Interesting Slate piece on famous/infamous New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani. Ben Yagoda argues that the problem with Kakutani isn’t that she is too harsh but that she is boring:
[T]he sour-grapes sniping from spurned authors should not obscure the fact that Kakutani is a profoundly uninteresting critic. Her main weakness is her evaluation fixation. This may seem an odd complaintâ€”the job is called critic, after allâ€”but in fact, whether a work is good or bad is just one of the many things to be said about it, and usually far from the most important or compelling. Great critics’ bad calls are retrospectively forgiven or ignored: Pauline Kael is still read with pleasure even though no one still agrees (if anyone ever did) that Last Tango in Paris and Nashville are the cinematic equivalents of “The Rite of Spring” and Anna Karenina. Kakutani doesn’t offer the stylistic flair, the wit, or the insight one gets from Kael and other first-rate critics; for her, the verdict is the only thing. One has the sense of her deciding roughly at Page 2 whether or not a book is worthy; reading the rest of it to gather evidence for her case; spending some quality time with the Thesaurus; and then taking a large blunt hammer and pounding the message home.
What say you? Is Kakutani too harsh or just not interesting? What do you look for in a book critic?
I guess I hope a critic will assign wider context, which is maybe his main job. Certainly there should be a summary of the book fairly given and a fair consideration of the author’s intent. I prefer critical sympathy with the author where it is deserved. And justice where it is called for as well; someone has to police writers. Critics always have.
But how did the author measure against a wider scheme of things, such as other authors and the subject itself? Of course, there is always the reader’s question- should I read the book and why? Finally, I hope the critic, in placing a work in context, will tie the result to a greater thread. There are a lot of big things to talk about; the critic should encourage effort to that end. Life is an expansive subject.