Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Critiquing the critic

Okay, since I’ve already written far more about reviewing than should be legally permitted, I'll shut up for a bit and just link to another piece. Here’s something by Ben Yagoda about Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times books critic. (Link via Nilanjana)

One of the things I like about Yagoda’s piece (and here we go again) is what he says about the "evaluation fixation":
This may seem an odd complaint — the job is called critic, after all — 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.
There are also some interesting views here on the whole subjectivity/objectivity thingieness, in the context of Kakutani’s refusal to use the dreaded “I” word.
One of her favorite gimmicks for ducking subjectivity is to invoke the supposed reactions of "the reader" to a book. This is a rather underhanded device ….and a perfect emblem of the way Kakutani muffles her own voice by hiding behind a mask.
I find it quite surprising when reviewers are chastised for employing the first person in their work (it happens more often than you’d think). It almost seems necessary to pretend that the review is not one person’s “subjective opinion” (sorry Chandrahas, couldn’t resist – I’ve become attached to the phrase!) but a universal truth.

Anyway, read the full piece.

[Guilty admission: I have used the word “lugubrious” in speech. More than once. And will definitely continue to do so, if only to annoy people. Also "lachrymose".]


  1. Allow me to admit that I've always been a fan of your pieces 'on reviewing' and I think I enjoy these pithy pieces (laced with caustic wit) as much as, if not more, than the reviews itself. Not sure how you'll take it but I mean it as a compliment. Maybe because I am quite an ignoranti when it comes to lit-ing. And I've not read/seen half the books/movies you review, so my comments usually will be on ps:es, NBs and other chintukli-bintukli sidies rather than the subject itself.
    [btw, also guilty of using "atrabilious"
    But pls continue, it's all good edumacation :p]

  2. First time on your blog and liking it very much. "god's l'il reviewers" was some good writing, i shd say!!

  3. Checked out the link on Kakutani. The thing is, Yagoda's writing is quite mixedup too, from where I'm sitting. He seems to be constantly saying, "No, no, let's not actually trash the lady -- but she's pretty pathetic, you know!"

  4. What's wrong with 'lachrymose'? I particularly like 'lugubrious'. you get a picture right away of a beagle or of Walter Matthau in 'Hopscotch'.


  5. I like 'lachrymose.' It sounds good too. If you've heard any of Mozart's masses, you'll have heard the sweet sounding 'lacrimosa' a lot.

  6. Yagoda is right, but he's a rather colorless blighter himself. I agree with him, therefore he is condemned.

    It is an American tendency, to want criticism to be part confessional. The quotes in the story were enjoyable and revealing. Sontag, precise and humorless as usual. Rushdie, interested as much in charming the reader as in being scathing. Mailer, compulsively offensive.