Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, August 15, 2008

Why We Respect Michiko Kakutani

Michiko Kakutani. If you've written a book, especially if you're a firsttime author, chances are you fear her. If you don't know who Michiko Kakutani is, she's the lead fiction book reviewer fo the "New York Times," and has been for quite a few years now. Her opinions are greatly respected, with the possible exception of those whose writing she doesn't like, and over the years, she's gained the power to make or break a writer's career.

As a serious reader and a serious "still learning" writer of literary fiction, I both admire and respect Michiko Kakutani. Too many reviewers, and this includes not only professional reviewers, but amateur reviewers who want to increase their "page rank," etc., pander to publishers by giving a book praise it doesn't deserve.

Sure, everyone's entitled to his or her own opinion, and we all have different ideas on what makes a book good. Up to a point, all writing is subjective, but only up to a point. Good, clear, emotionally involving writing does carry objective rules, and they're rules every writer needs to master before he or she goes about breaking them for the sake of "art."

I used to be a far more trusting, and naive, reader than I am today. If a professional reviewer said a book was "mesmerizing," "hypnotic," and "haunting," and assured me I'd never be able to forget it, I believed him or her. I'd run out and immediately buy the book, and more often than not, I'd be terribly disappointed.

I like and respect Michiko Kakutani for having the courage to tell us a book is bad, or at least less than extraordinary, when it is. But no, I'm not a sheep, I don't always agree with even her. She praised Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth, and though I found much to admire in that book, I also found much that was less than stellar, especially from a Pulitzer Prize winning author. For example, Lahiri consistently uses "one another" rather than "each other" when she's speaking of only two persons. My eight-year-old niece knows better than that, and that's just the beginning of the plethora of grammar mistakes I found in this volume of short stories. And Lahiri's writing, though elegant and understated, is also flat and abstract.

Still, even though Michiko Kakutani and I disagree about certain books, I respect her courage and the fact that she is her own person. Very few novels can legitimately be called "a masterpiece." Even fewer are as close to perfect as possible. I hope more and more reviewers, both professional and amateur, will follow her lead and start giving readers a more honest and balanced assessment of books under their review, an assessment designed to help the reader in choosing whether or not to read the book, rather than one that tries to promote the book itself, no matter what its merits.

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