Great literature shapes our thoughts. Great criticism shapes our thoughts about literature. A good critic is one whose judgment has the power to influence and the courage to contravene prevailing tastes. A good critic can asses developments in thought, emerging trends in style, and the state of literary zeitgeist in addition to the merits of individual books. A good critic has the power to make or break a literary reputation. For this, a good critic deserves recognition. Michiko Kakutani, Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times book critic, does all this and more. For this reason, I would choose Ms. Kakutani to be nominated for an honorary degree at my academic institution.
Ethical philosopher Mike W. Martin, in his book Meaningful Work: Rethinking Professional Ethics (2003) outlines some broad criteria for excellence in professional life. He defines economic success as important, though not critical in establishing a professional as a master of his or her field, because those who pursue economic success advance the public interest in an Adam Smithian sense. However, he also notes the importance of advancing the public interest in an altruistic way, in the manner of physicians, social workers, or to use his (rather dubious) example, politicians.
While Martin’s definition of professional excellence is extremely practical, and in many ways a good yardstick of a worthy candidate for recognition, it is somewhat less useful in considering those professions which are aesthetic or intellectual in nature, rather than practical. Since general-public free-market demand for literature and criticism is somewhat lacking, the fields of literature and academia have become, in a sense, the ultimate guild system. However, even beyond Martin’s criteria, in contemplating the honorary degree-awarding process, I was struck by the narrowness of the field of candidates whom I would consider eligible for an honorary literary degree. Most working fiction writers, even visionary, virtuoso authors, lack sufficient public recognition to be considered masters of their field. Furthermore, almost all fiction writers operate in a sphere of extremely limited cultural influence. Even (especially?) genius authors of sublime writing have little recognition outside small academic and literary circles. Precisely why this is; whether it has anything to do with the ascendancy of television and movies, the decline of the American attention span, the ever-increasing desensitization of the public to graphic sex and violence, and any other hand-wringing over the state of literature are outside the scope of this essay. However, it is true that literary fiction, unlike its rival media formats, rarely inspires public discourse. Writers who do make their way into public consciousness tend to do so because of controversy surrounding their outspoken politics: Salman Rushdie, for example; or 2006 Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.
I would also disqualify most professional academics from receiving honorary degrees for similar reasons. Scholarship is an even more isolated pursuit than literature, in terms of public influence. Certain scholars, such as Camille Paglia and Noam Chomsky, achieve status as “public intellectuals”; Chomsky, again, because of his radical politics (so much so that people tend to forget he is also the world’s leading linguist), and Paglia for her outspoken feminism and writing on sexual politics and popular culture. In general, however, the awarding of honorary degrees to professional scholars creates an atmosphere of insularity among the academic community and serves only to further isolate academia from a broader sphere of culture and community. Stephen E. Epler, in Honorary Degrees: A Survey of Their Use and Abuse (1943), says that “there is little point in having the merit rediscovered several times by several colleges…After all, what can an individual do with several honorary degrees that he cannot do with one?” In other words, the practice of awarding honorary degrees to scholars devalues the merit of honorary degrees: as scholars amass degree upon degree in their curricula vitae, the prestige of each individual honor declines into worthlessness.
USC specifies that honorands must have “have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements in scholarship, the professions, or other creative activities, whether or not they are widely known by the general public.” From the list of recent recipients, one could draw the conclusion that USC is adhering to Mike Martin’s definition of professional excellence, with an emphasis on a particularly Smithian definition of “extraordinary achievement.” A look at the recipients of honorary degrees awarded to creative artists (of which there are few to begin with) yields only internationally-renowned household names, including Robert Zimeckis, and Frank Gehry, both of whom are successful by almost any definition. One can hardly fault USC for wishing to associate its image with only the most outstanding individuals, but the emphasis on celebrity (it must be because we are in Los Angeles) is somewhat troubling. Can we attribute the lack of literary notables among the recipients to the fact that the literary world is nonconducive to the manufacture of either celebrities or extreme wealth? Or does the absence reflect the formerly alluded-to trend in contemporary culture – the decline of the American reading public, perhaps, and the increasing marginalization of literature in culture?
If the preceding examples of literary notables illustrate the unsuitability of honorary degrees for unassuming, culturally isolated writers and scholars and their controversial, bellicose peers, Michiko Kakutani rises above the fray. Her writing is political only in the sense that it is judgmental– she does not deal in politics; it is controversial only in that it is unafraid to take aim at the sacred cows of the literary establishment. Some critics accuse Kakutani of deliberately inflaming her rhetoric to draw attention to writing. Even if this claim were true (which I do not believe it is), from a Smithian perspective, this pursuit of success would serve the public interest, and would thus be inherently good. However, in a sense, whether or not her vitriol is calculated to be as such, her divisive, provocative, and often entertaining criticism, and her fierce, fearless judgment have made her the most powerful, famous book critic today. Furthermore, Kakutani’s writing is the opposite of the abstraction and ineffectuality that plague the rest of the literary world. The power she wields through her pronunciations is the very essence of the power of a perlocutionary speech act: as she writes, it is so. For example, consider her 2004 review, published two weeks before the official release, of Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. She was not kind:
“In his previous novels and earliest nonfiction pieces, Mr. Wolfe gave readers minutely detailed inside looks at rarified subcultures, from the world of Wall Street bond traders to horse breeding stud farms to prison inmate life. This time, instead of boldly going where few writers have gone before, he gives us some tiresomely generic if hyperbolic glimpses of student life at a fictional school called Dupont University…As for the plot of ''Charlotte Simmons,'' it's a cheap, jerry-built affair that manages the unfortunate trick of being messy and predictable at the same time.”
Other reviewers followed suit. (Charlotte Simmons eventually reached its critical nadir as the recipient of The Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award– awarded annually to the worst sex scene in a novel – especially uncomplimentary for an author who considers himself a master realist). Even charitable reviews contained a decidedly mixed note. And while the sour critical reception did not greatly dampen the public’s response (I Am Charlotte Simmons debuted at the #2 spot on Amazon), the critical reaction to what was certainly calculated to be another tour-de-force of perceptive observation became the undoubted low point of Wolfe’s literary career.
If the literary evisceration of a popular writer like Tom Wolfe seems unfair and disingenuous, Kakutani’s treatments of contemporary literary icons such as John Updike and Norman Mailer are hardly less scathing. According to her review of The Gospel According to the Son, a 1997 piece that is listed as an example of work that was reviewed in consideration for her award of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize (NB: the Pulitzer Prize web site is not link-friendly), Mailer’s fictional account of the life of Jesus is
“a sort of novelized ''Jesus Christ Superstar'' starring Jesus as an ambivalent pop star and guru: a silly, self-important and at times inadvertently comical book that reads like a combination of ''Godspell,'' Nikos Kazantzakis's ''Last Temptation of Christ'' and one of those new, dumbed-down Bible translations.”
In response to this and other reviews, Mailer famously said of Kakutani:
“She’s a one-woman kamikaze. She disdains white male writers, and I am her number one favourite target. She trashes it just to hurt sales and embarrass the author. But the Times editors can't fire her. They're terrified of her. With discrimination rules and such, well, she's a threefer: Asiatic, feminist and, ah, what's the third? Well. Let's just call her a twofer.”
Although this serves only as an example of the rage that Kakutani inspires, her more sober critics note that while she has certainly taken down her share of white male writers, Kakutani’s main target is the literary establishment in general, in which, not coincidentally, white male writers feature prominently. However, she has also unfavorably reviewed Margaret Atwood and Alice Walker, among others. It is certainly possible that Kakutani fixates on the condemnation of notables, but she is not spiteful or bitter in her dismantling of literary giants. It is an oft-repeated criticism of criticism (usually by disgruntled authors) that literary critics are failed writers. Whether or not this convention is broadly true is up for debate, but in Kakutani’s case it is clearly false. Whatever else she is, she is tough but fair. She doesn’t curry favorites with writers, and famously reclusive, she has never played a part in the literary/social scene. She doesn’t play favorites – with equal relish she has lauded and condemned Roth and DeLillo. When not inflammatory, her writing can be penetrating and illuminating, not to mention succinct. Her summation of roughly three thousand pages of Pynchon:
“The Great Big Question in Thomas Pynchon's novels, from ''V.'' (1963) through ''Gravity's Rainbow'' (1973) and ''Vineland'' (1990), has been: Is the world dominated by conspiracies or chaos? Are there patterns, secret agendas, mysterious codes -- in short, a hidden design -- to the burble and turmoil of human existence, or is it all a product of chance?”
For those unfamiliar with Pynchon, that is the literary-criticism equivalent of a snake digesting an elephant. Of her reading prowess, Ben Yagoda commented in a Slate article,
“It should be clear to anyone who has read Kakutani's reviews that she has an estimable intelligence; she backs this up with what must be many real or virtual all-nighters in which she digests every word ever published by the writer under review. She takes books seriously, a valuable and ever-rarer trait.”
This attitude towards literature is Kakutani’s most fundamental gift to the world of literature. Were she to give a commencement address, as is the custom for honorary degree recipients, I think this would be her message. But beyond the importance and vitality of literature, Kakutani shows us the power of judgement, the importance of making strong evaluations, even if they are unpopular. Her unwillingness to hedge her critical bets is unusual in a field where equivocal praise and oblique censure are the norm. In the Slate article, Yagoda goes on to criticize Kakutani for her all-or-nothing, thumbs-up-or-thumbs-down approach, claiming that her criticism lacks subtlety. Even if this is true, the passion that Kakutani feels for her subject matter is palpable. For those who would deny the power of criticism; and also for those who would deny the power of literature, the passion and vitriol with which Michiko Kakutani writes serve as a powerful reminder of the value of literature. It is a reminder that not only does literature have value, but truly good literature is cause for celebration; and lazy, bad, or pompous writing can incite anger and disgust. The critical thing is to know the difference.