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How to be a critic

Michiko Kakutani's review (in today's New York Times) of Dave Eggers' latest novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity (also the topic of a slightly less recent Q&A with its author on NewYorker.com), is a good review by the standard measure — well-written, entertaining, knowledgeable and thorough.

But whatever its value (and it does have real value, I think), there's a line in it that betrays its flaw (a flaw that's quite deep, as has been said elsewhere): "Sometimes moving, sometimes funny but more often haphazard," Kakutani writes, "Velocity is clearly the work of a talented writer cruising along on automatic pilot."

However insightful her comments on the work itself, her review only suffers from its apparently presuming to understand the author himself and what he put into his writing. Kakutani can't possibly know such things (of course), and that she would write as if she did — and so glibly, too! — robs her work of any genuine subtlety or understanding it might otherwise have displayed.

Of course, it's not hard to guess why a writer might include a remark like that, despite the disservice it does the reader. It's much easier to write an entertaining review if the reviewer doesn't let legitimate complexities and unknowables interfere with his or her wit, and just spews out whatever clever pithicism he happens to invent without bothering to wonder if it's really at the heart off anything. I mean, clearly, Kakutani knows a lot about writing on autopilot herself; it's not like she did any more than let her own talents cook up their own empty display for this review.

Oh, wait. Did I just say that?

Addendum: How could I possibly fail to mention McSweeney's' own take on Kakutani? I couldn't. I'm sure I couldn't.

October 8, 2002 7:45 PM

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Copyright ©2001-2003 Matt Pfeffer

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