I didn't think too much of Anis Shivani's most overrated writers list. I mean, Mary Oliver? Sure, she absolutely sucks; she represents better than anyone the descent of American poetry into utter banality and irrelevance, but that fact alone mitigates against a "most overrated" nomination. She is hardly "rated" at all, except by other unread poets and university types. However, his note on Michiko Kakutani is uncanny:
Not a writer, by any stretch of even my novelistic imagination, but I include her here as the enabler-in-chief for the preceding mediocrities. Simply the worst book critic on the planet. Possesses only one criterion to judge fiction--does it fit her notions of the mid-twentieth century realist novel? No postmodern experiments for her, nothing radical that doesn't fit her naive realist mold. If she loves a book, avoid it like hell (it's bound to be banal). If she dislikes it, consider buying it. If she really hates it, run to the bookstore and get it, right now! Every good book is Chekhovian or Jamesian or Forsterian or Updikean--she has mastered the technique of saying nothing in a review by comparing books to an author's previous books and to classics which have nothing to do with the book at hand. Judges books as if the entire modernist and postmodernist canon had never existed. One of the world's great purveyors of mindless philistinism--it's divine justice that she would be the New York Times's chief book critic (and soon to go behind the pay wall).And here, today, is Kakutani on Jonathan Franzen's new novel, inhabiting Shivani's caricature like a T-girl in a booty skirt:
Jonathan Franzen’s galvanic new novel, “Freedom,” showcases his impressive literary toolkit — every essential storytelling skill, plus plenty of bells and whistles — and his ability to throw open a big, Updikean picture window on American middle-class life. With this book, he’s not only created an unforgettable family, he’s also completed his own transformation from a sharp-elbowed, apocalyptic satirist focused on sending up the socio-economic-political plight of this country into a kind of 19th-century realist concerned with the public and private lives of his characters.Shivani even makes fun of her for her stilted vocabulary ("I limn you, Michiko, lapidarily!"), and lo:
Writing in prose that is at once visceral and lapidary, Mr. Franzen shows us how his characters strive to navigate a world of technological gadgetry and ever-shifting mores, how they struggle to balance the equation between their expectations of life and dull reality, their political ideals and mercenary personal urges. He proves himself as adept at adolescent comedy (what happens to Joey after he accidentally swallows his wedding ring right before a vacation with his dream girl) as he is at grown-up tragedy (what happens to Walter’s assistant and new beloved when she sets off alone on a trip to West Virginia coal country); as skilled at holding a mirror to the world his people inhabit day by dreary day as he is at limning their messy inner lives.It seems almost impossibly coincidental. Is that you, Michiko, attempting a sly response to your critics through deliberate self-parody?
No. I think she really is that bad. "[H]is David Foster Wallace-esque ability to capture the absurdities of contemporary life . . ." David Foster Wallace-esque!?
Here you have the far limits of the American novel as perceived by the chief critic of the Times. It must be "realistic," by which she means written in conservative prose in a semi-omniscient, third-person, past tense voice. Flashbacks are permissible, especially if they provide anecdotal bric-a-brac to establish character. Plot should solely be a means of moving characters, preferably families, more preferably families suffering from the quotidian domestic anxieties that pass for "dysfunction" among the petit bourgeois: wayward teenage children, minor marital infidelity, mild economic satire ("people use credit cards to buy a pack of gum or a single hot dog"), small brushes with alcoholism or addiction, etc. Vague political discontentment is acceptable, even encouraged, but actual political convictions are not. Clichéd musings on the swiftness of modern life, the distemper of discourse in the internet age, and the "dislocation" of contemporary American rootlessness are taken as novel insights; however, no suggestions of root causes, historical context, or political economy are appropriate. The "middle-class" (by which is usually meant pretty well-to-do) American family is the template; it is to Kakutani's conception of the proper form of the novel what 14 lines are to the sonnet, not merely indispensable, but utterly integral--the very definition of the thing itself.
I haven't read Franzen's new novel. Personally, I find his writing insufferable, or more accurately I found The Corrections to be almost unreadable and the handful of his essays and reviews that I've seen to be insufferable. The fact that Kakutani recommends this book discredits it even more thoroughly than its authorial pedigree. That having been said, and regardless of the merits of the book, here is what the review fails utterly to say: what the book is about. I mean, what is the book about? By this, I do not mean that Kakutani must, uh, limn the plot as if reviewing a Tom Clancy thriller. I mean, she must give us a sense of what transpires, of how the book is structured, of what it actually says about its, uh, um, euh, dysfunctional family. Even the great tomes of high modernism offer themselves up to a little paraphrasis. The seventeen million pages of A la recherche... can be profitably summarized in just a few sentences. Try it. A friend says, "I've been thinking about reading In Search of Lost Time, but you know, I realize, I have no idea what it's about." You reply, "Well, it's got a huge cast of characters and about a million different plots, but basically, a character named Marcel, who is an authorial stand-in, takes a bite of a cookie, and in the weird way that the smallest sense memories are sometimes the most profound, it casues him to intensely recall his childhood, and from there he proceeds to tell us a sprawling story about France around the turn of the century, and through the process of remembering, about the nature of memory and time itself."
Kakutani would probably tell you that it was about families. What about them? Like other hated American critics, she insists on domesticity. Updike is obviously the nec plus ultra here, and I feel I ought to defend Updike, who I really don't care for. He was not nearly so domesticated as Kakutani appears to believe; his concerns not so tightly bounded; his characters not so narrowly conceived. In these critics' hands, no novel is safe from diminishment. She'd probably tell you that The Brothers Karamazov was about a dysfunctional family, too.