Why Fear Michiko?

Hot on the heels of Michiko slamming Banville into the ground (with an unusual silence from certain quarters), Notes on Non-Camp points to this profile, which claims Michiko to be “the most feared book critic in the world.” More feared than Dale Peck? Or James Wood covering a “hysterical realism” novel? I think the real question here is whether Michiko Kaukutani, who has veered too frequently into distressing fictional affectations of late (is Michiko’s fury the mark of an aspiring novelist?), is a critic worth her salt anymore. Is it really valid criticism for a writer to cling to safe dichotomies (“style over story,” “linguistic pyrotechnics over felt emotion”) while spending most of a review summarizing a book rather than discussing its literary worth? If Michiko found Banville irritating, that’s fine. If she feels that she was alienated from Banville’s story, that’s fine. But it’s simply not enough to offer these sentiments without supportive examples, much less refusing to make an effort to discern the meaning within the text. That’s the least any reviewer can do when approaching a work of art. And given that the New York Times offers a book reviewing clime in which fiction has devolved from an enduring presence to some charming summer-stock production that you attend simply because a relative is in the show, it seems extremely strange to me that Michiko’s generalizations are continually accepted and indeed “feared” by authors and the publishing industry alike.

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    As you can imagine, my mailbox is quite full this morning from people wondering about my reaction to Michiko Kakutani’s takedown of John Banville’s The Sea in today’s New York Times. While I’d like to oblige everyone and do a

  2. Edward or anyone —please tell which was the last book that the NYT apprised you of that you were not already aware of and if there have been any review that encouraged you to pick up a book tht yoiu were not already inclined to?

    For me, there haven’t been any in years.

  3. I’m reading The Sea, and am enjoying it very much, but mainly because I’m in the mood for it. Banville is a writer you get round to when you’re up to it, if you’re ever up to it at all. He’s probably a dying breed as far as writers go.

    There’s been a lot of bitchiness about his book and his winning the Booker. This says, I think, a great deal about people’s formulaic notions of what fiction should be and do these days, and their attitude to book prizes, which are cropping up all over the place now.

    I don’t think I’ve ever read a Kakutani review that justified her reputation. But then, I’m a Canadian in Greece, and have been on-line for only about six years, so maybe her best years were before I caught on. This particular review struck me as pretty lean, and very peevish. No credibility. If a writer doesn’t interest you, or even bores you, then you’re in a tough situation as a reviewer. The most the writer deserves is to be abandoned.

    I once saw an interview with Updike where he said he only reviewed books he had something good to say about, and I’ve always respected that. (I don’t know if he’s stuck to this.) I’ve always felt that criticism should mainly be about elucidating, and not merely about passing judgement.

    Kakutani definitely sounds as if she’s not enjoying her job any more. Orwell wrote that the worst thing about writing reviews was that you had to fake or exaggerate your reactions to books. If you’re not crazy about it, you hire a hit man. If you like it, you piss your pants. No one wants to read a review that says, “Yeah, it was pretty good” or “I guess it was OK, but I wasn’t in the mood for it at the time”.

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