kakutani

Why Does Michiko Kakutani Hate Fiction So Much?

The New York Times‘s Michiko Kakutani has rightly earned the wrath of fiction authors for her scathing reviews. But until now, nobody has thought to collect some loosely quantifiable data with which to demonstrate just how much Kakutani hates fiction.

So here’s a breakdown of Kakutani’s last twenty-seven fiction reviews, written between the period of May 2009 and May 2010.

May 11, 2010: Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow called “a remarkably tedious new novel.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

Aprl 28, 2010: “Suffice it to say that the fans of Presumed Innocent who can suspend their disbelief for the first couple of chapters of this follow-up will not be disappointed. ” She also spoils several plot twists contained within Scott Turow’s Innocent. Verdict? HATED IT (0).

April 22, 2010: Sue Miller’s The Lake Shore Limited is declared “her most nuanced and unsentimental novel to date.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

April 13, 2010: Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil “is every bit as misconceived and offensive as his earlier book was fetching.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

March 30, 2010: Of Solar, Kakutani declares the book “ultimately one of the immensely talented Mr. McEwan’s decidedly lesser efforts.” Verdict? HATED IT (with scant positive remarks) (0).

March 9, 2010: On Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered, Kakutani writes, “Mr. Lee writes with such intimate knowledge of his characters’ inner lives and such an understanding of the echoing fallout of war that most readers won’t pause to consider such lapses ” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

March 2, 2010: In So Much for That, Lionel Shriver “turns this schematic outline into a visceral and deeply affecting story.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

February 12, 2010: T.C. Boyle’s Wild Child serves up “dashed-off portraits of pathetic weirdos; curiously, some of the most powerful entries in this volume also deal with frustrated, unhappy people, but people depicted with a mixture of sympathy and skepticism, emotional insight and dagger-sharp wit.” Verdict? MIXED (0.5).

February 7, 2010: Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic “is a lumpy, disappointing book.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

February 1, 2010: Of Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, Kakutani writes “there is something suffocating and airless about this entire production.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

January 28, 2010: Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey is “an ingeniously Borgesian novel that’s witty, playful, moving and tirelessly inventive.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

January 26, 2010: Robert Stone’s Fun with Problems is “a grab-bag collection that’s full of Mr. Stone’s liabilities as a writer, with only a glimpse here and there of his strengths.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

January 4, 2010: Anne Tyler’s Noah’s Compass “devolves into a predictable and highly contrived tale of one man’s late midlife crisis.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

December 14, 2009: Norberto Fuentes’s The Autobiography of Fidel Castro is “a fascinating new novel.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

November 29, 2009: The stories contained within Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness “are more nuanced and intriguing than such bald summaries might suggest. And yet the willful melodramatics of these tales make them far cruder than Ms. Munro’s best work.” Verdict? MIXED (0.5).

November 9, 2009: Vladmir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura “will beckon and beguile Nabokov fans” despite being a “fetal rendering of whatever it was that Nabokov held within his imagination.” Verdict? MIXED (0.5).

October 26, 2009: John Irving’s Last Night in Twisted River “evolves into a deeply felt and often moving story,” despite its flaws. Verdict? LIKED IT (but with caution) (1).

October 22, 2009: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes “read like heavy-handed O. Henry-esque exercises; they are psychologically obtuse, clumsily plotted and implausibly contrived.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

October 12, 2009: Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City is a “tedious, overstuffed novel.” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

September 21, 2009: Audrey Niffenegger’s Symmetry is “an entertaining but not terribly resonant ghost story.” Verdict? LIKED IT (but with caution) (1).

September 14, 2009: With The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood “has succeeded in writing a gripping and visceral book that showcases the pure storytelling talents she displayed with such verve in her 2000 novel, The Blind Assassin.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

August 31, 2009: E.L. Doctorow’s Homer & Langley “has no Poe-like moral resonance. It’s simply a depressing tale of two shut-ins who withdrew from life to preside over their own ‘kingdom of rubble.'” Verdict? HATED IT (0).

August 27, 2009: With A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore has “written her most powerful book yet.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

August 3, 2009: Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice “feels more like a Classic Comics version of a Pynchon novel than like the thing itself.” Verdict? MIXED (0.5).

July 16, 2009: Stieg Laarson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire “boasts an intricate, puzzlelike story line that attests to Mr. Larsson’s improved plotting abilities.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

July 2, 2009: Chimamanda Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck is an “affecting collection of stories.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

June 29, 2009: Shahriar Mandanipour’s Censoring an Iranian Love Story “leaves the reader with a harrowing sense of what it is like to live in Tehran under the mullahs’ rule.” Verdict? LIKED IT (1).

Based on our point system, over the course of 27 reviews, Michiko Kakutani has awarded 14 positive points to fiction. And when we do the math, we see that Kakutani enjoys fiction about 51.9% of the time.

Is such a high percentage of negative reviews unreasonable? Judging by the Top Reviewers index on Publishers Marketplace, which has tracked reviewers since October 2002, it would appear so. Kakutani is more negative than what is reasonably expected from a professional critic. And if we rank all professional reviewers in order of negativity, we find only five reviewers who have a negativity percentage over 25%.

Out of 46 reviews, 48% of Edward Champion’s reviews are negative.*
Out of 63 reviews, 44% of Charles Taylor’s reviews are negative.
Out of 29 reviews, 38% of Christopher Kelly’s reviews are negative.
Out of 29 reviews, 38% of Ilan Stavans’s reviews are negative.
Out of 38 reviews, 37% of Mike Fischer’s reviews are negative.
Out of 232 reviews, 32% of Bob Hoover’s reviews are negative.
Out of 27 reviews, 30% of Robert Cremins’s reviews are negative.
Out of 28 reviews, 29% of Louisa Thomas’s reviews are negative.
Out of 31 reviews, 29% of Donna Freydkin’s reviews are negative.
Out of 48 reviews, 29% of Clay Reynolds’s reviews are negative.
Out of 26 reviews, 27% of Francine Prose’s reviews are negative.
Out of 27 reviews, 26% of Lorraine Adams’s reviews are negative.
Out of 45 reviews, 27% of Saul Austerlitz’s reviews are negative.
Out of 63 reviews, 27% of Donna Rifkind’s reviews are negative.
Out of 42 reviews, 26% of Robert Braile’s reviews are negative.
Out of 62 reviews, 26% of Kristin Latina’s reviews are negative.

So that’s sixteen reviewers (out of a total of 361) who are miserable enough to award at least a quarter of the books that they review a negative rating. In other words, a mere 4.4% of reviewers have hated more than 25% of the fiction that they write about.

And if we account solely for Kakutani’s fiction reviews in the past twelve months, Kakutani is more negative than any professional reviewer in the past eight years. Kakutani hates 48.1% of the fiction she reads. She barely edges out this odious Ed Champion fellow, who I will certainly be having a talk with later this afternoon.

Or to frame this revelation another way, in the past twelve months, the only reviewer more obnoxious than Edward Champion is Michiko Kakutani.

And when a reviewer is this negative, one must ask one a vital question. Should she continue to be paid to write reviews?

* — Nobody was more alarmed by this percentage than me. While Michael Cader is permitted his estimate, I should point out that there are numerous positive reviews I’ve written he hasn’t counted.

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12 Comments

  1. Literature is not something to be tracked with binary scoring. Isn’t there room for a more nuanced examination here, rather than applying ones, zeros, or percentages of negativity to all?

  2. I see no problem here; I’m even inclined to see the “hate rates” in the 20s has much worse, for a reader, than one in the 50s. The side effect of giving more negative reviews is that the positive reviews carry more weight.

  3. This is pretty interesting — I’ve long been an anti-fan of Kakutani’s reviews. What I’d like to see though, is some sort of meta-critic type analysis of the same titles. To be fair, I’ve seen a lot of negative reviews of, say, Yann Martel’s new one. So it’d be interesting to see where she lands on a broader spectrum of reviews — how many generally-considered Good Books she hates… and I suppose, of the two books a year she likes, are they So Good That Even She Can’t Hate, or are they flukes that pretty much anyone with sense thinks are garbage…

  4. At least one book she liked I would have given “Mixed.” This reviewer list is useful to me, these reviewers are discriminating. Amazon reader reviewers famously don’t vote or give everything lots of stars.

  5. Kakutani tends to review the “marquee” fiction, in that she reviews books with broad reader interest by big writers. And our big writers have been in a slump lately. She certainly agreed with you on “Beatrice and Virgil” and, some time ago, “The Kindly Ones.” Actually, in The New York Times critic, you should expect more negative reviews, because the newspaper stands by its critics, usually, and the newspaper has a reputation to maintain as THE cultural arbiter (OK, I know this is not 1975, but they still think they are). What’s really interesting is how often she disagrees with The New York Times Book Review, which named “Chronic City” one of the top 10 books of 2009 (and a book I quite enjoyed).

  6. Probably literature needs some kind of Rotten Tomatoes, run by the Six Families and inundated with links to live readings for each city and shit…

  7. I dunno. Based on my own readings, she might be right. There’s no doubt in my mind that most fiction these days is crap. But then, that’s always been true. In some cases at least I agree with her assessments.

  8. This exercise seems like a waste of time – but then one could say that of almost all enterprises online. I’ve always found Kakutani’s reviews of political books to be superior to her fiction reviews so if you’ve apparently got unlimited time on your hands or interns who do, why not track the reviews of her nonfiction books? If you’re going to have as your thesis the reviewer’s alleged “hatred” of fiction, then it would seem the obvious control for this experiment is to compare it to her nonfiction reviews, no? Otherwise, there’s no context.

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