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The Most Feared Reviewer in English: Michiko Kakutani

The blinkered vision of Times reviewing can be seen in Kakutani. She does not discover new authors or read a foreign language, as far as can be discerned. She does not venture into poetry, and she too reviews more non-fiction than fiction, in part because that reflects publishing trends, but she also says that after 9/11 the nation’s politics demand closer attention.32 Between July 31, 2009 and July 31, 2010, she reviewed sixty-four books (of the 328,000 plus published in the United States). This figure excludes her “best of” lists. Of these sixty-four books, thirty-two were fiction titles and thirty-two were non-fiction—no poetry or drama. Of the fiction, twenty-one novels were by men, eleven by women. Of the non-fiction volumes, twenty-five were by men and seven by women.

Most of the fiction she reviewed was by established authors such as Pynchon, Ishiguro, Atwood, Roth, Irving, etc. Only nine of the authors she reviewed were “foreign” (14%), a category that includes Canadian and British writers such as Atwood, McEwan, and Amis. All of the authors except two were originally published in English. The two translated books were Norberto Fuentes’ The Autobiography of Fidel Castro and Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Only Fuentes’ re-imagination of Castro, which Terry Eagleton had reviewed in the Guardian a week earlier, can be said to introduce a new foreign writer. If we cast a wider net, five years, the case is even worse; Kakutani reviewed only fifteen “non-American books,” a term I’ll explain below. Only four were translations (shown by an *):

Kazuo Ishiguro (Nocturnes), 10/23/2009

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (The Things Around Your Neck), 7/3/2009

John Banville (The Sea), 11/1/2005

Salman Rushdie (The Enchantress of Florence), 9/6/2005

Shahriar Manidanipour (Censoring an Iranian Love Story*), 6/30/2009

Azadeh Moaveni (Honeymoon in Tehran), 4/14/2009

Jonathan Littell (France, Les Bienveillantes*), 2/24/2009

Azar Nafisi (Things I Have Been Silent About), 2/13/2009

Farnaz Fassihi (Waiting for an Ordinary Day), 9/2/2008

Ma Jian (Beijing Coma *), 7/4/2008

Nam Le (The Boat), 5/13/2008

Zadie Smith (editor of The Book of Other People), 1/8/2008 Chang-rae Lee (The Surrendered), 3/9/2010

David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet), 6/28/2010 Stieg Larsen (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest*), 5/20/2010 Martin Amis (The Pregnant Widow), 5/10/2010 Ian McEwan (Solar), 3/30/2010.

That makes a total of four translations reviewed in six years by the leading American book reviewer. But most of these “non-American” writers are well acculturated: Adichie and Nafisi have been in the United States for two decades, supported by universities (Nafisi is a US citizen); Fassihi works for the Wall Street Journal; Moaveri was born in Palo Alto, Lee has been in the United States since age three and Le in Australia since age four. This is not literature in translation—but it is contemporary “World Literature.”

This review reveals three other tendencies. First, Kakutani reviews most often the writers for whom she is the self-appointed conscience, such as Rushdie, Banville, and Amis. Like the Review, she is a confirmer of trends. She did once review emerging women writers, such as Zadie Smith, and there is a group of Middle Eastern writers that have fascinated Kakutani ever since Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Teheran was published. In these preferences

Kakutani actually represents Times reviewing as a whole and reflects the statistics of Greco cited earlier.

Though she reviews less non-fiction than the Book Review generally, she devotes more reviews to books on politics (eleven), current events (thirteen), and biography (four) than to memoir (two) and history (one). She reviewed Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue twice, both times negatively. She reviewed three books by or about Barack Obama, all positively. Second, Kakutani leans heavily toward modernist authors who were classics or became classics in the 1950-1980 period. She is not keen on experimental, post-modern, or alternative fiction. Only nine of the thirty-two novelists she reviewed in 2009-2010 were under age 50. Although she sometimes seems to introduce a new author, she is usually well behind its crest of the wave, confirming the tastes of the dominated fraction.

Third, if there is a translated literature of which Kakutani approves, it is magic realism. She did not review Garcia Marquez until he won the Nobel Prize in 1982, but she used that occasion to weigh in: “At once fantastical and historical, lushly imaginative and politically topical, the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez has met with a variety of critical responses. He has been praised for his inventive use of modernist conceits and his ability to conjure up an entire continent in the imagination; at the same time he has been chided for ideological posturing and for writing short stories that tend to cramp his style and inhibit his formal powers.” Then she compared him to another Nobel Prize winner, Isaac Bashevis Singer, who she thought had gone into decline.33 Garcia Marquez then became a touchstone in her reviews. She invoked him in a review of John Banville, a Booker Prize winner, whom she scolded for favoring “style over story, linguistic pyrotechnics over felt emo- tion.”34 She cites Garcia Marquez’ “hallucinatory imagery,” and famous brand of magical realism in reviews of Naomi Eve (The Family Orchard), Lisa St. Aubin de Teran (The Hacienda), Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things), Christina Garcia (The Aguero Sisters), and Tomas Eloy Martinez (Santa Evita).

Kakutani finds in Garcia Marquez her favorite modernist literary qualities: his “natural storytelling talents [combined] with his highly tuned radar for images that bridge the world of reality and the world of dreams,” as well as his “emotional depth.” For her, Garcia Marquez exists apart from his politics: usually she links him to William Faulkner (his “famous Faulknerian prose,” his “Faulknerian sense of the past,” and his “intimate sense of his characters’ daily lives and a Faulknerian understanding of their place in the world”). When Garcia Marquez won the Nobel Prize, Kakutani opened her article with a nod to Colombian culture, but then quoted Irving Howe’s opinion that “Mr. Garcia Marquez’s greatest weakness is ‘his Latin American rhetoric, but you have to accept it as part of the deal.’ ”35

Kakutani also uses Garcia Marquez to whip American writers. In “Magical Realism from Two Cultures,” she reviewed Garcia Marquez alongside of Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic, calling the latter a “ridiculously cute tale [that] emerges as one of the most egregious examples of American authors’ efforts to co-opt these narrative techniques pioneered by writers abroad.”36 For Kakutani, magical realism is a technique reserved for those in the developing world: “Magical realism developed and flourished in troubled parts of the world (including Eastern Europe, Latin America and parts of the third world), where it has served as a means of describing tumultuous events that exceed the grasp of ordinary naturalistic description.” She writes that “for writers like Mr. Garcia Marquez, Mr. Rushdie, Ben Okri and Andrei Sinyavsky, transactions between the mundane and the extraordinary are not merely a literary technique, but a mirror of an intractable social reality, a reflection of the logic-defying powers of history.” As she explains elsewhere, “magical realism employed by Mr. Garcia Marquez and other Latin American novelists is in part a narrative strategy for grappling with a social reality so hallucinatory, so irrational that it defies ordinary naturalistic description.”37 Her Garcia Marquez is a rigorously apolitical and ahistorical modernist.

Murakami is another favorite. Kakutani reviewed The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and After the Quake. She had doubts about the former, which she tried to fit to her familiar templates: “Like so many of Mr. Murakami’s previous stories, ‘Wind-Up Bird’ is part detective story, part Bildungsroman, part fairy tale, part science-fiction-meets-Lewis Carroll.”38 In the end “Wind-Up Bird has some powerful scenes of antic comedy and some shattering scenes of historical power, but such moments do not add up to a satisfying, fully fashioned novel.” That was a rare lack of applause. After the Quake, she wrote, portrayed “a hallucinatory world where the real and surreal merge and over- lap.”39 While Kakutani links Garcia Marquez’ magic realism superficially to the social realities of Colombia, she never links Murakami to modern Japan or its literary history. Kakutani called David Mitchell’s NumbergDream a “helter- skelter tribute” to Murakami’s work because, just as Norwegian Wood is named after a Beatle’s song, Mitchell’s title was taken from a song by John Lennon. She though both novels had “youthful provincial hero[es] and involved a trip to a sanitarium.”40

The World Literature that Kakutani favors is apolitical, homogenized, and shows its modernist roots—all the qualities that Casanova feared—and quasiAnglophone as well. While she commends works “that attempt to capture the chaos and cacophony of the world through whatever means come to hand,” she thinks the best of these novels are written mostly by British, Irish, and Commonwealth authors. Probably without intending to do so, Kakutani so completely mirrors the interests of big publishers that she recalls Bourdieu’s description of this cultural structure: “hermeneutic narcissism.”41

Kakutani is, furthermore, the old guard. Having aligned the Times reviewing completely with the process and production of the big publishers whose advertisements fill its pages, Tanenhaus and Garner have changed jobs. Now young writers with books coming out, but no particular expertise, review the books of other young writers. The social structure and reciprocity politics of the university writing program have come to the Times Book Review.

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