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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

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Here at Slate, how meta can we get? With readers commenting on Ben Yagoda's criticism of Michiko Kakutani's criticism, we might safely call this a case of journalistic mise-en-abyme.

candoxx belittles the entire feud as the exercise of "little narcissists" who "try to involve the public in their personal little wars." In an extended rebuttal to Yagoda, MarkEHaag declares, Down with cry babies! If nothing else, pgioia is impressed with Kakutani's ample vocabulary, whilst Splendid_IREny accuses her of Anglophilia in her word choice.

For his part, Ted_Burke concurs in finding Kakutani's style mechanical, rote, and joyless:

Michiko Kakutani reviews books like the smartest kid for a junior college bi-weekly student newspaper, which is to say that her insights, her scorn, her depth of field would be amazing for an eighteen year old in any decade.

This, of course, sets up those who continue to read her to have expectations that she will someday come into her own and develop the qualities one desires in a critic--real passion, a lively, unstrained prose style reflective of a personality that wants to talk to you, and, if it's not asking too much, insights, conclusions and judgments that break away from the clichés and tropes that often, too often pass for commentary.

This blossoming is not forthcoming for Kakutani, who remains an extremely
ordinary reviewer of other people's work. She does not sound as if she cares about the books she's tasked with giving an opinion on, and there is mechanical movement to her columns, a method she's seemingly developed in order to dispatch her obligations as soon as possible.

Pauline Kael cared about the movies she wrote about, and though she faltered toward career's end with messy pronouncements and idol worship, at her best she convinced you that movies were importand and had you talking about the issues she's raised. Kakutani
just makes you wonder again and again how any reviewer could make reading books or writing reviews about them seem like such a joyless way to spend one's time.

Against the tide of Kakutani critics, Yankelwich steps up to defend her " one overwhelming strength":

She has aggressive, ambitious, important taste and she is honest about it. I read all of Kakutani's reviews and when she gives a "thumbs up" review to a book, she's almost always right about it. This is incredibly valuable, particularly with first time writers. I never would have read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, White Teeth, or Jarhead but for her reviews and I suspect a lot of other people wouldn't have either.

In a time when book reviews are frequently either timid, bland and "appropriate" mixtures of praise and blame or barely veiled personal attacks, Kakutani's voice stands apart.

Arlington2 gives us a refresher course on the point of criticism itself:

Critics seem to forget why they examine the work of others. It's supposed to be to give the potential reader (whom I visualize as an innocent, pre-teen version of the Michelin Man, whose name is "Bib," by the way) an idea of why he might or might not like a particular book.

Instead, we get absolute judgments, as if hurling adjectives in support of a personal opinion is a courageous act…

What the critic really owes us is reasoned evidence of why we should or should not read the book. That's a lot more difficult than using big words and obscure references to let us know the critic is smarter than we are. It involves the ability to empathise with the reader, rather than preach to her. Most critics are not up to the task because, let's face it, they're not such terrific writers themselves. Maybe they're not such terrific human beings, either.

If you want to judge for yourself and go directly to the source of the controversy, check out this page from the NYT listing her recent reviews. AC1:29pm

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

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