What I’ve Been Reading on Writing About Literature

Since reading and writing about books is my primary activity, I’ve recently been reading some articles on reading and writing about books

(1) 38 Years on Books: The Essential Michiko Kakutani Reader

One of the biggest recent events among book people was the retirement of Michiko Kakutani, who had been the chief book critic of the New York Times for 38 years. She was a touchstone for both writers and readers. Her judgment could make or break a new book’s reputation, so authors lived in fear of her. Many readers would choose their reading material on the basis of her reviews, though some chose books because she recommended them and others chose book because she panned them.

I admit that I often found her reviews baffling. Nonetheless, she was a force in the book-reviewing world, so I’ve bookmarked this article and am slowly working my way through the samples. According to the article:

Together they represent a vigorously led life of the mind, a crash course in contemporary literature and a tour through the zeitgeist of the turn of the millennium.

(2) What the Departure of the _Times_’ Michiko Kakutani Means for Books Coverage

The compendium of examples above was put together by the New York Times, so I wanted to see what other reviewers and cultural critics had to say about Kakutani’s departure. In this piece Boris Kachka discusses Kakutani’s “growing estrangement from the job of country’s most powerful book critic.”

With Kakutani’s departure, Kachka declares:

an era really has ended. As chief book critic, Kakutani was inimitable and irreplaceable. (In fact, there are no plans to name a new “chief critic.”) She was the “voice of God,” as one writer put it to me.

But does the end of the Kakutani era at the New York Times have any significance for a personal book blogger like me? I’ve periodically looked at her writing, although I never wanted to emulate it because, as Kachka writes:

There wasn’t much personal presence on the page, either. You won’t find the word I in a Kakutani review, just an omniscient “reader.” … Even her overuse of specific ten-dollar words and her occasional parody reviews were exceptions that proved the rule: a limited quiver of quirks standing in for a colorful voice. “I used to call them her book reports,” says [Jonathan Galassi, the publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux]. “They were quite formulaic and they weren’t always subtle…”

One quality I’ve been trying to develop is how, after a long academic career, to reinsert myself into my discussions of the books I read

But Kakutani had one quality that her colleagus praised: they regarded her as “a straight shooter with few axes to grind.” As such a large cog in the publishing machine, Kakutani would have had many opportunities to nurture personal grudges and to engage in their expression. That’s one advantage to being a lonely personal blogger: I can base my opinion of a book on how good I think it is rather than on whether I like the author or am likely to bump into the author at some social event.

According to Kachka, Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the Times, described Kakutani as “an intellectual who can synthesize many strands of both culture and politics in a way that I haven’t seen.” That’s another quality of her work that’s worth emulating, since literature is a cultural artifact that mirrors the culture from which it arises.

(3) The ‘New York Times’ Books Desk Will Make You Read Again

John Maher reports for Publishers Weekly on the consolidation taking place at the New York Times books desk. These changes, which included the paper’s buy-out of long-term chief book critic Michiko Kakutani, constitute an effort to move, finally, out of the outdated print modality into a new print/online world:

Previously, books reporters and editors had been in different departments: the Book Review, part of the Times’ weekend edition, remained strictly separate from the publishing reporter, who went between the paper’s Culture and Business Day desks, and the three daily critics, who remained firmly under the culture department’s wing. That made sense for a print-first enterprise. For the new digital-first Times, it was something of an albatross.

After the reorganization, the Books staff did research into what kinds of book coverage readers wanted to see in the paper:

That research led them to a number of conclusions, many of which came in the form of questions: What should a reader of the New York Times read next? Why does this book—say, Colson Whitehead’s _The Underground Railroad_—matter? What is the role of books in our culture, and what is the relationship between books, the larger culture, and the news cycle? What are people across the world reading?

I welcome this change from dictating what people should read to understanding what people actually do read.

(4) The case of Stephen Greenblatt

Discovering this article lifted a great weight off my shoulders. I grew up when New Criticism dominated literary studies. This approach to theory and criticism pounded all sense of personal involvement in reading out of us. From the description of Michiko Kakutani’s lack of any personal voice—and since she’s less than 10 years younger than me—I’m betting that she got her literary training under New Criticism as well. I’ve been working hard to insert myself back into my writing about literature.

In this article Bruce Bawer explains how Stephen Greenblatt was a frontrunner in the development of New Historicism, the critical darling that supplanted New Criticism. According to New Historicism, literature is

not the path to a transhistorical truth, whether psychoanalytic or deconstructive or purely formal, but the key to particular historically embedded social and psychological formulations… . Where traditional “close readings” [in the New Critical mode] tended to build toward an intensified sense of wondering admiration, linked to the celebration of genius, new historicist readings are more often skeptical, wary, demystifying, critical, and even adversarial.

New Historicism developed shortly after I left my graduate studies in English and American literature, so I missed it. I’m glad I finally found it, as it very well describes my belief that literary works are societal constructs that individual readers respond to on the basis of their unique combination of learning and life experience.

Now, I return to my own writing about literature with a clearer understanding of what I want to communicate.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown


Also published on Medium.