This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

November 19, 2002 — It was, to put it mildly, a harsh review — John Updike's new book "Seek My Face," said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times on November 12, is "graceless" and "bogus in every respect," a "blatant and gratuitous" book written by "a lazy, voyeuristic and reductive hand."

It was typical of the no–holds–barred writing style favored by the Times' lead reviewer. As probably the most powerful book critic in the country, she's already positioned to make enemies. But her particular command of the language — combining keen intelligence with, often enough, scathing anger — makes her a lot more.

Which may explain why so many people have jumped on her lately over her very command of that language — in fact, for her use of one word: "limn."

It started last month when a MobyLives reader named Peter Kuntz wrote in to note that Kakutani had used the word in her (negative) review of Zadie Smith's new "Autograph Man"; Kuntz observed that, in general, Kakutanni used the word a lot.

That opened the floodgates.

Another MobyLives reader, Matt Gross, an editor at New York magazine, saw Kuntz's letter and decided to do a little research.

In the November 11 New York, he helpfully noted that "For those unfamiliar with the word (yes, that included us), it means to outline something 'in clear sharp detail.'" Then Gross went on to list numerous reviews in which Kakutani had used "limn." Included were reviews of books by Gish Jen, Oscar Hijuelos, Ann Beattie, Sebastian Junger, and more.

Alice Munro "has created tales that limn entire lifetimes in a handful of pages," she writes in one citation. Robert Olen Butler "draws upon [the] ability to limn an entire life in a couple of pages," she says in another.

The word "appears to be a critical part of good writing" for Kakutani, observed Gross. "Though perhaps in her own work, she might consider using it a tad less?"

It was a playful piece, funny and fair, as was Kuntz's original letter, and as was a subsequent treatment given the story by Michael Cader, proprietor of the popular industry e–newsletter Publishers Lunch. Cader linked to Gross' New York article, and ran a search through the Times' online archive. "Dating back to 1996, the search engine returned 21 Kakutani reviews in all featuring limn," he wrote, "including 4 so far this year and a banner 7 last year."

But things got decidedly less playful immediately thereafter, when Karen Sandstrom, the book section editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, waded in. She wrote in to Cader to take credit for having been the first to complain about critics using "limn," in a column she wrote last May.

"Some words become reviewers' clichés, and some clichés signal that the writer has developed a sense of superiority over her readers," declared Sandstrom. "It's one more way of separating the sophisticates from the commoners."

And suddenly, what had been an amusing and even interesting critique of Kakutani's prose became a nasty accusation of classism ... all for using so incredibly "sophisticated" a four–letter word as limn.

By the time, just days later, that the Times Magazine's "On Language" column by Kakutani's colleague William Safire weighed in on the matter, it seemed like so much piling on. Safire declared limn a "vogueword," a neologism of his own, and said, "Literary types and their followers use it instead of illuminate."

Well, nervous as it makes me to disagree with esteemed book review editors and the language maven himself, permit me to say: Hello? When in the world did a simple little four–letter word become such a freighted, obscure signifier of such upperclass arrogance?

Those "literary types" Safire cites — or at least me, and I think Kakutani — do not use limn "instead of illuminate." They use it simply to mean what the dictionary says it means: "to outline in clear sharp detail," if I may quote so sophisticated a source as, er, my Webster's.

What's more, it's no "vogueword." While Safire says limn is such a trendy word that "I give it six more months," Webster's cites six examples from a variety of literature — including that most snooty of high–brow publications, Time magazine — going rather far back, and indicating it's been in use for a while.

And why not? It's a perfectly good and useful word, particularly in the limited space of a book review.

Let me show you how useful it is: The furor over the use of the word "limn" limns the shallow nature of the culture war these days.

How else to explain how book review editors, of all people, not to mention our leading language columnist, could not know the definition of a word so common that they decry its supposed overusage? Worse, that they could then use such ignorance as a weapon, and call someone prejudiced for using the word correctly? Further, that they could advocate that newspaper writing should be dumbed down to the level of "commoners"?

And there we see the real nature of the culture war at the moment — a regular series of rather rabid attacks on the slightest hint of intellectualism. It's a war against culture, not for it.

Not that it isn't easy to understand how reviews as heated as Kakutani's could generate such animosity. But, to use a genuine cliché, all that heat isn't generating much light on the part of her critics.

I mean, there are far more substantive issues to take up with Kakutani.

For example, the extremes of her anger could inspire a consideration of the nature of reviewing itself. Her over–the–top lambasting of Updike, for instance, may make one recall Kurt Vonnegut's comment that "any reviewer who expresses rage or loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has just put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or banana split."

On the other hand, there's something to be said for a reviewer to whom books are a matter of life and death. And the alternative seems worse, not to mention pointless, a thought that came clear to me last spring at a BEA panel discussion when I heard the book editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution declare she had a policy against negative reviews. I thought then what I think now: Why bother? What good does it do your readers to run only good news?

A less facile, more useful analysis of Kakutani's actual writing would be to consider whether her angry language replaces or heightens a legitimate point. For example, barely a week after the Updike attack she launched yet another vicious attack — this time on "The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World," by Mark Hertsgaard.

She called it "a hectoring, fuzzy–minded book that devolves into an angry personal rant," in a diatribe of her own that begins by comparing Hertsgaard's book to another book, Benjamin R. Barber's "Jihad vs. McWorld." Kakutani calls Barber's book "provocative" and "very prescient," and says she is disappointed that Hertsgaard did not "take up where Mr. Barber left off."

But as another of my readers, a contributing editor to Publishers Weekly named Joe Barbato, points out in another letter to Moby, "in other words, Kakutani reviews the book Hertsgaard did not write. That is a violation of Book Reviewing rule #1."

Indeed it is, and Barbato's comment provides a much more insightful reading of the way Kakutani's criticism does or doesn't work. Yes, it's a sophisticated reading, but it isn't rocket science, and what is a good critic supposed to go for: substantive discussion, or dumbed down accessibility?

Whatever you think about Michiko Kakutani's writing, such mindless condescension never seems to have occurred to her, limn what you will. Her critics, though, are another matter.

Last Week’s Column: YANN MARTEL GETS AN IDEA Similarities between Yann Martel's new book and Moacyr Scliar's old one lead to accusations of plagiarism by Martel. Are those charges fair?


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.