What Does Kakutani’s Hitler-Trump Buzz Say About Book Reviews in General?

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So. There’s already been quite a to-do surrounding Michiko Kakutani’s so-called thinly-veiled attack on Trump in her recent New York Times review of historian Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939. 

While her review definitely gives a nod to the significance of Ullrich’s work and delves quite thoroughly into parts of it, her examination of the book comes off as more of a “preview,” a bullet-pointed glimpse into what a full read might entail.

Or into what the future might entail, some think.

The fact that in the process of highlighting main points and passages from the book, Kakutani seems to draw some pretty pointed parallels between Hitler and Trump—without ever actually mentioning the latter—has drawn commentary from The Washington Post and Slateamong other publications, as well as praise from plenty of readers.

This is news, it’s amusing and it might be important. And if you were ever going to pick at a public figure between the lines like that, now’s sure as heck the time to do it. But the general reaction, like the book review itself and the sheer fact of Trump’s nomination, has not done much to alleviate my feeling of being stuck in a surreal universe of half-truths at best, and is not going to help stop me from believing that I may be a character in a Nabokov novel anytime soon.

Here’s an example of why: The Elite Daily credits The New York Times as using a book review to “troll” Trump and calls it “genius,” all just in a title. It’s a headline that grabs attention, which is exactly what headlines like this are supposed to do. So I take it with a grain of salt to begin with, but I’m not sure that it’s not reflective of what many people actually believe and so I feel compelled to confront it: Genius? …No. I’m not saying she shouldn’t have done it or that The New York Times shouldn’t have printed it. I absolutely hope that it contributes to Trump not being elected. But genius, if the word means anything, is something different by any definition of substance.

I’m also uncomfortable with the idea of pinning a stunt on someone who hasn’t come forward about it, regardless of how obvious it seems.

Even more to the point…

What exactly is a book review?

What role should book reviews play in our society? Of what should they consist? What is a book reviewer’s job?

Please, don’t mistake my Socratic-esque questioning for uptightness. In fact, as both a reader and writer, I have what is probably a shocking amount of indifference for the traditional book review as a concept. That’s why I don’t really do reviews on this blog. When I react to a book on a personal level or use it as a springboard into something else, I don’t call it a review. I usually get bored of reading negative criticism pretty quickly, unless it is especially entertaining and clever. And even then, I often end up thinking, “Couldn’t you just have told me not to waste my time and been done with it?”

I guess it’s good if a negative book review prevents you from reading a bad book. I also understand that book reviews are an accepted institution that, like certain realms of academia, support contemporary writing as we know it.

In general, though, I simply find that reading books (even bad ones) is a lot more fun than reading book reviews (even good ones).

This is, of course, just my perspective. It’s also my opinion that a painstaking critique and weighing of the pros and cons can absolutely be valuable both for an author and his audience. However, I think it’s worth pointing out that for better or worse, this particular type of measured critique is not always what’s expected from a book review these days.

Also for better or worse, it’s not necessarily what people expect of Michiko Kakutani, who has been known to indulge in other sorts of “creative” reviews. That’s all I’ll say on that subject for now. After all, this is not a review of Michiko Kakutani, and I have a novel I hope to have published someday.

Traditional book reviews: Are they just not enough?

To turn back to the subject at hand, I’m honestly curious about what is or should be expected of a book review these days. One thing I’ve found interesting about this whole Trump-Hitler incident is that the upset of the traditional book review format for the sake of political commentary is often not being pointed out as such. Kakutani’s review isn’t really about Hitler, says a New Republic article. Perhaps not, but it wasn’t really supposed to be about Hitler, was it? It was supposed to be about a book about Hitler.

I’ll cut to the chase here: I think most book reviewers get bored. I think most people who read regular book reviews get bored with reading regular book reviews, not because of the quality of said reviews but because of the sameness of their format. I think that even writers who only occasionally do reviews for respected publications may still get bored by the job.

Beyond that, the kind of people who are in the position of writing these reviews in the first place invariably have feelings and thoughts, things they care about, things they understandably want and need to say. And they, unlike many, have the means and platform to express them.

If you pair an intelligent, expressive reviewer with a book that inspires her, provokes her or provides her with a platform and opportunity to say something she believes needs to be said, it puts her in a dilemma. At least theoretically, insofar as writing a straightforward book review is concerned.

How we read and write book reviews, and what it says about us

I’m reminded of a review I read years ago by Mary Gaitskill on Salon.com, titled “Satan goes to Harvard.” It concerns the book Halfway Heaven by Melanie Thernstrom, which is about a murder that was committed by a Harvard student in 1995.

Like Kakutani’s review is assumed to be doing, it goes off the beaten path and seeks to say something large and important about humanity. Also as with Kakutani’s review, I’m sympathetic to Gaitskill’s cause. Unlike Kakutani’s review, however, Gaitskill’s article is upfront in what it sets out to do and her negative commentary is clearly directed at the author of the book.

She lays it out in the second paragraph: “[The] ending not only disappointed me, it made me angry.” She goes on to criticize Thernstrom for oversimplifying the notions of evil and mental illness, for not differentiating between evil acts and evil people, and for generally painting circumstances in a broad way that leaves less room than necessary for understanding the motivations and inner world of the murderer, an exchange student who had sought counseling before the incident.

I haven’t read the book myself, and in fact had forgotten the name of it before looking it up just now. What I do remember from this review, however, are the important issues that Gaitskill speaks frankly about in a way that we still, a couple decades later, generally don’t. “Mental illness” and “evil” are still basically markers entrenched in their own shallow signification that are not often enough explored as larger parts of humanity that may (and probably do) exist in all of us.

Maybe I’m failing to see some actual progress in saying that, but what does where we are now say about our ability as a society to publicly handle difficult and complex concepts regarding our own humanity? It’s even possible that if more people had read and taken to heart Gaitskill’s “review” at the time it was published, the supposed intention behind Kakutani’s “review” would not even be necessary now. I don’t mean that so literally, but it’s worth thinking about.

In any case, I’m not sorry that either piece was written. Far from it. But I do think this is a worthwhile opportunity to explore why it is that book reviewers sometimes don’t seem to want to write traditional reviews, but rather to talk at or through books, and why people may react to this positively.

Is there some way we could better accommodate this kind of creative reviewing?

Or is the whole point, in a case like this, that Kakutani is perceived to be subverting the medium for sympathetic purposes?

How much social value does this type of act have in a (presumably) free-speech society? How much political clout does it have when concerning someone like Trump in a publication like The New York Times? Are we into the realm of talking about the act’s artistic weight?

And what about the authors?

To bring up one last point, to what degree is going off the rails with a book review disrespectful to the author, even if it’s positive? Regardless of what beneficial effects Kakutani’s review has on either the presidential election or Ullrich’s book sales, what are people ultimately going to remember about this incident? The hard work and writing done by the historian? Or the “genius” manner in which his words were handpicked and presented in a digestible format to the public?

I’ll go a step further and say that the above confusion regarding book reviews might have something to do with the confusion we have regarding public communication, and distribution of power in general. Reviews provide a public platform, just like public office does, and those platforms can be hard to come by.

It could be that the author of a book is seen as already having had his say, already having a built-in platform to have expressed whatever he wanted to express. Whereas the book reviewer, as the politician, while maybe having more public power, must work in roundabout ways to affect the public and is therefore considered entitled to use whatever means necessary. It may not be fair to blame reviewers, politicians or similar figures with limited means for finding ways to do what they feel needs to be done, since to a certain extent they have to work with what they have.

This is why I’m not criticizing (or even fully acknowledging) Kakutani’s actions, but rather questioning the atmosphere in which her assumed actions became a public event. This incident gives us the opportunity to think not just about how Trump has risen as far as he has, but how we talk or don’t talk to each other as a society.

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2 comments

  1. Thank you for this provocative and engaging essay. Among other things, it make me want to read the review in question, though I think that was not a goal of the essay. It also put me in mind of the multi-book essay/reviews often found in “The Nation.” Non-fiction books are generally grouped according to general topic. Fiction essays often look at several books by one author but sometimes by different authors connected in any of various ways. I look forward to your next piece!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re welcome, and thank you! 🙂 That’s an interesting point: A lot of publications seem to have their own ways of approaching or naming reviews (or “books” sections). Maybe this is just another sign that we’re already moving away from reviews in the strictest sense.

      Liked by 1 person

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