating characters, well-rounded and clearly illustrative of the themes (collision between two worlds, intolerance, human rights, the coming of age of the young protagonist, etc).
But there is also a plot designed to shock and titillate (the commercial aspect). Young women who are somehow disfigured or disabled are kidnapped by some maniacal Buddhist sect, imprisoned in a hidden mountain fastness, and used by the monks as breeders of children which are ritually killed after birth. The protagonist's love interest is such a flawed woman, and the two men who love her attempt to rescue her before she can be "engifted".
My problem is that the commercial aspect of the book disqualifies it as a literary novel. (It didn't win). But the mind rather boggles at the praise for the book: "Comparisons to Tolstoy are inevitable" (Kirkus), "Literary brawn and stylistic panache (PW), "M. is clearly a genius." (NYT)
"(A) prodigiously daring and imaginative young writer" (Time).
I think the lines between the literary and the commercial have blurred, but now and then one can still tell the difference.
At one time, Kirkus offered another, separate service where authors paid for reviews. It had a slightly different name. There was a great outcry over this, and they claimed that being paid had nothing to do with reviewing fairly. I'm not sure if this service is still available.
The regular review section of Kirkus does not receive payment, but they review only mainstream publications by legitimate publishing houses.
I agree with your sentiments, but there are two different kinds of Kirkus reviews involved here. I think you can trust the ones under the Kirkus name. They tend to be pretty sharp in any case.
A fellow writer paid Kirkus to review her work barely a year ago, so I think that arm is still operating. It shows up on her Amazon site as Kirkus Discoveries. Interesting, huh? I thought their comments were fair and not over-the-top in response to her status as paid client.
Anyway, thanks for your clarification, IJ.