Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Not Cuckoo for Kakutani

Complaining about Michiko Kakutani's book reviews in The New York Times has become one of the literary world's popular pastimes, up there with speculating about whether there will ever be another book from J. D. Salinger.

Now, in celebration of her 25th anniversary as a Times reviewer, Ben Yagoda swings a club at Kakutani's brains, and the splatterfest is both gruesome and satisfying.

First and foremost, Yagoda argues, Kakutani worships too often at the Roger Ebert Shrine:
[F]or 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. [...] And the bigger problem, once again, isn't the number or severity of the pans but the pan-rave mentality.
"Your book is the best thing since Shakespeare, or your book is not worth the ink it's printed in; with Kakutani, there's not much in between," adds Christopher Frizzelle.

In addition, Yagoda restates what I've often argued about Kakutani. Collating some choice phrases from a recent review, he makes the case that she is an amateurishly lazy writer and an unimaginative thinker:
"Utterly devoid"; "wonderfully acute observations"; "debut novel"; "savvy social and psychological insights"; "cringe-making"; "embarrassing new low": Virtually every word or phrase is a cliche, or at best shopworn and lifeless, and evidence of Kakutani's solid tin ear. [...] 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.
Indeed, Kakutani's thesaurus of wayward English is notable for its puniness. Take one of the examples above (say, "cringe-making") and check out Google to see how often she has used this odd linguistic creation in just the last two years. John Updike, David Sedaris, Doris Lessing, Nick Hornby, and more--they all make her cringe. (Perform the same exercise to find out how often she uses the word "savvy," and you'll likely test the limits of your computer's RAM.)

Furthermore, Yagoda adds, "the qualities most glaringly missing from Kakutani's work are humor and wit." Even when the targets (e.g., Michael Crichton) are too easy, her word-processing software somehow censors every ounce of farce that might justify wasting valuable space in the New York Times with reviews of dime novels in the first place. Instead, we are treated to a series of synonymous insults--"preposterous," "ham-handed," "ludicrous," "sorry excuse for a thriller"--that could apply to any of Crichton's (or Koontz's or DeMille's or Patterson's or Cornwell's) novels of the last ten years.

Yagoda and I part company, however, on his assessment of Kakutani's evaluative skills; he prefaces his criticisms by saying that "she is more or less right in her judgments most of the time." Maybe he's just being polite, but I don't think he's being exact--and he's certainly contradicting himself. His observation that most books can't be categorized as gem or junk doesn't jive with Kakutani's "judgments" that nearly every book she's read on a deadline can be either thrown into the dustbin or added to the canon.

Moreover, her reviews in certain genres--particularly science fiction, ethic literature, and feminist studies--more often show a willful prejudice and a disdain for any author who isn't a new Proust. ("Not every writer esteems to become a literary giant," points out Lizzy at Chicks on Lit.) She shows no evidence, for example, of having ever read a single book from the Golden Age of Science Fiction, yet the Times apparently has no problem letting her review recent works in the genre (and she is unjustifiably harsh when a "literary" author dares a foray into fantasyland, as Doris Lessing or Margaret Atwood can attest).

Kakutani's biggest crime, however, is that her emotionally vapid reviews rarely convey any excitement for the literature published in recent decades. There's never any sense from her writing that Kakutani enjoys what most of us would love to be paid to do, and there's no sign she won't be doing it for another 25 years. The very thought makes me cringe.