"Is Michiko Kakutani incompetent or just crazy?" Shall we start with that question? Don't blame me. It's what Google autocomplete gave me when I typed "Michiko Kakutani is." I'm just reporting what the Internet says about her!
It seems like a useful way to look at the New York Times book critic in the light of this morning's review of Emily Gould's new novel, Friendship. Or rather, this morning's review of Emily Gould. Before Kakutani gets around to mentioning the book, she offers three paragraphs of negative backstory about its author—up to and including online comments attached to Gould's "very irritating" (in Kakutani's assessment) 2008 New York Times Magazine cover story. Did you know that a commenter back then called her a "trollop"? Now you do.
Quite a literary world, where your angriest critics precede and introduce you, isn't it? In the print edition, Kakutani was so busy sharing years-old third-party invective, she barely managed to fit the title of the novel she was reviewing before the jump. Of course, we must remember that some people have considered Kakutani "the stupidest person in New York City" or "stupid and shallow" or "glaringly missing...humor and wit."
We are all caught up in the battles of yesteryear. Emily Gould's original source of fame or notoriety or publicity was that she wrote for Gawker. She then abruptly quit Gawker and repudiated her work here, in a well-crafted and definitive Gawker post. Some institutional and interpersonal unpleasantness ensued, and then the institutions and persons moved on, separate but still irrevocably linked.
As for me, I like Gould, personally. We have mutual friends, with whom we are much closer than we are with one another. We sometimes go to the same social gatherings and converse there. Once in a while we swap emails.
With that established: Kakutani's review is a particularly nasty bit of assholeism. The novel itself doesn't particularly bother her—"awkward but sharply observed" would be the capsule—but she compulsively looks for ways to swat at the author, even if it means stretching her backhand into the hypothetical:
The novel form (or perhaps the editing process) also accentuates Ms. Gould's strengths as a writer, while playing down the liabilities apparent in her logorrheic blogs.
Yes, perhaps the virtues of Gould's writing aren't really hers, but were added by a third party. Perhaps Kakutani and her own editor were too drunk on Chardonnay at deadline to think about whether such speculation was fair or justified. Perhaps!
Even so, it's not the worst, or most unbecoming, response to Gould's novel. That (so far) has belonged to a literary blogger, who wrote an 11,000-word denunciation of Gould and everything he believed she represented—in unhinged personal and anatomical terms—and then threatened, falsely, to kill himself when people pointed out he was being a misogynist loon. Another day at the office.
When you're a drunk, and have some facility for words, and things aren't going so great for you, you can read something and infer that the writer's situation is better than your own, and it can throw you into a frothing bloody rage. You think, "Why is the world paying attention to this NOBODY?" or "why is this NOBODY making more money than I am?" and "why isn't this NOBODY beset with paralyzing depression and fear like he or she deserves to be instead of me?" and so on, and then because you fancy yourself a critic or a perspicacious observer of the cultural scene, you mold these resentments into a theory that there is something VERY WRONG with the culture and that the person you hate is the one responsible for that thing being very wrong.
Some things are genuinely worth getting angry and being nasty about. But this particular cycle of publicity and outrage and abuse surrounding Gould and her novel seems especially misplaced, if also inevitable. Yes, she has been profiled in Elle, and in the Styles section of the Times. And even as those profiles appeared, it was obvious that there would be a terrible response (though the depths of that terribleness were still a surprise).
It comes down to the fallacy that Kenny was pointing to: this sense that Emily Gould is somehow stealing attention that would better serve someone else. She isn't, and it wouldn't. She has written a novel, and like all the rest of us who have written books, she faces the usual long odds. A profile in Elle is not going make her a best seller. A profile in the Times is not going to make her a best seller either. (Ask Jon-Jon Goulian.)
An author does publicity because an author is expected to do publicity, to get whatever opportunities she or he can. Someone has given you some money—an advance on sales—and this is where you hustle for it, without the luxury of shame or shyness. Ten times out of ten, it is likely to make very little difference.
So there is no need to take (or give) offense, or to throw up flaming barricades to keep Gould from using her name recognition to overtake Janet Evanovich. If the book is lucky enough to find a larger audience, it will almost certainly not be an audience that cares about infighting in literature or on blogs. Among Kakutani's digs at Gould is that the book has "chick-lit architecture"—which means, at bottom, that Michiko Kakutani too feels powerless to do anything about it.
[Image by Jim Cooke]