Thursday, November 06, 2008

Phooey on Kakutani

I really feel sorry for any author who has to suffer the indignity of having his or her work reviewed by Michiko Kakutani. I have never known anyone who so consistently proves (over and over and over ad nauseam) that when it comes to writers, and books, and readers, she just does not get it. Of course, I have only myself to blame for the fact that I’m aware of how clueless she is. She’s like those horrible videos that came out right after 9/11. When I see her byline, I know I don’t really want to read what she has to say, that I’m going to be shocked and feel a bit sick, but my eyes wander in her direction anyway, and before I know it, I am yet again, sighing in disgust. I wouldn’t mind so much if I didn’t feel she has the power to do a lot of damage, a power she uses far too irresponsibly. My only hope is that she has more readers like me than readers who actually take her seriously.

Why this rant from me against this NYT reviewer? Because a while ago I finished listening to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. As I was putting the last disk back into the case, I noted for the first time that the back cover copy had a quote from Kakutani. Here’s what she had to say:

“To give you an idea of what Mark Haddon’s moving new novel is like, think of The Sound and the Fury crossed with The Catcher in the Rye and one of Oliver Sack’s real-life stories.”

Okay, so at least she said it was moving, which must mean she didn’t trash it, which seems to be her favorite thing to do. But how can anyone who has read this book and read any of the others she notes ever trust anything she has to say again? The Sound and the Fury? What? Well, I guess The Sound and the Fury does happen to have an idiot in it, and I suppose some might call Haddon’s protagonist an idiot (more like an idiot savant), but I see no other similarities whatsoever – not in story-line, not in character development, not in type of story (tell me, was there some sort of Southern Gothic piece to Haddon's book that’s somehow gone missing in the unabridged sound recording? Biblical allegory I missed when my mind wandered a bit?), not in writing style. Nothing. And The Catcher in the Rye? I found no resemblance whatsoever between Salinger’s cynical, spoiled, full-of-himself Holden Caulfield and Haddon’s so sweetly sad and innocent Christopher Boone. I suppose that just because two books happen to be coming-of-age novels they are automatically like each other.

How on earth does her editor let her get away with such baloney? I’d be taking her to task all over the place. For me, it’s gotten to the point that if she compares a book to some classic, I know the two will have absolutely nothing in common (of course, I have not yet gotten to the point that it doesn’t annoy the hell out of me). It’s also gotten to the point that if she hates a book, I know that I must immediately put it at the top of my TBR list, most especially if it’s a new book by some beloved author. Did anyone else see the crap she wrote about When You Are Engulfed in Flames? The fact that she could have thought Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (which has got to be Sedaris’s weakest effort. All my friends who are fellow fans agree with me on that point, although we, of course, still read it and laughed, because, well, it’s Sedaris. He could make a grocery list funny) was better…well, that’s really all the proof you need when it comes to how unreliable she is. She seems to have this odd pattern that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual book. If she praised a bestselling author’s last work, she has to mock his or her latest effort. Does that somehow prove she’s being objective?

All this is to say that I hope none of you aspiring writers out there has ever been discouraged by reading a brilliant book and then reading a Kakutani review of said book. If you found yourself contemplating suicide, because such thoughts as this, “Well, if even that didn’t receive high praise, I’m doomed” keep floating through your head, please come to me. I will tell you exactly how she got it all wrong. Meanwhile, I’m impatiently waiting for you to publish. You can send me ARCs of your books, and I will write reviews here on my blog to put her to shame. And you know what? If you’ve written two (or four or eight…) really good books in a row, I’ll go on and on about how you just can’t seem to fail, you genius, you. And even if I didn’t like your book (hard to imagine, because I love all the blogs kept by those of you who read my blog), I will be far kinder and gentler in my critique of it, because even I, Ms. Blunt-Klutz, have more grace and tact than she does (I’m also aware of the fact that writers are sensitive creatures). Now, get on with your business of writing, and ignore her, please. After all, she can trash John Irving all she wants, but how many 500+ paged novels with that kind of characterization has she written?

And now, despite the fact I wasn't thrilled with the last Diane Johnson book I read (which probably got a rave review from Kakutani), I'm off to see if I can get a copy of her latest book, which Kakutani recently declared as Johnson's "ridiculous new novel." I bet I'm gonna love it!


knitseashore said...

I hope you are feeling better today.

I have not read anything by this reviewer, which just begs the question of, "besides reviews, what has she written?" And if she's written books, what did reviewers say about HER writing? That might be a delicious thing to know.

Litlove said...

Oh isn't it frustrating when people like this end up with plum jobs? I would love anyone to take any of my reviews, and I generally write nice things. Well, we can only hope she ends up writing a novel, and then watch the pack of wolves descend in recompense for all the mean things she has ever said!

Anonymous said...

Her book comparisons to Curious Incident reveal so much about her personally. I thought that book was curiously amazing in that it put the reader in the mind of a person you can never truly understand from the outside. All of his actions, though bizarre and troubling from an outside perspective, made total and complete sense in the boy's head. My book club read this book and there were a number of people who didn't care for it, I think, because the main character was so hard to understand. It was definitely a lively discussion.

Emily Barton said...

Ms. Knits, if you haven't read her, try to avoid her from now on. I much prefer your thoughtful review style. She's written a book or two (I think, Certainly not any fiction, though), but I have no idea what anyone had to say about them.

Litlove, she's probably too smart to ever subject herself to that, but wouldn't it be such sweet revenge to witness it? BTW, if I owned a newspaper, I'd snap you up as my book reviewer in a heartbeat.
(Maybe that's what we should all do: create a world-wide online newspaper...)

Sara, I wish I'd been at your book discussion. I would have loved to have had a group of people with whom to discuss the book. I too was amazed with how well Haddon put the reader inside the head of the boy and how society just didn't get it, even his own parents just didn't get it. Sad but wonderful.

ZoesMom said...

I think all the NYT book reviewers are suspect. Ms. Kakutani is one of the worst though. And I had the exact same reaction about the Diane Johnson novel. I can't wait to read it!

Dorothy W. said...

You are right -- those comparisons she made about Haddon's book don't make any sense at all -- but they sound impressive, so I'm sure most people would take them seriously. Arg! It's very hard not to take well-known book reviewers seriously, and that's really too bad, because sometimes they just don't deserve it. People would be better off making up their own minds. It's hard to get past being impressed by what appears to be authority, though.

stefanie said...

Maybe she uses reverse psychology in her reviews and you've just outed her secret? I've never even heard of her before and by the sound of it, it's probably best that way.

Emily Barton said...

ZM, we should start a "Read What Kakutani Trashed" book discussion group.

Dorr, I know. I'm always thinking they're just trying to sound like they know what they're talking about (most be very easy for those of you who teach English to spot such bs).

Stef, oh yes, better never to have heard of her. Wish I hadn't.

Sandra said...

lol I really enjoyed your thoughts on this. I too am always more intrigued when the better known critics trash a book. I have read her reviews and sometimes she baffles me.