Thursday, August 03, 2006

On Michiko Kakutani, Part II

(Note: You should probably read Part I before proceeding to Part II. I think that it might make my writing seem more logical and orderly and possibly even halfway decent and amusing. Who knows? It won't take long. You can even eat a doughnut while you're reading.)

Second, Ben Yagoda points out that Kakutani's reviews are "harsh an awful lot of the time, and publishing folk commonly complain that Kakutani is too hard to please." ( Poor publishing folk! I feel sorry for them now. Really, I had no idea that book reviewers were supposed to compromise their honesty and integrity for the sake of book sales. But putting aside my ignorance of that matter, I question whether "bad" book reviews do cause books to sell less well and that "good" book reviews cause books to sell better. (If that were the case, sales of poetry books should have gone through the roof by now.) Actually, it would be interesting to read a study that mapped out some kind of statistical correlation between book reviews and book sales. As for myself, sadly, I have a mind of my own and can process my own thoughts. An intriguing "bad" book review ironically, or not ironically, can make me more interested in the book itself.

Third, and maybe most importantly, I feel that Yagoda overlooks Kakutani's conscious development of a "diva persona" -- in other words, Yagoda does not recognize that many of Kakutani's book reviews are overtly performative. It is like wagging a finger at a drag queen for wearing too much eyeshadow.

Yagoda takes issue with Kakutani's use of "lapel-grabbing intensifiers like utterly and wonderfully and superfluous adjectives like savvy and embarrassing." Well, as utterly amazing as Yagoda probably felt for making wonderfully intruiging critiques of Kakutani to please those who dislike her, it may just be a tad embarassing that he apparently was not sufficiently savvy enough to acknowledge the performative aspects of Kakutani's prose. Yes, Kakutani uses too many adjectives at times. Yes, it is over-the-top at times. That's the point. It is also one of the main pleasures of reading one of her book reviews. Her book reviews can be Christina Aguilera-esque fun. With many of those types of book reviews, it is almost her signature. She aims for a grandiose form of humor sometimes, and the key to happiness and equanimity is to not take her reviews too somberly.

Unfortunately, it seems that some critics and authors have chosen to take her reviews somberly and personally. That's fair enough. As Yagoda notes, Susan Sontag, one of my favorite intellectuals, fairly asserts that "[Kakutani's] criticisms of my books are stupid and shallow and not to the point." Sontag is playing according to the rules of the diva game here -- diva vs. diva, criticism vs. criticism. On the other hand, Norman Mailer infamously referred to Kakutani as a "one-woman kamikaze" and a "token" minority, choosing to attack the person instead of the prose, thus violating the rules of the diva game while simultaneously committing the sin of being unfunny with remarks that lack arc, performance, or irony.

Fourth, just quickly, Yagoda asserts, "The qualities most glaringly missing in Kakutani's work are humor and wit." I disagree. I do not think that humor and wit are missing. I think that Kakutani is being funny and implictly encouraging us not to take her critiques -- the thoughts of just one person -- too seriously. Perhaps Yagoda should have taken the advice that he gives Kakutani at the end of his piece and remarked that "I think that the qualities most glaringly missing..." I agree with Yagoda's advice on the use of the pronoun "I," but interestingly, at various points in his piece, Yagoda sinks into the kind of faux-objectivity for which he lambasts Kakutani, making debatable claims sans use of the pronoun "I". Kakutani often omits the pronoun "I", but with her prose, so much of her presence already looms over the bold assertions, that this omission does not strike me as that glaring.

Finally, what's up with the illustration that accompanies that article?! As much as many publishers and book reviewers would like to ship Kakutani to Easter Island, perhaps Kakutani's head could have been a wee-bit more well-proportioned. (Yes, I realize that the illustration is a purposeful exaggeration -- how original!) Perhaps we should just be thankful that the artist did not make Kakutani's eyes even beadier. You know, the illustration could have shown Kakutani with a better hairdo and a trendier outfit. But I suppose that would undermine a major point of this article and many other critiques levied against Kakutani -- the smart and the honest are also the angry and the wrinkled.


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