I Talk to Kakutani

Part the last of my Kakutani demolition derby.

I had a telephone conversation with Michiko Kakutani once. In 1990-something I was co-directing FC2 (Fiction Collective Two) with Ronald Sukenick. We’d just published a novel (Separate Hours, as I recall) by Jonathan Baumbach, one of the Fiction Collective’s founders back in 1974. So, I’m in our office one morning and the phone rings.

“Hi, this is Michiko Kakutani with the New York Times.”

“Hello.”

“And you are?”

“Curtis White. I’m one of FC2’s directors.”

“Hi, Curtis.  I’m just calling to say that I’m reviewing Jonathan Baumbach’s new novel, and I thought I’d have a word with you.”

“Okay.”

I should say that this phone call was not entirely unexpected. I’d been told, probably by Jon, to expect it. Now, a call from anyone at the Times about one of our books was pretty rare though not unheard of. But that we should be so well aware of a pending review before the fact was unheard of, implying as it did inside sources. Which was exactly what was happening. Our inside source, but for this book only, was none other than Baumbach’s wife who worked at the Times, as I recall. Well, that’s how things work in New York City, the town without pity, the world’s most provincial capital.

“You must be very excited about the book!” she said.

“Sure, we are,” I replied, my ardor perhaps chastened by my knowledge of what a sophomoric drama I was playing a role in.

She must have caught some of my reserve, for she then asked, her voice, as Henry James would say, “hanging fire”:

“You do think it’s good, don’t you?”

With a private roll of the eyes upward, I said, “Of course, it’s a great novel.”

She was jubilant. “It is a great novel, isn’t it? I’m going to write a very good review of it.”

And that was it. She wanted, in her college freshman simplicity, to be reassured by someone–even if the most partial someone–that the book was “good.” That we were “really excited.” Especially excited that the august Kakutani was going to review it in that monument to cosmopolitan fraud, the New York Times.

Because of critics like Kakutani, but especially Kakutani, there will soon not only be no art, there won’t even be any fake art. Soon, no one will raise an eyebrow when she reviews Code of Honor.27 and praises it for being an honest and tragic account of a typical American cartoon combat family. Historians (or the bloggers that replace them) will refer to this review as the final triumph of Generation Dummy.

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7 thoughts on “I Talk to Kakutani

  1. Curtis, what a purifying blast of light! As your story demonstrates, too much of the so-called “excitement” Big Publishing generates is nothing but blather.

  2. Interesting…I can understand somebody wanting a second opinion about a demanding book, but there are lines you do not cross when your name bears such a weight. What frightened me from your anecdote isn’t that she dug up a bit to solidify her opinion of the novel…it’s just that she only wanted approval. She didn’t discuss anything about the novel itself. Scary.

  3. *gasp* You’ve emerged from a conversation with the Hated One with your soul in tact? She called you to tell you she liked your book? What a monster! All we can do is get on our knees and pray that Michiko Kakutani, Evil Book Reviewer Extraordinaire, doesn’t manage to destroy Art As We Know It with her bourgeois wiles.

    (We get it, you’re edgy and alternative and you don’t like the NYT Book Review. I’m glad this is going to be the last part in this series, and hope you’ll do something a bit less bile-y next time.)

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