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Michiko Kakutani accepts a buyout from the Times

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Truly, we shall not see her like again:

 

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Lead critics are going out of style across the paper; there are now “co-chief critics” in art, theater, and film, and after Kakutani’s departure, no book critic will have the right of first refusal. (Dwight Garner will review on Tuesdays, when the biggest books are published, followed by more recent arrival Jennifer Senior and new third critic Parul Sehgal.) Critics now meet with editors to brainstorm new elements and submit their pitches to the will of the collective. It’s a sea change for the daily, where critics had barely interacted with either editors or each other, and where, per two sources, Kakutani had sometimes been allowed to choose her editors and even copy editors. “For a very long time, Michi got her way,” says someone close to the situation, “until very recently people started pushing back in a big way, and I think that was part of her leaving.” She could be a diva, says this source, “but in a way I f----------- admire it. The world would be a sorrier place without divas.”

 

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Kakutani v Sontag

After Kakutani panned Susan Sontag’s book Regarding the Pain of Others, the late Susan Sontag was less than pleased. “Her criticisms of my books are stupid and shallow and not to the point,” she told the Independent. “It was a dumb, bad review as opposed to a smart, bad review. I expected better of her.” As for the review in question, Kakutani called the book, an extended essay in which Sontag probes war different 20th century visual representations of war, “ambivalent”, adding, “Is it really a revelation that a picture can sometimes be worth a thousand words?”

 

 

The first article also mentioned that Kakutani was uncomfortable with some of the additional web-based demands now being made on the Times' critics; she does not care for public speaking and was not at ease with stuff like the chatty "25 Best Books/Movies/Whatever" discussions the paper is now asking its writers to do together.

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I'm not too sad about this. I found it difficult to read Michiko Kakutani's book reviews. As Ben Yagoda at Slate points out, they were either thumbs up or thumbs down reviews, nothing in between. And not as thumbs-down-pleasurable to read as someone like Pauline Kael. And never insightful in the put down.

 

You would follow her thought and wait for the finishing touch, but it was always two sizes two small or would end on a cliche. Compare her reference to the overused "baggy monsters" of Henry James to Dwight Garner's where the book he's reading is "a large lumbering novel ... that strives for a bit of what Henry James called 'the big Balzac authority.'" You learn something new with Garner while Kakutani would always reach for the stock phrase.

 

The worst for me was her "paint by numbers" condemnation. Who knew anyway what meant?  A form of beginner's painting popular in the 50's long gone. Andy Warhol did a parody of it in 1962.  I googled 10 or so instances. Here are three:

 

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The playful surrealism and improvisatory sleight of hand that welded the mundane together with the mythic in those books has given way, in these pages, to a paint-by-numbers mixture of the banal and the bizarre.

 

Ms. Atwood's vaunted storytelling skills, so nimbly on display in her 2000 novel ''The Blind Assassin,'' have pulled a disappearing act in these pages; in their place are paint- by-numbers plot points and lots of stage-managed scenes.

 

Ms. Homes has a huge sinkhole open up in his yard: a paint-by-numbers metaphor for the collapsing mess that is his life.

 

What's much sadder though is the greatly diminished New York Times Book Review. They used to publish substantial reviews of important novels – international as well as just domestic – and reviews of books of history and philosophy and ideas. And dance. By people who had read more than one book by the author or on the subject. No more. 

 

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2006/04/michiko_kakutani.html

Edited by Quiggin

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True, but we're lucky it's even there. It's the last stand-alone book review in any paper in the country.

 

I can see why the refusal to get personal would annoy a writer for Slate  – on the Internet pretty much everything is personal.

 

She wasn’t the liveliest stylist, but she could be interesting to read. I'm not sure this is really about her particular merits or demerits, however. Plainly the idea is to dilute the power of the individual critic and the critics generally. I suppose you could argue that it's not great for one critic to have that much clout, and she'd been around a long time, but at least people knew who she was and knew who she was for her writing.

 

Of course, this might not be happening if the critics weren't already losing power because of the lack of clicks........

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You're right about the significance of the buy out. She was a consistent voice. And she wasn't afraid to pan a book by a writer from an important publisher. My gripe I guess is that book reviewing is no longer the great art it was, wide ranging and full of interesting insights. 

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