This is what a good review does: It Diagnoses and Distinguishes the Qualities of a Book.
That is what you will do, as a reader, if you want to develop a larger understanding of books, with more color and nuance in it. There are indeed plenty of other things you can do in a book review, which are also informative or entertaining. But Diagnosing and Distinguishing is a strong foundation to build your review on.
This week we're looking at what Michiko Kakutani gets wrong, and C. S. Lewis got right. This is a short diary, with one strong point to make - which is the best advice I've ever read about how to write a Book Review:
Keep a strict eye on eulogistic & dyslogistic adjectives — They should Diagnose (not merely blame) & Distinguish (not merely praise.) - C. S. Lewis
Slate had an article, seven years ago: Assessing Michiko Kakutani. If you haven't read the New York Times Book Reviews, or any of a thousand blurbs on recent books, Michiko Kakutani is the top NYTimes Book Reviewer and, therefore, has great influence in the business. I've read several reviews she wrote, and found her intelligent but uninspiring. She seems to get the gist of the books she reads, but she never makes me want to dash out and get them too. Perhaps she's more persuasive and precise, when she finds a favorite book that grabs her imagination.
If you've read some of Michiko Kakutani's reviews, please comment below on how they struck you. Remember to Diagnose her strengths, and Distinguish her faults - if you can recall them.
The Slate article seems thoughtful, well-supported and clear. The particular flaw it diagnoses in Kakutani's writing is a very common one. The vast majority of reviews, if you include the brief opinions readers pass on to their friends, merely tell the listener how far up or down our thumbs are - how much we like or dislike the book. You will find many reviews in newspapers, where the reviewer spends a few paragraphs sharing their view of the book. But their opinion turns out to be a skeleton of the plot, and half a dozen different adjectives which boil down to bad, or good, or superb.
Here is the start of Ben Yagoda's critique of Michiko Kakutani:
Michiko Kakutani recently embarked on her 25th year as a New York Times book critic, and it's gotten to the point that when her name is mentioned in print, you can see the smoke rising from the page. The late Susan Sontag complained, "Her criticisms of my books are stupid and shallow and not to the point." Salman Rushdie referred to her as "a weird woman who seems to feel the need to alternately praise and spank." Most notoriously, last year Norman Mailer called Kakutani, who is of Japanese descent, a "one-woman kamikaze" and a "token" minority hire.
Those who rip her are usually authors she has ripped, and their indignation often muddies their logic. Certainly Mailer's insinuations, in addition to being boorish, are unsupportable. It should be clear to anyone who has read Kakutani's reviews that she has an estimable intelligence; she backs this up with what must be many real or virtual all-nighters in which she digests every word ever published by the writer under review. She takes books seriously, a valuable and ever-rarer trait. Furthermore, in my observation, she is more or less right in her judgments most of the time. (I slightly knew Kakutani when we were undergraduates at Yale about 30 years ago but have not spoken to her since.)
But the 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 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. . . . 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.
Yagoda's piece is short, and well worth reading. He shows examples, finds patterns, and ends up revealing the salient lineaments of Kakutani's style, including its strongest and weakest features.
Kakutani has an almost impossible job. She's inundated with books. If a hot author brings out a new tome, NYTimes readers want to know what she thinks of it by yesterday. I think Kakutani is the victim of her own success, and of the pressure. She's found an effective way to power through thousands of pages every month, and glean enough from their surfaces to stick glossy labels on them.
Lord, how I sympathize. I never wanted to be doing this: Writing a diary every week. I want to write a fresh, sharp, deep and poetic diary every week. It ain't easy - and I'm not there yet. In my case, I can hone my methods in many ways, I can try dozens of different approaches to books, I can throw it all at the wall and see what sticks. But the NYTimes is a bit less laissez-faire than R&BLers.
What a wonderful, horrible life Michiko has. She gets to meet all the authors she admires, and feel the electricity at the heart of America's literary world. Before they're even published, she gets free copies of the latest magnificent novels: Margaret Atwood, Roberto Bolaño, Jonathan Franzen, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jhumpa Lahiri, Ian McEwan, Orhan Pamuk, Marilynne Robinson, Zadie Smith. Then she gets one or two days to finish the book.
How can you find all the qualities, in such huge and intricate works, with the clock always ticking over your shoulder? On the other hand, this is where Michiko shows her form. She's a champion marathon runner, never getting distracted or breaking her stride. If she was the kind of woman who yearned to stretch out, to bask in the luxuriance of rich prose, she'd miss all her deadlines. You've got to hand it to her - this is a woman with powerful focus, and a mammoth attention span.
So far, Yagoda has only slammed Kakutani. Here comes the dunk:
As a student at Oxford, the future drama critic Kenneth Tynan got back a paper with this comment: "Keep a strict eye on eulogistic & dyslogistic adjectives—They shd diagnose (not merely blame) & distinguish (not merely praise.)" Tynan's tutor, who happened to be C.S. Lewis, was offering a lesson Kakutani could have benefited from. "Utterly devoid … wonderfully acute observations … debut novel … savvy social and psychological insights … cringe-making … embarrassing new low": Virtually every word or phrase is a cliché, or at best shopworn and lifeless,and evidence of Kakutani's solid tin ear. (She has justly been called out for her near-obsessive use of "lugubrious" and "limn," words that probably have never been said aloud in the history of English.) That's what can happen to a writer when she merely praises and merely blames. Kakutani appears incapable of engaging with language, either playfully or seriously, which puts her at a painful disadvantage when she is supposed to be evaluating writers who can and do. Here, she tries to energize the prose with lapel-grabbing intensifiers like utterly and wonderfully and superfluous adjectives like savvy and embarrassing, but they just make her look like she's protesting too much. (Another Lewis quote with relevance to Kakutani: "If we are not careful criticism may become a mere excuse for taking revenge on books whose smell we dislike by erecting our temperamental antipathies into pseudo-moral judgments.")I expect Kakutani's primary reaction is to the smell of a book: Combining her emotional reaction to the first few pages, with her prejudicial instincts towards the author, before she even opened the book. Many readers judge books like this, semi-unconsciously. But Kakutani has devoured libraries of well-written novels, so she surely gets past her primary reaction frequently. Books will surprise her, and prove far better or far worse than they smelt. She does have sharp critical faculties. But she rarely has time to stretch her antennae and measure the book twice, and she seldom stretches her own eloquence to paint a vivid and precise painting of all the qualities in the book.
Now that you've read your vegetables, and gotten your edification, here is some entertaining dessert for you, my sweet and patient reader. I have another short piece, ripe to bursting with all the flavors, humor and personal voice we couldn't find in Kakutani's work. It's a delicious, affectionate skewering:
What started as a basically innocent college prank has gotten seriously out of hand, and, at the urging of the small group of people who know the truth, I have decided to come forward and admit it.Go read the whole thing. It'll take you five minutes and, after a long hard week, you deserve a little fun.
Many people will have a hard time accepting the idea that a basically undistinguished middle-aged white man living in Hartford, Connecticut, is actually the brilliant, acerbic, reclusive, rarely photographed lynx-like New York Times book critic and Pulitzer winner.
But I am. . . .
When you write a book review, be sure to put as much flavor into it as you can fit. If you're asking yourself "Do I really need that adjective? I never use it, ever", then it's probably just the word your review needs, to show the exact hue of the writing, and your experience of it.
Here's someone who always looks for the very quiddity of the book, for what sets it apart from other books, its unique flavor: R&BLers own Limelite. The last book diary she wrote, R&BLers: Galloping Through the Reading Year 2013, contains eleven paragraphs on eleven books. It includes gems like:
TransAtlantic by Colum McCannThis is what a good review does: It captures the flavor of the plot, the characters, and especially the writing. It lets us taste what the fuss is about.
McCann’s prose style is lyric, poetic, and hypnotic echoing the movement of the sea, seducing us into hearing buried, seemingly disparate stories unfold and reveal themselves in an epic novel about risk, perseverance, human understanding, and reverence for language.
Benediction by Kent Haruf
Haruf’s prose is spare and lean, much like the environment of Holt; it is direct and without embellishment, much like the people of Holt; and it is also respectful and objective, which lends the text the dignity that suffuses the book.
The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig
All the characters are drawn with the sure but minimalist hand of Japanese watercolor, so alive and individual that you can hear their voices echo in your head as if from another room. This small, simple, and evocative novel reminds us of the wonder of childhood, and more the value of a free public education. Doig is the master of warmth and the word artist of Montana’s landscapes and pioneers.
We can just take it as a given that I'm the best book reviewer in R&BLers. All the voices in my head agree on that.
Who else have you read, here at Daily Kos or out in the wide world, who can perfectly freeze-dry a book into their review of it, capturing the essential flavors of a novel in several paragraphs or pages of prose? Please link to a diary or webpage of that reviewer's work, if you can find it.