What is a book critic to do when she is given the task of reviewing a book that she knows everyone and their mother will read?
Since the standard role of the popular book critic is to act as a sort of vetting agent, gauging a book’s worth the minute it’s let out of the gate, said critic becomes painfully aware of her rather awkward situation. She has to say something nice about it or she’ll be a terrible grinch. She has to get in a few zings to maintain her critical "edge." But today I have had the opportunity to watch a renowned book critic crack under the pressure of the latest Harry Potter installment.
In this case, I’m referring to Michiko Kakutani, the notorious head reviewer for the New York Times.
When she turns her powers to Harry Potter, however, she falls prey to several verbal paradoxes which are the literary equivalent of one of Neville Longbottom’s botched up spells. As Kakutani has it, Draco Malfoy "appears to vanish" every so often from the school’s grounds, and the plot is "positively Miltonian in its darkness."
She resorts to a healthy amount of plot summary and to warning parents that their kiddies may be frightened by the final scenes, commenting irrelevantly on the scary scenes in "Revenge of the Siths."
But what I find most strange about the review is actually something that strikes me as a problematic in popular (i.e. non-academic/self-consciously intellectual) criticism is the weird contrast between the assumption that the reader has an IQ of an anemone and the occasional peppering of references which said anemone would never understand, and thus maintain the "dumb reader/smart writer" dialectic. For example, Kakutani writes:
"This is a coming-of-age story that chronicles the hero’s evolution not only by showing his maturation through a series of grueling tests, but also by detailing the growing emotional wisdom he gains from understanding more and more about the past."
Lord save me from similarly formulaic assessments in my own literary criticism. However, this insulting bit of doggerel is followed hard upon by this phrase: " In addition to being a bildungsroman, of course…"
At this point, the reader is either scratching his head wondering what a bildahooey is, or is figuring out that Kakutani defined it for them in the preceding paragraph, or is knocking his head against his kitchen table moaning at the tautology invoked by calling Harry Potter a bildungsroman. Using a term like that is an assertion of superiority as well as a wink to the legit literary critics.
I wonder, though, about her final assessment. She writes, "Indeed, the achievement of the Potter books is the same as that of the great classics of children’s literature, from the Oz novels to "The Lord of the Rings": the creation of a richly imagined and utterly singular world, as detailed, as improbable and as mortal as our own."
Word, Michiko, I’ll give you that. But passages like that make me wonder: are you actually a very insightful critic? Are you simply a victim of the dumbing-down of the American mind? Is that what fills your reviews with such dead weight pronouncements as everything preceding your final paragraph?
I guess what I’m saying is: reviews like this strike me as uneven and irritating. I dislike it when my editors assume a low comptency to understand or pay attention to what I write; I dislike having to explain what the Dreyfus Affair is when I refer to it– especially when I know I have an explicitly Jewish audience who should know that it did not involve the actor cheating on his wife. Reviews are there to add something to the reader’s experience of the book, not to waste the reader’s time. Use the word bildungsroman, and don’t explain to me what that is. Make me reach for my dictionary. I’m sorry if this makes reading the newspaper less user-friendly. But to borrow a sentiment from Jon Stewart– reviews like these are hurting America: they’re melting our minds down to mush and saying it’s ok for them to be that way.