Assessing Michiko Kakutani.

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April 10 2006 6:25 AM

Michiko Kakutani

A critic with a fixation.

Illustration of Michiko Kakutani by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

Michiko Kakutani recently embarked on her 25th year as a New York Times book critic, and it's gotten to the point that when her name is mentioned in print, you can see the smoke rising from the page. The late Susan Sontag complained, "Her criticisms of my books are stupid and shallow and not to the point." Salman Rushdie referred to her as "a weird woman who seems to feel the need to alternately praise and spank." Most notoriously, last year Norman Mailer called Kakutani, who is of Japanese descent, a "one-woman kamikaze" and a "token" minority hire.

Those who rip her are usually authors she has ripped, and their indignation often muddies their logic. Certainly Mailer's insinuations, in addition to being boorish, are unsupportable. It should be clear to anyone who has read Kakutani's reviews that she has an estimable intelligence; she backs this up with what must be many real or virtual all-nighters in which she digests every word ever published by the writer under review. She takes books seriously, a valuable and ever-rarer trait. Furthermore, in my observation, she is more or less right in her judgments most of the time. (I slightly knew Kakutani when we were undergraduates at Yale about 30 years ago but have not spoken to her since.)

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But the sour-grapes sniping from spurned authors should not obscure the fact that Kakutani is a profoundly uninteresting critic. Her main weakness is her evaluation fixation. This may seem an odd complaint—the job is called critic, after all—but in fact, whether a work is good or bad is just one of the many things to be said about it, and usually far from the most important or compelling. Great critics' bad calls are retrospectively forgiven or ignored: Pauline Kael is still read with pleasure even though no one still agrees (if anyone ever did) that Last Tango in Paris and Nashville are the cinematic equivalents of "The Rite of Spring" and Anna Karenina. Kakutani doesn't offer the stylistic flair, the wit, or the insight one gets from Kael and other first-rate critics; for her, the verdict is the only thing. One has the sense of her deciding roughly at Page 2 whether or not a book is worthy; reading the rest of it to gather evidence for her case; spending some quality time with the Thesaurus; and then taking a large blunt hammer and pounding the message home.

That message is harsh an awful lot of the time, and publishing folk commonly complain that Kakutani is too hard to please. It's true that the pleasure she appears to take in hurling a voluminous stream of harsh epithets at each dead horse is a bit unseemly, and that her perennial frustration with writers gives her a prim, schoolmarmish air. But negativity has been a good career strategy for her: The citation on her 1998 Pulitzer Prize gave props to her "fearless and authoritative" judgments. And the bigger problem, once again, isn't the number or severity of the pans but the pan-rave mentality. She sometimes seems to be channeling Matthew Arnold, a titan of literature but not the best role model for a newspaper book critic. Arnold was the solemn Victorian who defined criticism as "the disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world" and believed "its business is to do this with inflexible honesty." Arnold compared every work that came across his desk to the "touchstones" that represented the highest standards. If something lacked "high seriousness" (as he felt of Chaucer's and Robert Burns' poetry), it got the inflexible honesty treatment.

Kakutani started her career as a reporter, and her reviews usually have a who-what-when-where news lede right up top that sums up the verdict. In the second paragraph of her review of Nick Hornby's latest novel, she calls it a "… maudlin bit of tripe. 'A Long Way Down' is utterly devoid of the wonderfully acute observations of pop culture that made the author's debut novel, 'High Fidelity' (1995), such a rollicking delight to read, and it is equally devoid of the sorts of savvy social and psychological insights that fueled his impassioned soccer memoir, 'Fever Pitch' (1994). Instead, this cringe-making excuse for a novel takes the sappy contrivances of his 2001 book, 'How to Be Good,' to an embarrassing new low."

I've read A Long Way Down, so let me use it as a case study and the passage just quoted as a case study of Kakutani's problems as a writer. Kakutani is right: A Long Way Down is far from "a rollicking delight," as she described his first novel. (That characterization of High Fidelity, by the way, is an example of how Kakutani's prose is even flatter when it praises than when it buries.) But neither does A Long Way Down deserve to be called tripe. For Kakutani, there is no middle ground:a list of deficiencies, and a bit of plot summary, are all she has for us, and, lacking any other ideas or themes, she (characteristically) exaggerates the novel's faults. In her world, books tend to be masterpieces or rubbish; in the real one, they're almost always somewhere in between. She also (characteristically) sets up a bogus dichotomy between A Long Way Down and the "good" Hornby books. In fact, an artist's works almost always have more similarities than differences; if the disjuncture here were really as big as she claims, it should be the main subject of her review. The core question is how the current piece fits into the oeuvre, and we expect reflective reviews to address it. In this case, I'd be curious to see a critic consider Hornby's oft-stated and almost obsessive pledge to write books that are entertaining and ultimately uplifting—and how such a project could be expected eventually to encounter artistic and philosophical difficulties.

You'd want this Platonic critic to touch on other stuff, too. He or she could share some insights about the nature of novels written in dramatic monologues, or novels about suicide, or novels, or art, or life. Kakutani's refusal ever to take her eyes off the thumbs up/thumbs down prize, or to lay any of her own prejudices, tastes, or tangentially relevant observations on the table, is dispiriting. One of her favorite gimmicks for ducking subjectivity is to invoke the supposed reactions of "the reader" to a book. This is a rather underhanded device with a tweedy scent of 1940s and '50s arbiters like Lionel Trilling and Clifton Fadiman—and it's a perfect emblem of the way Kakutani muffles her own voice by hiding behind a mask. But it provides the only fun I get from her reviews: First thing, I always hunt for "the reader" (whom I visualize as a kind of miniature androgynous Michelin man) the way I used to count the Ninas in a Hirschfeld drawing. Imagine my delight to come upon Kakutani's January review of Richard Reeves' President Reagan and find two successive sentences telling us that "the reader turns in eager anticipation" to the book because Reeves' previous works on Kennedy and Nixon gave "the reader minutely detailed accounts" of their presidencies.

As a student at Oxford, the future drama critic Kenneth Tynan got back a paper with this comment: "Keep a strict eye on eulogistic & dyslogistic adjectives—They shd diagnose (not merely blame) & distinguish (not merely praise.)" Tynan's tutor, who happened to be C.S. Lewis, was offering a lesson Kakutani could have benefited from. "Utterly devoid … wonderfully acute observations … debut novel … savvy social and psychological insights … cringe-making … embarrassing new low": Virtually every word or phrase is a cliché, or at best shopworn and lifeless,and evidence of Kakutani's solid tin ear. (She has justly been called out for her near-obsessive use of "lugubrious" and "limn," words that probably have never been said aloud in the history of English.) That's what can happen to a writer when she merely praises and merely blames. Kakutani appears incapable of engaging with language, either playfully or seriously, which puts her at a painful disadvantage when she is supposed to be evaluating writers who can and do. Here, she tries to energize the prose with lapel-grabbing intensifiers like utterly and wonderfully and superfluous adjectives like savvy and embarrassing, but they just make her look like she's protesting too much. (Another Lewis quote with relevance to Kakutani: "If we are not careful criticism may become a mere excuse for taking revenge on books whose smell we dislike by erecting our temperamental antipathies into pseudo-moral judgments.")

The qualities most glaringly missing from Kakutani's work are humor and wit. Maybe in an attempt to compensate, she writes one or two parody reviews a year: of a book about swinging London in the voice of Austin Powers, of a Bridget Jones book in the voice of Ally McBeal, of Benjamin Kunkel's novel Indecision in the voice of Holden Caulfield, of Truman Capote's recently discovered novella in the voice of Holly Golightly. Talk about cringe-making. They are so awful, from start to finish, that you cannot avert your eyes, much as you would like to.

The voice this reader would really like to hear in Michiko Kakutani's reviews is not a mock-Holly Golightly voice or the enervated (or prissy) voice of an enshrined critic, but Kakutani's own. Here's a modest suggestion on how to start: Just once, instead of describing what "the reader" expects, thinks, or does, she might try using the word "I."