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The Kakutani Two-Step

By posted at 5:39 am on October 15, 2009 26

A while back, we diagnosed David Brooks‘ Bobo Shuffle; now it’s time to call The New York Times’ most pugnacious and prolific book reviewer on her patented move: The Kakutani Two-Step. It works roughly like this: belittle a novelist’s finest work to date – preferably by tossing around unsupported adjectives…say, “arbitrary,” “flimsy,” and “unfinished.” Then, five or six years later, when the novelist in question brings forth his next book, or the one after that, complain loudly about how lame it is compared to his previous masterwork, which, it is to be inferred, you adored. (Bonus points if you actually now call the previous book a “masterwork.” Double bonus points if you also work in the word “limn.”)

coverThe Kakutani Two-Step depends on readers having short memories (or perhaps sagely avoiding Kakutani’s “Books of the Times” columns altogether) and so not noticing the cognitive dissonance. Only fans of the writers she caricatures (and, one imagines, the writers themselves) are likely to detect the sinister signature of the KTS. The latest victim is Jonathan Lethem, whose new Chronic City Kakutani calls “tedious [and] overstuffed”…and that’s just the first sentence of the review! “This fictional Manhattan,” she continues,

has none of the energy or keenly observed grittiness of the real-life Brooklyn that Mr. Lethem captured with such verve in his 2003 novel, The Fortress of Solitude.

coverBut wait, wasn’t that “dazzling” novel “fundamentally flawed,” with

a series of unconvincing and weirdly forced passages that break the spell that Mr. Lethem has so assiduously created?

Not to mention a “contrived” and “melodramatic” ending?” And “many defects” in between? According to Kakutani, circa 2003, it was. Your takeaway from the Fortress of Solitude review: flawed, uneven, defective. Your takeaway from the Chronic City review: Michiko misses the “vividly . . . movingly” dazzling Fortress of Solitude.

To be sure, it’s possible to square the two Lethem reviews, if you’re enough of a Kakutani exegete to infer that her kneejerk distaste, in each case, is for Lethem’s forays into genre-bending. But all the casual reader will notice is the invidious comparison between the two books, the sudden vanishing of any her earlier reservations, like a magician’s cloth being whisked away to reveal a tiny, perfect turd.

I’m too tired right now to track down other instances of the KTS, but you don’t have to look hard to find them; you might start by Googling David Foster Wallace (and if you think of more, why not leave them in the comment thread?) To be sure, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. It may also be true that Michiko’s judgment works on the time-release principle of certain antacids…that hindsight makes the heart grow fonder. But, even in these lean days for newspapers, the Times presumably employs fact-checkers who could easily catch La Kakutani’s self-misrepresentation. One thing is clear: she can’t be bothered to check herself.





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26 Responses to “The Kakutani Two-Step”

  1. infinite detox
    at 8:56 am on October 15, 2009

    I’m glad you wrote this — I’ve often had the sneaking suspicion that stuff like this was happening in reviews but I’ve never been able to dig up a specific instance of it. I don’t think it’s limited to Kakutani, though — I can’t count how many movie reviews I’ve read where the reviewer’s like “Saw 16 lacks the taut vitality and intellectual intensity that propelled Saw 13 beyond the limitations of the genre.” And I’m like “Oh really, David Denby? I had no idea you were a Saw aficionado.” Or A.O. Scott, or whoever. I think a lot of your household-name critics are guilty of this.

  2. Peter
    at 8:57 am on October 15, 2009

    When James Frey’s novel came out the NYT wrote a GLOWING review, two weeks or so later, in the book review, after every other major publication declared that the book was crap the NYT ran ANOTHER REVIEW this time damning the book. Different reviewers though.

  3. P.T. Smith
    at 10:50 am on October 15, 2009

    Yeahh…his is far from a Kakutani created move. As infinite detox noted, it’s an absurdly prevalent move in film reviews. I first noticed it with Fight Club, which was absolutly bashed when it came out, then it became popular, then Panic Room came out and just about every reviewer claimed to have loved Fight Club while they wrote about hating Panic Room.

    It is really painfully tiring.

  4. David
    at 11:04 am on October 15, 2009

    I agree that reviewers do this, but don’t see it in this particular case. Here’s a line from Kakutani’s 2003 review of “Fortress of Solitude”:

    “There is a stereoscopic vision to the author’s portrait of Dylan’s Brooklyn: Mr. Lethem captures with perfect pitch the grunginess and fear of the boy’s life, the undertow of anxiety that constantly tugs at him; but he also captures the adrenaline rush of the city, its tumult of change and changing expectations, as gangs and gentrification vie for ascendancy on Dean Street, and hip-hop, cocaine and punk music begin to permeate teenagers’ lives.”

    Doesn’t that square pretty much perfectly with “the energy” and “keenly observed grittiness of the real-life Brooklyn that Mr. Lethem captured with such verve in his 2003 novel, The Fortress of Solitude”? And that line is hardly the only praise she has for Lethem’s earlier book. She says it’s flawed yes, but the review is far from a pan.

    In his very critical LRB review of Zadie Smith’s second novel, James Wood compares the book unfavorably with Smith’s debut, “White Teeth,” in which Smith’s occasionally too-antic comic flourishes, according to Wood c. 2002, “seemed mere hysterical wisps alongside the sunny central story, masterfully controlled, of the delightful Jones and Iqbal families.” That line jumped out at me when I read it recently, since I remember Wood’s review of “White Teeth” in The New Republic, in which he coined the term “hysterical realism.” But I wouldn’t be surprised if, going back to that earlier essay, I found praise for Smith’s control and “sunny central story.”

  5. Tom B.
    at 12:05 pm on October 15, 2009

    I think “genre bending” is indeed at the root of MK’s disapproval of this particular book, which is much more like his early SF-ish novels, such as Amnesia Moon and As She Climbed Across the Table, but w/ more humor.

    Peter — did one of the Frey reviews appear in the daily and the other in the Sunday paper? The Sunday book review is considered a different publication. It’s not unusual to see reviewers in the daily and in the Sunday paper give different verdicts on a book.

    I’ve been a subscriber to Entertainment Weekly for a few years, and the Two-Step is a favorite move of theirs. They’ll give a movie/book/CD, etc. a poor review, then when that movie/book/CD, etc., is popular, later coverage makes it appear EW loved it all along. After all, audience taste (what they’re willing to shell out money for) is what’s important.

  6. Dave
    at 12:44 pm on October 15, 2009

    There’s an important word missing from the Emerson quote: foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. Whereas consistency is just, um, consistent.

  7. Garth Risk Hallberg
    at 1:31 pm on October 15, 2009

    Dave: You’re absolutely right, and I’ve taken the liberty of correcting myself: to cling to the mistake would be, I think, an example of foolish consistency. Also: I see I used this same turn of phrase in the David Brooks piece. But Emerson’s is one aphorism I find to be true, as well as beautifully put.

    David: I think this is a fair reading, and it shows you’re reading Kaku carefully. My problem – and, despite the fact that I had a lot of fun going after her, I was trying to point this out – is that the overall impression the less careful reader gets from the first step of the Kaku shuffle is different from the overall impression she wants you to have of that step at a five or six year remove. I think, for example, that the impression such a reader might get from her review of Chronic City is that she wrote a near-rave for Fortress, when in fact, in 2003, she was very much of two minds.

    One of Kakutani’s favorite moves is to put her most damning charges in the lede and then to repeat them in the conclusion, while appearing more sympathetic in the middle of the review. Thus, her critiques of Fortress of Solitude in the original review – “fundamentally flawed” and “many defects” – stand out and distinctly temper her enthusiasm. By 2009, it’s pretty much all enthusiasm for “Fortress,” serving the point that “unfortunately,” Chronic City is no Fortress.

    If you know, or remember, that she’s had significant and consistent reservations about Lethem in the past, the comparison becomes less damning, and you might read the review differently. But she’s pretty much entirely elided them; only traces remain for careful readers like yourself to pick up.

    Again, I think this is a pattern. For example, though she has some very kind things to say about Infinite Jest, they don’t quite square with her proclaimed passion for “the best of Wallace’s earlier fiction” in her later reviews. But I don’t want to overstate the case, and suggest that she’s lying; rather, it’s a question of misrepresenting her original emphasis and tone, the better to highlight her attacks. Perhaps it would be productive to gather some more examples, which I’m hoping someone in this comment-thread will help me to do.

  8. David
    at 2:27 pm on October 15, 2009

    That’s a fair take, Garth. She could easily have lengthened that sentence slightly, so that it referred to the “the real-life Brooklyn that Mr. Lethem captured with such verve in his 2003 novel, the flawed but compelling The Fortress of Solitude,” or something along those lines. Or she could have mentioned her criticisms of the book in the review’s short paragraph of praise for The Fortress of Solitude. That she did not do so supports your argument that she is somewhat misrepresenting her (original? still current?) feelings for the earlier book.

  9. wyatt
    at 3:27 pm on October 15, 2009

    I think David has a strong point.

    Kakutani praised Lethem’s portrayal of Brooklyn in her initial review and repeated that very specific praise in the Chronic City review. She would be remiss for not mentioning that, as it was clearly the best thing that Fortress of Solitude had to offer and something that Chronic City wasn’t able to replicate.

    To specifically praise a successful moment in a writer’s oeuvre (even if it comes from an otherwise unsuccessful novel) in an effort to call attention to what isn’t working in his latest novel is, well, it’s being a well-informed critic.

  10. Bookswap This Saturday (And Other News)
    at 3:27 pm on October 15, 2009

    […] part because of the scathing review Michiko Kakutani gave the book in the New York Times.  But as Garth Risk Halberg points out, that review might be a touch disingenuous to begin with.  So there’s that.  I […]

  11. Garth Risk Hallberg
    at 4:01 pm on October 15, 2009

    Wyatt: I agreed with David, but think you’re pushing his point to far, and leaving something out in the process. Being a well-informed critic (I’m arguing) also entails being well-informed about what you’ve written in the past. Witness Wood’s acknowledgement of what he’s charged are the failures of White Teeth – “hysterical wisps” – even as he uses its successes to explain why The Autograph Man doesn’t work for him. Wood is being not only well-informed, but honest.

    I think it’s great that Kakutani calls attention to a successful moment in this writer’s oeuvre – I’m not arguing that that move is invalid. In fact, it’s to be hoped for. But she owes it to her readers to point out that she saw this successful moment in what she judged a half-successful (or, to be fair to her, two-thirds successful) book: that, if Lethem had written a book more like Fortress of Solitude, she would have had plenty of complaints, too. And in fact, probably would have written a deeply hedged lede and surrounded a mostly positive conclusion with lots of rhetorical outs.

    That’s simply not the impression with which one walks away from the current review.

    She could have easily made the well-informed maneuver you’re praising in the more honest way I’m wishing for: connecting what she sees as the worst tendencies in Chronic City with what she saw as the worst tendencies in Fortress of Solitude, while lamenting the absence of the latter’s many (according to her) redeeming qualities. Instead – and this is per usual with Kakutani – she essentially revises her opinion of the old work to make herself appear more conspicuously fair-minded than she actually is.

    Thus we see that the problem is – as it so often is for critics, who must not only judge but persuade – not one of logos but one of ethos. She’s got her facts about the books down, but keeps shifting her presentation of herself as their reader. And, as I’m sure Michiko’s only too well aware, the Times doesn’t issue corrections for questions of ethos. Which isn’t to say they shouldn’t.

    Underneath it all, she’s not, Wyatt, a critic, but a reviewer, and I think you give her too much credit.

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  13. Will
    at 8:30 pm on October 15, 2009

    Thank you. I thought I was the only one who agreed with Norman Mailer, “[she] bring(s) out your review two weeks in advance of publication. She trashes it just to hurt sales and embarrass the author.” And, to top this all, perhaps the most embarassing thing of all, is Kakutani must not realize how often Lethem appears right alongside her in reviewing for the NYT’s BR; often topping her.

  14. John Hilgart
    at 10:12 pm on October 15, 2009

    This is how Kakutani was blurbed on http://www.facebook.com/JonathanLethem

    “In one of the many… gigantic computer simulations… that we’re probably already living in… Mr. Lethem… recognizable in outline… garnished with odd details… represents a curious… three-legged pit bull… stuck in outer space… terribly concerned about… a mechanical contraption that’s part of a government plot.”

  15. Daryl Boston
    at 10:20 pm on October 15, 2009

    This review of a review could be an LSAT question.

    Which of the following best expresses the flaw in Garth’s reasoning?

    a) Michiko Kakutani is a well-respected critic

    b) he ignores the fact that a reviewer can mix in praise with even the most pointed criticism. In fact, he ignores that a good reviewer will always do this, especially when a book actually is fantastic and fantastically flawed.

    c) there has been enough time between the release of the book in question and the present to account for a change in position.

    d) in some circles, it is cool to bash Michiko Kakutani

    e) he only comes up with one example and asks the reader to “google” the rest of the evidence for themselves because he, the critic of the critic, is “too tired.”

    A tough question for sure. Choice E is fundamentally correct, but is it the “best” answer? Perhaps its why the reader should be most annoyed with Garth, especially when his list of offended authors seems so…predictable. We’ll keep that one for now.

    Choice D is the reason for his argument, not why it’s flawed. Eliminate it.

    Choice C is also tempting, but although it could account for the logic, it’s not the best answer.

    Choice B is the correct answer. Garth’s review seems to think book reviewing is akin to the process of “liking” a facebook status update. It’s either thumbs up or forever hold your peace. A book, then, cannot be “filled with verve” (I think this was the phrase. I’m too tired to go back and check it) and flawed at the same time. This, according to Garth, in logic reminiscent of some conservative politicians we all know, constitutes a “two-step,” or a “flip-flop.”

    Choice A is also the impetus for Garth’s review, but not a reason why his reasoning is flawed. After all, much like a book can both be promising and filled with beautiful, thrilling prose, it can also be almost unreadable at times and include a bizarre college section which seems almost like a MFA workshop stapled into the middle of the book, a book blogger can both go after a reviewer because “it’s fun” AND be horribly screwed up in his argumentation.

    Wow. That was the first time I’ve ever “flamed” somebody in the comment section of a blog. Actually, other than fantasy baseball sites, it’s the first time I’ve ever left a comment!

    You’re right, bashing critics, even critics of critics, is kind of fun.

  16. P.T. Smith
    at 8:15 am on October 16, 2009

    Daryl, Have you read the comments and Garth’s further thoughts there? Because he’s already responded to your criticism. The presentation of the review by Kakutani is dishonest. It is not that there is a problem with mixing praise and criticism, it is the impression that is given to the reader.

    If she were honest about her past reviews of Lethem’s (or any author) work, then a reader who is a Lethem fan (or any reader, unless they also already dislike Lethem) would place less stock in her negative review of his latest. If she covers that dislike of Lethem up, then goes onto hate on his latest, a reader then gets the impression that this dislike is new, based in the book and not in the author, and is less likely to have any interest.

  17. Daryl Boston
    at 12:13 pm on October 16, 2009

    P.T.,

    Garth’s article excerpts words and phrases from two separate Kakutani reviews and places them side by side under the premise that the conflict between the decontextualized words will prove his point about “cognitive dissonance” and “dishonesty.”

    The problem is that there actually isn’t anything inconsistent about the words presented. As I wrote above, it isn’t “dishonest” to say that the author of a flawed novel can still capture the “keenly observed grittiness” of his Brooklyn childhood. If, years later, she comments on the Manhattan setting of his new novel and says that it misses the energy of the past, flawed novel, that doesn’t mean she’s deliberately misleading the reader to somehow nefariously tank his sales. It means she appreciated that particular aspect of the first book and thinks the second book is lacking in it. If a “fact checker” presumably were to accost Ms. Kakutani on this inconsistency, what would the conversation even sound like?

    Given that this is the only example he bothers to provide, asking the reader to infer some trumped up, ridiculous claim about “honesty” seems lazy, at best, and, perhaps, slightly dishonest.

    How is this not ridiculously obvious? Read the article again, please.

    Also, if you’re going to say something like “genre-bending” is at the heart of the negative review, please deliver some evidence. Otherwise, you sound like the bad writer in workshop, who, tiring of the negative feedback, decides to go “weird.” When what he produces is still bad writing, he blames the group’s inability to appreciate the innovations he has produced. If he bothered to read the comments before skulking off, he would understand that every single negative comment was about the writing itself and not the concept behind the work.

    Or, perhaps, more accurately, you sound like a writer defending a hurt friend. I only thank God that Garth didn’t write 10,000 words and start a literary magazine along the way.

    I’ll end with this. Two excerpted sentences from the same paragraph of Garth’s review of a review.

    “I’m too tired right now to track down other instances of the KTS.”

    “But, even in these lean days for newspapers, the Times presumably employs fact-checkers who could easily catch La Kakutani’s self-misrepresentation. One thing is clear: she can’t be bothered to check herself.”

    Cognitive dissonance!

  18. P.T. Smith
    at 12:54 pm on October 16, 2009

    Daryl,

    You can use accurate facts and still give a dishonest impression. In her review of Chronic City, Kakutani only says good things, only positive things about “Fortress,” giving the impression that she loved it, that she had nothing negative to say about it. This is dishonest. If a reviewer gives the impression that she only loved a previous work, then hates the newest work, the impact of the negative review is much greater than if the reviewer gives the honest impression that she thought the previous work was flawed, but decent, and she hates the newest.

    And don’t be petty and condescending with that weak toss of “read the article again, please.” I know how to read, just because we are having different responses and opinions doesn’t mean that you have magically read the article better than I have.

    As for your final point, I don’t really see the argument there, unless you also are being dishonest. You want the use of fact-checking to be different than what it is in the context. For Garth to be reading back through years of Kakutani review he would be fact-checking her in support of his argument. He would not be fact-checking his own self. If Kakutani were to remember her opinion, or be honest about it, or to look back at a review she worte, she would be fact-checking her own self, as Garth calls her to.

  19. Daryl Boston
    at 2:11 pm on October 16, 2009

    My final point was to illustrate how one can excerpt two unrelated points, connect them superficially and draw a larger conclusion about honesty or cognitive dissonance. Of course they’re unrelated. If you draw the line between the two sentences, you feel the same empty lack I felt while reading this article.

    Perhaps I should’ve been a bit more clear there, as sarcasm, even when accompanied by exclamation points, doesn’t really transfer.

    As for this greater mutated argument regarding honesty and consistency over a six year period, I would argue that it’s an impossible burden to expect out of a book reviewer, not because it requires too much work, but because it changes the task from a current take on a book into a self-bound defense of one’s past impressions and tastes. You both seem to be responding, at least in part, to Kakutani’s cult of personality– do you really want it bolstered by requiring her to talk more about herself? Can you imagine what a book review would read like if it was forced to qualify every judgment with the heavy coat of everything that was ever said in the past?

    I also don’t understand exactly the space where you place a book review. Is it a historical document? Is it a legal review? Should it be held to the same standards as financial data? You’re talking about a woman who wrote a review of a book in the voice of Holden Caulfield. Why wouldn’t you simply look at a book review as a literary work in itself, freed from the ? Do you really want the Times Book Review to read like the Harvard Law Review? And what really is at stake? Jon Lethem’s precious book sales?

    I’m reminded of the outcry following Dale Peck’s hatchet jobs. This is more of the same plaintive whining poorly hidden behind a wall of silly language, loftier whining and clever phrasing.

    Anyway, it’s irrelevant. I was merely trying to point out the amusingly confused and disastrous logic in Garth’s review of a review. (hence the LSAT format) It read like something straight out of Melville, all the way down to how quickly he substituted “I’m too tired,” for anything resembling a coherent supporting argument.

    Look, I can’t stand Michiko Kakutani either. What I hate more is when somebody allies themselves with “new media,” complains about the techniques of “old media,” but takes advantage of “new media’s” lax standards and presents a predictable, poorly researched argument. I don’t object so much to the spirit behind Garth’s argument. Rather, I just can’t stand how poorly he made it. So much so that it made me break the promise I made to myself to never leave comments on blogs.

    Can we agree to disagree on that? I would write more but my laundry is done.

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  21. Charlie Chan
    at 11:23 pm on October 24, 2009

    Daryl, the main plank in your criticism of the critic (Garth) of the critic (Kaku) is this (quoting you): “he (Garth) ignores the fact that a reviewer can mix in praise with even the most pointed criticism”. But Garth is positing nothing that requires him to substantiate, and so ignores. Instead, he asserts this plainly: the Kaku Two-Step, which is “misrepresentation” by representing a latter work as flawed after invoking a piece of gem in an earlier work also critiqued before as flawed. Norman Mailer said nearly the same thing – the Kaku sickness – in much plainer terms. That, therefore, to correct P.T., is worse than dishonesty of any intellectual kind. It is mendacity, which is revealing of character in person.

    Daryl, you just flunk your own LSAT question. Also, it is you who stands guilty of how “poorly” you had made your case. And, next time, finish your laundry before going to the comments section. Or, skip the comments altogether. Take this as a lesson for breaking a promise to your self.

  22. Bret Brooklyn
    at 11:43 am on June 28, 2010

    Charlie, P.T. & other Garth defenders:

    Daryl is completely right: this ‘article’ is weak sauce. Garth delivers a salacious, sexy hedline, a first paragraph that trashes Kakutani for a certain tactic that Garth contends is made frequently but THEN (in a move that is classically typical of lazy, half-assed bloggers who rush their pieces out, don’t do any real research or make calls or conduct interviews but just run their mouths) he throws up his hands in slack defeat and says, after giving ONE example only: “I’m too tired right now to track down other instances.”

    Too tired? Then you’re too lazy, unmotivated, and bored with your own subject to merit writing the article in the first place. That’s what good writers DO when they want to make a controversial point, Garth– they put in real work and they DO track down instances. That’s why your post is completely, 100% lazy, and all in all, a failure, and why running posts like this hurt, severely, The Millions’ attempt to be a respected literary blog.

    And I don’t even like Michiko Kakutani, at all, so that’s got nothing to do with it.

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  24. Rafee
    at 7:57 am on November 10, 2012

    The most acute representation of her can be found from Franzen. Who once declaimed her to be–” an international embarrassment”

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