Michiko Kakutani is leaving the New York Times, so we counted up her favorite cliches.

The Clichés of Michiko Kakutani’s Book Reviews Are the Clichés of Contemporary Books

The Clichés of Michiko Kakutani’s Book Reviews Are the Clichés of Contemporary Books

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Aug. 21 2017 9:45 AM

“Will Be Familiar to Many Readers”

Michiko Kakutani’s favorite book-review clichés, by the numbers.

Popular Hardbacks - Borders Bookstore at SeaTac airport
New releases and popular books at the Sea-Tac airport on March 31, 2008.

J Brew/Flickr

Michiko Kakutani announced late last month that she was leaving the New York Times. In her 34 years as a book reviewer for the paper, pointing out her clichés became something of a cliché itself. Ben Yagoda wrote in Slate, in 2006, that Kakutani appeared “incapable of engaging with language,” her own or others’. “Virtually every word or phrase is a cliché, or at best shopworn and lifeless,” he charged, pointing to Kakutani’s oft-mocked fondness for the verb limn. Seven years later, Forrest Wickman and Emma Goss observed that Kakutani had dropped limn for a new linguistic crush, deeply felt.

On the occasion of Kakutani’s departure from the Times, I decided to take a more systematic approach, assembling a dataset of 2,310 reviews totaling 2.8 million words. It isn’t comprehensive, but it’s close, and it limns quite a picture: of Kakutani’s writing, of books in the aggregate, and of books seen through Kakutani’s writing.

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Kakutani’s detractors are basically right. She is indeed reliant on a small and clinical vocabulary, and she does trot out the same formulas in review after review. Some of the monotony results from the way she writes, some from commonalities among the books she writes about. It’s hard to weigh those two explanations against each other: Many of the most common words in these reviews are “shopworn and lifeless” ones that would be equally at home in an assessment and a plot summary. Bad, for instance—which could refer to a character’s bad luck or to a book itself—shows up in one-fifth of the reviews I gathered. Good appears in one-third, as do best and great.

With that caveat in mind, we can count up all the words and see what sticks out. (My tallies include all forms of a given word—so greatest and greatness count as great.) Kakutani’s dispatches from the library tell of heroes (663 reviews, or 28 percent of the corpus) with hopes (26 percent) and dreams (31 percent), fighting for survival (14 percent), suffering (27 percent) through war (40 percent), death (41 percent), and loss (20 percent). They are obsessed (21 percent), driven by love (52 percent!) and passion (21 percent), haunted (12 percent) by murder (16 percent) and suicide (10 percent, which is a little shocking). Their adventures (15 percent) are charming (14 percent), fascinating (14 percent), and funny (13 percent), or dark (20 percent), strange (16 percent), and violent (14 percent). Their stories might touch on World War II (10 percent) or the Bush administration (4.7 percent). And the authors have gifts (30 percent), the ability (25 percent) or power (45 percent) to present an inspired (11 percent) vision (15 percent). They produce important (19 percent) achievements (22 percent). Or they fail (23 percent).

Am I being unfairly critical? Absolutely. Kakutani’s fellow Times book critic Dwight Garner, whose reviews I also downloaded, uses nearly all of those words at the same rates. The similarity is downright strange, a word that Kakutani uses in 16 percent of her pieces and Garner in 15 percent of his. These words aren’t Kakutani words, apparently; they’re New York Times book review words.

Leaving aside the specific words that Kakutani leans on, you may wonder, does she lean on them more than other reviewers lean on their favorite words? Linguists have numerous ways (all contested) of measuring “lexical diversity.” The method I used crawls through a text word by word, tracking how many words you can chain together before the chain gets repetitive. The final score is the average length of one chain.

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I took the Times’ top 10 reviewers, as measured by words published since 1983, and subjected samples of their work to this treatment. Of the 10 contestants—Kakutani, Stephen Holden, Roberta Smith, Allan Kozinn, Holland Cotter, Grace Glueck, Jennifer Dunning, Anna Kisselgoff, John J. O’Connor, and Walter Goodman—Kakutani was the second-most repetitive. Only Kozinn, who wrote about classical music concerts in New York City, performed worse. That may be due to his subject matter (Mozart appears in one-quarter of his sampled write-ups), but his style doesn’t help: Musicians are said to give an “account” of a piece in 30 percent of his reviews. Kakutani is nearly tied with the dance critic Jennifer Dunning, whose prose, like Kozinn’s, is dominated by the names of local venues and repertory warhorses.

These figures and explanations are highly debatable, but they suggest a definition of Kakutanism: She judges books as if they were classical performances, by how skillfully they imbue some familiar structure with life. This posture frustrates authors, from whose perspective the years-long construction of a book has little in common with an orchestra’s umpteenth account of Beethoven’s Ninth. It would be much more gratifying to know what makes your book distinctive than to learn exactly how it measures up against similar efforts.

But that is not how Kakutani operates. You can see this at the level of the phrase, where she really diverges from Garner. He likes to foreground personal mental associations and often delivers his judgments as metaphors. Whatever book he’s reading tends to put him in mind of something else, often some lines of poetry or a character from a different book (31 reviews, or 5 percent of his oeuvre); one-fifth of his reviews employ some variation of as if it were: “as if it were a stag film made by PBS.” When Kakutani ventures a comparison, the magic words are bears a resemblance to (0.6 percent)—or rather a passing resemblance (2.1 percent), and generally more than a passing resemblance (1.9 percent of reviews and 90 percent of passing resemblances). These resemblances are to nonfictional people and places, authors and their biographies, characters from authors’ earlier books, and characters from classic fiction; they serve either to unlock a roman à clef or as evidence that a book is derivative.

Nearly all of Kakutani’s favorite formulas, though, are blandly expository. In the wake of some narrative event, a character must come to terms with something, and by the end of the story we feel a certain way; in the course of a novel, something turns out to be something else (9 percent, 9 percent; 10 percent, 7 percent). It must be vexing, for a writer, to have your work reduced to a series of narrative tropes, like a house stripped to its rafters by a storm. Nor do these reviews make for particularly stimulating reading. They don’t aim to reveal the nuances of the works in question, the subtle differences that set them apart from their peers.

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Taken together, though, they provide a comically repetitive litany of shit that happens in books. For your enjoyment, here’s an excerpt from the catalog. All examples are presented in chronological order of review.

In the wake of:

  • World War II
  • the 1960s and Vietnam
  • the war
  • the noisy 1960s
  • the Civil War
  • Billy’s death
  • the horrible events that overtake their lives
  • two abortions and heavy drinking
  • his disastrous and short-lived marriage
  • World War II
  • her failed marriage
  • a sordid one-night stand
  • Sept. 11
  • 9/11
  • the crumbling of the Soviet bloc
  • the terrorist attacks of 9/11
  • Sept. 11
  • his parents’ collapsing marriage
  • the Iraq war
  • toppling Saddam Hussein
  • 9/11
  • 9/11
  • 9/11
  • the highly contested 2000 presidential vote
  • the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11
  • the Holocaust
  • Monica-gate
  • 9/11
  • the Soviet Union’s collapse
  • the Sept. 11 attacks

Somebody has to come to terms with:

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  • an alien culture
  • his family’s guilty secrets
  • his own personality
  • his family’s complicated history
  • the postwar world
  • the past
  • her father’s imprisonment
  • the past
  • their fathers’ ambivalent love
  • her real father
  • the social and political consequences of World War I
  • each other
  • male lovers
  • his family and his suffocating existence in a small town
  • his family
  • Israel’s existence
  • his father’s vagueness, his acidity, his erratic attempts to connect
  • his secret life as a criminal and liar
  • God and death and faith
  • cancer
  • his past
  • her past
  • their fractured relationship and his own secret past
  • their fathers
  • the past
  • the tectonic changes wrought by independence movements and ethnic and religious politics in the years since the end of World War II
  • a giant Freudian dilemma
  • his past, his craving for love and his deepest assumptions about the world
  • Africa and its colonial past
  • his father’s ghost, who has haunted more than half his life by his absence

… in the face of …

  • remarkable odds
  • death
  • failure
  • death
  • adult disappointments and frustrations
  • age and death
  • unimaginable horror
  • his father’s history
  • illness and hardship and fear
  • so much suffering
  • terrible odds
  • disappointment
  • disgrace
  • history and public grief
  • so many horrors
  • pressure
  • AIDS
  • terrorism
  • seemingly overwhelming odds
  • setbacks and criticism
  • unprecedented global interdependence
  • digital piracy and single-song downloads
  • reality
  • the swirling whirlpools of fortune
  • constant violence and loss
  • disappointment
  • death and departure and disappointment
  • opportunity
  • utter misery
  • stinging humiliation

This will be familiar to:

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  • many readers who remember their social studies courses
  • Malamud’s readers
  • readers of Mr. Auchincloss’ earlier novel
  • readers of his earlier books
  • readers of newspaper headlines
  • readers of his earlier books
  • readers of Mr. Wiesel’s earlier books
  • readers of Mr. Shields’ previous books
  • readers of Ms. Ciment’s first novel
  • readers of his own copious writings
  • readers of Mr. Ellis’ earlier work
  • many readers
  • dedicated newspaper readers
  • those who follow the news
  • many of his longtime readers

... and turns out to be:

  • pretty familiar territory
  • very different
  • a wife-beater
  • a psychopathic con man
  • a disaster
  • short-lived
  • less an act of reminiscence than a carefully contrived meditation on what might have happened to the dimwitted garbage collector Mr. Irving knew as a boy in Exeter, New Hampshire, and the transformative powers of art
  • an even less surprising place than the one in the Charlton Heston–Roddy McDowall movie, a highly predictable place, mechanically constructed to allow the author to indulge in his sophomoric fascination (and disgust) with sex
  • a far more substantial collection than its melodramatic title suggests: engaging, often powerful
  • as entertaining as it is intelligent, as stimulating as it is funny
  • quite devoid of any compelling insight into Proust’s character or work
  • everything he accuses self-help books of being and worse
  • a highly uneven novel
  • Wesley’s estranged son
  • painfully easy
  • a major dud
  • little more than a Hollywood sound stage for the enactment of the hero Ray’s tiresome midlife crisis, his journey from self-absorption and uxorious obsession, through pain and loss, toward redemption
  • the love of his life
  • a child molester with blackmail on his mind
  • a considerably more shopworn volume
  • an annoyingly biased and didactic one
  • highly predictable
  • highly dysfunctional
  • less of an original (and coherent) argument than a compendium of complaints
  • a herky-jerky affair that lurches between the compelling and the lackadaisical, the intriguing and the preposterous
  • an elderly, taciturn taxidermist
  • a snarkily drawn cartoon
  • mostly a predictable mix of spin, stonewalling, score settling and highly selective reminiscences
  • in love with his widow
  • an irritating narrator

Farewell, Michiko Kakutani. New York recently noted your desire to write more expansively. May your next role provide such an opportunity to experience growth (31 percent)—though perhaps not to mention it quite so often.

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