Wednesday, August 02, 2006

On Michiko Kakutani, Part I

Ladies and gentlemen, in recent years, Michiko Kakutani has taken a steady drubbing from authors and fellow critics alike, and I feel it only fair to offer a rebuttal of sorts to the rarified, haute-culture, bitch-slapping of the so-called brilliant upon the so-called brilliant -- a defense of Michiko Kakutani. My rebuttal will be the type of response that only out-of-it, literary-loving nerds like myself could possibly care about, but since you are what you eat, and I eat celery sticks without peanut butter and lima beans, I shall plow forward.

Here I am going to use Ben Yagoda's fascinating Slate article,, as my take-off point. Yagoda does a solid job of summarizing the critiques and epithets that have been hurled at Kakutani and adds the tidbit that he went to Yale with Kakutani -- for which I am supremely jealous, since Kakutani is like the mother I never wanted but with whom I would have liked to chit-chat with over tea, bagels, and maraschino cherries during our summer picnics upon the Mayweather Fields of Shangri-la.

Sure, Yagoda tosses a few bones in the general direction of Kakutani, asserting that she has an "estimable intelligence" (side note: dolphins and most barnyard animals also have an "estimatable intelligence"), but he uses this concession merely to tee himself up for the rest of the article. The vast majority of the piece basically treats Kakutani's book-reviewing skills like an overstuffed Chinese lantern pinata, shellacking Kakutani the book reviewer for being "a profoundly uninteresting critic" in a variety of ways.

Yagoda scores some candy out of his endeavor, but unfortunately, it's mostly the moldy coconut kind. I think that his analysis is useful, however, in that he misreads Kakutani in a way that is similar to the way that many authors and critics have misread her -- or rather, her unique twist upon the art of the book review. These critics have consequently failed to understand why she strikes many of her devotees as *gasp* even better than a crossword puzzle or a Thomas Friedman op-ed desperately trying to center itself in the middle of the ever-shifting Left.

First, Yagoda declares that Kakutani's "main weakness is evaluation fixation." It's funny, isn't it -- criticizing a critic for being critical? Ho, ho, ho. Yagoda recognizes the irony here and quickly adds that the problem for Kakutani, as opposed to the flawless Pauline Kael, is that "for her, the verdict is the only thing." At this point, since Yagoda does not cite to much evidence to prove this point, I could shout, "Wrongo!" and my imagined Yagoda and I might engage in an "is-so, am-not" debate. (I don't fault Yagoda here for not rambling through a list of examples -- after all, it is a Slate article and not some graduate thesis that will never be read or published.) But I will not do so. I have graduated from kindergarten.

Instead, having read a large number of Kakutani's book reviews, I will cite to my own evidence that contradicts Yagoda's assertion of Kakutani's "evaluation fixation". Google "Michiko Kakutani" and you will come across a large archive of her book reviews. If you read enough of these reviews, you will notice a general pattern. Kakutani usually opens with a viciously verdict-ish (can I use the word "verdict-ish"?, oh wait, this is my blog, of course, I can. I don't even have to obey conventional rules of grammar or keep my focus, but I usually do -- except for this run-on parenthetical -- because I'm basically a stick-in-the-mud panda) paragraph or two, as Yagoda notes. But Kakutani also spends about 50 to 90 percent of her book reviews, depending on the particular review, summarizing and describing the book in precise detail, before closing with a verdict-ish final paragraph. You do have substance there, I'm afraid. Critics of Kakutani neglect this substance, I think, because the opening and closing paragraphs of her pieces are often unusually blunt.

But you should note that I say "general pattern," "50 to 90 percent," "usually," and "often," because there is no "Michiko Kakutani" book review. Critics tend to ignore the fact that Kakutani displays an amazing range of style and tone in her book reviews -- from serious to funny, from irreverent to critical, from substantive to silly (silly, as in the case of the parody reviews that she writes from time to time, which Yagoda acknowledges towards the end of his piece. Like Yagoda, I am not the most avid fan of those reviews.) Yagoda cites to Kakutani's review of Nick Hornby's latest novel as "a case study," but you could point to plenty of other Kakutani book reviews completely unlike that one. In fact, with a few of her book reviews, you can barely discern Kakutani's personal opinion of the book itself, because she is so preoccupied with describing it. Typically, Kakutani reserves this serious side of her persona for works of non-fiction. Note her interest in books on politics and international affairs. Also, not to be overlooked is the fact that Kakutani delves into a wide variety of genres -- non-fiction, fiction, short story, biography, etc. -- but sadly, she has not entered the enchanted forests of recipe books, dictionaries, or (egads!) poetry.


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