Monday, April 10, 2006

Ben Yagoda on NYT book reviewer Michiko Kakutani

at Slate.


  1. Hm. I think Michiko (why is she Michiko and not Ms. Kakutani? Sort of like Nigella, I suppose) is a good, if not amazing reviewer. It's times like these when I wish I had some sort of "manual for criticism," or at least "things to avoid when you're writing a review," because I feel as though I sort of fell into it and didn't really think out how, exactly, I was going to analyze a book. I did take a class called Cultural Criticism two years ago in the Creative Writing department, but I still feel a little - I don't know, unqualified maybe? - when I do write a review. I think writing a column is easier, which may be why I haven't been reviewing very much this year.

    Also, there seems to be a mistake or some sort of ambiguity in the paragraph that starts "I've read A Long Way Down..." Yagoda says that "The novel is far from 'a rollicking delight.'", referring to "A Long Way Down" - but Michiko, in her view, is reviewing to "High Fidelity." I assume he made a mistake, although he wouldn't be wrong to say that "High Fidelity" is far from a rollicking delight - it's extremely incisive, I think, but not delightful. Much of it is fairly depressing.

    Anyway, he makes some good points overall. And I suppose I should ask - have you got any "grand ideology" when you review?

  2. I thought the "rollicking delight" thing was inadvertent ambiguity/copyediting glitch rather than a misread; I think he's being ironic there, but I agree that it doesn't read quite right.

    A few thoughts on reviewing:

    1. I came to it late. I felt like I had to earn the authority (I feel that this is gendered, I wish I had felt more confident earlier about it) to mark out my opinion, and I still always have an easier time reviewing non-fiction than fiction.

    2. The Joyce Carol Oates quotation a few days ago about avoiding negative reviews spoke to me; though as I said when I was posting on this topic a few weeks ago, I do feel the need sometimes to speak out against a generally lauded book that strikes me as being either aesthetically or ethically dubious.

    3. I feel that the culture of book-reviewing is on the verge of massive change. Traditional books coverage (well, arts coverage more generally) seems to me in many ways less interesting than what you can read on a well-informed blog. I like the personal voice, the opinions, the likely approach of sampling rather than summarizing. I feel that a traditional novel review (some summary, some evaluation, possibly only tiny snippets of quotation) is pretty much useless to me in terms of telling me whether it's a book I want to read. I want to get a sense of a reviewer's tastes and how they relate to mine, then to find reviewers I trust; but in the culture of freelance reviewers/"get a novelist to review thing x" this is harder to do. (Of course you trust a novelist you admire rather than a novelist you don't, but tastes really do differ in this sense, andit's not the same as reading a reviewer whose tastes you've come to understand over the years.)

    4. So I think the reviewer's credo I'm coming to embrace involves quotation rather than summary, it involves more attention to style/sensibility and less to plot, it involves incorporating (where possible) a more essayistic first-person voice. For a start, anyway. But I've still got a lot to learn.