So, surprise of surprises, this week's Time Out has a fairly interesting feature in which New York's professional critics are judged by a panel of experts. There aren't many shocks (The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones and Alex Ross are great music critics, Frank Bruni is inferior to his $25-and-Under colleague Peter Meehan, something about dance, etc.) but the gloves really come off when Times book critic Michiko Kakutani gets reviewed.
"Reactionary, mean-spirited. Has a permanent grudge against experiment, playfulness, subversion, perversity and complexity. Her reviews are predictable, dull, ugly, conservative, mocking and trite."Well, it's not an uncommon opinion. And she can be a little mean-spirited at times.
Take, for example, her review of Jonathan Franzen's recent memoir, The Discomfort Zone:
Just why anyone would be interested in pages and pages about this unhappy relationship or the self-important and self-promoting contents of Mr. Franzen's mind remains something of a mystery. In fact, by the end of this solipsistic book, the reader has begun to feel every bit as suffocated and claustrophobic as Mr. Franzen and his estranged wife apparently did in their doomed marriage.Wow, way harsh, right? It's almost as mean as her 2002 review of Rick Moody's The Black Veil :
Mr. Moody offers not-very-interesting parallels between his life and his little-known first novel; a disembodied tirade about ''brutality, bloodthirstiness, and murder'' in American history (from the massacre of Indians to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki); and ham-handed efforts to draw parallels between Handkerchief Moody and contemporary figures like William S. Burroughs (who shot and killed his wife while playing a game of William Tell) and the high school killers Kip Kinkel, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. All of which suggests not only that ''The Black Veil'' was written in fits and starts, as the author admits, but also that halfway through, Mr. Moody abandoned the effort to transform self-indulgent fragments into something that might properly be called a book. This volume should have been titled: ''Digressions Masquerading as a Memoir.''You'd certainly consider remarks like this "reactionary" and "mean-spirited," particularly if you're Moody or Franzen, both of whom served on the panel that rendered judgment. So which one said it? Or was it someone else altogether? (It's a distinct possibility, because nowhere in that assessment is the pronoun "I" used.)
Related (and image via): Assessing Michiko Kakutani [Slate]