JANUARY 14, 2012
Defying a multitude of bizarre projections, or submitting to them, would seem to me at the heart of everyday living in America, with its ongoing demand to be something palpable and identifiable.
— Philip Roth
ALL OF US HAVE BEEN GIVEN a certain amount of time to waste. Some we fritter in the old-fashioned ways: by breathing, staring at dull panoramas, playing computer solitaire, or watching CSI. Most of it, however, we now waste on social networking sites: Facebook, Twitter, or whatever green alternatives spring up to offer a sop to our need to be seen, what used to be called loneliness. On Twitter, or Facebook, we serve ourselves up in miscellaneous detail, presenting our epigrams and aphorisms and photographs, our urbane or intemperate responses to others. (Hopefully not too intemperate. We are all politicians now.) Consciously or otherwise, we stretch ourselves into flattering (even if, at times, deliberately ugly) postures: We spend time trying to curate, to use that buzzy term, ourselves. Or “selves.” It’s hard to say which iteration deserves to be considered ironically these days, the one that takes fabulous vacations and lets the world in on its Spotify playlist or the other, the sad sack of skin that slumps in an ergonomic chair. Either way, almost everyone has both. It’s a rare holdout by now who won’t traffic in @ symbols and hashtags, who doesn’t consider all but the most self-embargoed information (I suppose “@____, I have herpes” is still an uncommon move) fodder for broadcast. Fair enough. I won’t get into the ethics, or aesthetics, of undersharing, but I will say that those fusty souls, fetishists of privacy or 20th century manners, who don’t feel a need to display their dinner plates to the world often find themselves hijacked — by @Abe_Vigoda, for instance, or @Wendi_Deng. Even those who thrive on electronic display are sometimes hijacked too: In addition to @kimkardashian, there exists @_kimkardashian (with 35,000 followers, to the other’s 12,000,000), @kimdashteam, @kimkardahian, @kimkardash … It’s no wonder, then, that we are often confused by impostors, delighted by sock puppets, and relieved — most of us, anyway — that we remain singular. Er, duplicate. Triplicate, if you count LinkedIn.
Michiko Kakutani is a refusenik. Predictably, really. By reputation a hermit who opts not to hang out much in the physical world (doubtless those who know her have a different impression, but google “Michiko Kakutani, recluse” and see what happens; see how few photographs, anecdotes, or interviews exist), what use would she have for social media? Perhaps she cultivates this position (which is a “position” whether she wants it to be or not: It is by itself a social gesture) in order to keep herself free of bias, able to review writers without defaulting to feelings about their person. A wise choice. New York publishing is a small world — “small” in many senses — and so it’s best not to fraternize with your friends, let alone your enemies, if you hope to keep ’em, and it’s best not to mix work with … anything. This is Journalistic Ethics 101, and it’s why Kakutani shouldn’t be on Twitter, arguably, even though any number of honorable critics are, to both entertaining and informative effect.
All the same, in late December 2011, a fake Kakutani appeared on Twitter. @criticmichiko began tweeting, somewhat hilariously, about smoothies and pizzas (“Domino’s seems incapable of producing serious crust …”), mocking the nonvirtual critic’s tone and style. This is nothing irregular. These days, everything gets its own parody account, whether it’s @weboughtaz00 or @olddondraper. There was no particular danger, it seems to me, that anyone would assume that the embodied (I’m going to try not to use the word “real” here) New York Times critic was spending her spare time tweeting reviews of Swiffer pads and self-adhesive stamps (“a ham-fisted mash-up of regular, saliva-based stamps and self-adhesive envelopes”). This seems little different than caricature; than being the subject, say, of a parodic cartoon. “‘Enduring the bizarre projections of others’ isn’t just something that famous novelists have to contend with,” says Philip Roth, who would know; who, after all, has made a good portion of his career tweaking and upending just such projections. It’s something we all do. In any case, Kakutani has surely endured as much before, and could easily let this rather limited joke run its course. Except —perhaps — she didn’t. She (and in a sense, it hardly matters whether it really was “she,” if it wasn’t indeed another sock puppet) responded. @ActualNYTMK waded into the fray with a request: “@criticmichiko please stop impersonating me. I am me,” she wrote. Plaintively, it seemed, from this angle. But maybe it was just another impostor, trying to claim the Michiko-ness for her (or his) own. There’s no way of knowing, at present, although the second Kakutani account seemed to have no real agenda except to stop and/or unmask the first one. “I understand the joke. But please, enough is enough,” @ActualNYTMK wrote. “I am only here to put a stop to this absurd, derivative fiction.” (Hmm. Too on-point, almost. The humorlessness is persuasive, but “absurd, derivative”? Maybe it is a sock puppet.) “@criticmichiko You’re Lethem, right?”
I say it hardly matters whether the @ActualNYTMK account was launched by the Times critic because we all, I think, harbor a certain anxiety about our avatars. Our online personalities, such as they are — whether they’re rigorously constrained by privacy controls or not —have a life outside our control. They’re seen and interpreted by others; on Twitter, they’re effectively metastatic, meant to repeat themselves into the ethosphere where they will be re-seen and re-interpreted (hopefully) by strangers, who will go on to spread the virus themselves. It’s easy to find hilarious @ActualNYTMK’s insistence, after @criticmichiko accused her (“her“) of being Colson Whitehead, that this be retracted: “@colsonwhitehead please clarify that I am not you.” That’s funny whether it’s the work of a cunning sock puppet or if, indeed, the critic was responding with a hapless, almost Clouseau-like bumbling through the internet’s hall of mirrors. It’s funny, as the saying goes, because it’s true.
All of us, I think, could use a little clarification as to what we’re doing here, or more specifically, who we are. It’s a tough nut to juggle (and by “we” I mean writers and readers, but also all users of social media), being a person who needs to eat and pee but also someone who doesn’t. I’d argue that readers have it just as bad, maybe worse: I’ll go ahead and work with a broad brush here, assuming not only that we all read books, although the social media sites, among other places, will occasionally insist that we don’t, but also that we’re a little bit obsessive about them when we do. We all would like to know that we are not @colsonwhitehead, or at least that we are not — not all the time, or even most of the time — those meticulous constructions we spend more, perhaps even most (“most” in a qualitative sense anyway) of our time becoming. Je est un autre. Rimbaud’s notorious observation has become a prescription. Every last one of us has become someone else, at least one person, by now.
What does this have to do, though, with criticism? Or with reading and writing? After all, the Michiko-vs.-Michiko-vs.-Michiko (at the time of this writing, a third avatar has entered the arena on Twitter, though s/he hasn’t contributed much) debate isn’t interesting in itself. It falls apart upon cursory, let alone close, inspection. Who cares? Instead, I find myself thinking about the last book I read: Speedboat, by Renata Adler. (She’s not on Twitter either, but I was gratified, recently, to Google and see she’s alive.) Thinking, specifically, about the person I become — that other person, that instead-person or un-person, Unman — while I read it. (U-man. Unamuno.) Really read it, or read anything, without checking my phone or distractedly skimming pages. For that matter, though, who I am when I do those things too: when I’m absorbed in the business of being elsewhere, or elsewho. When I’m being Colson Whitehead, or Renata Adler, or even Michiko Kakutani. Some of these visitations may be more welcome than others, but it’s almost impossible for me to keep these other voices at the door. They crowd me and I ask them to. As a willing participant on Twitter, I’m startled to reflect how many people — “people” — I’ve never met and may yet never, people whose height, scent, mannerisms, and vocal tones are completely unknown to me are nevertheless my … what? Friends? Not exactly. Correspondents? Well, no: That implies that we’re talking directly to one another (usually, we aren’t), instead of aloud, with the intention of being overheard. Whatever it is, this relation, it’s weirdly insistent: These people are in my head.
Which is what it always comes down to, in life as in literature. These people are in my head. Occasionally too much (I write, I think, to clear them out: to allow my own unperson to replace the other über-ur-people, at least for a while), but that’s how we live: with and around and throughout (somehow, that’s the right preposition) our imaginative projections of others. A critic like Kakutani makes her living browsing through the imaginative products (as very much distinct from “projections”: a book is not, or at least not often, a Facebook profile) of authors, at least occasionally conflating the two. As we all do. Consider which construction you’re more likely to use in conversation: I don’t like Philip Roth, or I don’t like the novels of Philip Roth. A fiction writer, if she or he is any good, moves comfortably among such projections, comfortably enough that whatever “self” she possesses becomes as plastic, as pliable and receptive, as the imagined figures that surround her. (If this seems an airy or stupid assertion, consider how many autobiographical narratives are sunk by what seems a leaden fidelity to fact, by feeling not quite dreamed-up enough. This is true even of nonfiction, which is why the late New York Times critic Anatole Broyard’s memoir, Kafka Was the Rage, seems to me so thrilling and yet his one published fiction, “What the Cystoscope Said,” remains utterly flat.) If the novelist is really, really good — if the novelist is Henry James or Jane Austen — this kind of projection becomes, to some extent, their subject. (“As she stood before the canvas,” Austen writes, describing the beginnings of Elizabeth Bennett’s change of heart towards Mr. Darcy, which incites not during a face-to-face meeting but while she contemplates his portrait, “… she thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before.”) It’s possible some of the exhaustion people feel around the genre — I won’t pick up the Novel is Dead gauntlet, but even some of fiction’s most indefatigable practitioners (like Roth) claim not to read the stuff anymore — reflects the fact those projections are carried now in other ways. It’s difficult to want to read about imaginary people, now that we’re crowded by them 24/7.
Someone asked me recently what I felt was the role of the critic. I didn’t have an answer. Books, and excellent essays (see Randall Jarrell’s “The Age of Criticism”; see any Jarrell essay, for that matter), have been written on the topic, and all I could think of was something the critic, any critic, should not do, in the form of a famous anecdote about Pauline Kael and Sidney Lumet. Asked what she felt the proper role of a critic was, Kael allegedly pointed at the director and said, “My job is to show him where to go.” If the story’s true, it’s deserving of some scorn: Critics aren’t cops, and a didactic one really oughtn’t claim any more of our attention than a novelist who’s a tool of the state. But. A critic is a rhetoritician, a seducer, an illustrator; a good critic is anyway, far more than a demagogue. A good critic resembles a novelist, in other words, more than a censor, or a GPS system. A good critic doesn’t “show” an artist, or an audience, “where to go” so much as represent a territory, suggest inviting (or uninviting, and altogether avoidable) routes along the way, offering some textural sense of what it’s like to visit, suggesting where a decent glass of wine might be found. A critic is a kind of travel writer. At the very least, a critic should possess a sophisticated sense of metaphor. He ought to dodge that problem of the literal, respond not with dogma but with figuration.
Which is where the Twitter dust-up seems curious. “@colsonwhitehead please clarify that I am not you.” It remains uncertain, still, whether @ActualNYTMK’s account is maintained by theTimes critic, but if so, the poker-faced literalism of such a response is disappointing. If it isn’t her, we might look, alternately, at James Wood’s recent foray into the comments section of an article posted on The Millions, where Wood (or “Wood”: his avatar, at any rate, as maintained by the man himself) took umbrage at an essay that leveled criticism his way. Wood entered the thread, a little clumsily, in the third person, naming “contemporary writers Wood has written about and praised, in detail,” and noting that, “Commentors to this thread may be interested to discover that the review by James Wood” that is the subject of the article “was broadly POSITIVE.” Once the provenance of his comments was called into question, Wood responded to one of the questioners, “Why the quotation marks around my name? ‘James Wood’ and James Wood are the same.”
If only it were that simple. Seeing a critic as perspicacious as Wood (or at least, as Wood’s avatar might be presumed to be, if actually managed by the man) lunge and stumble thus suggests what a problem it is for everybody to keep our virtual and physical selves apart. It mightn’t be necessary — perhaps it’s just a 21st century iteration of the Cartesian split — except for that moment when self rounds on “self” (or “self” on “self”: there’s no reason to privilege one over the other, in this case) and the two are out of agreement. Then again, that’s most of the time. Which makes this a dispute that can never be settled on the internet, but rather only, if at all, by the calm management of the hellacious, if charming, tensions of being alive.