What Michiko Kakutani Talked About When She Talked About Books

After 38 years at The New York Times, the woman whose name became synonymous with book culture in America is retiring from the paper.

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“Oh, my God, right, your book’s reviewed this week. You must be so excited!”

That’s Carrie Bradshaw’s friend Stanford Blatch. And he is, Sex and the City’s newly christened book author informs him, incorrect.

“More like terrified,” Carrie tells him. “Michiko Kakutani. She’s the Times’s book critic.” Carrie adds: “She’s brilliant, and she’s really tough.”

Brilliant and really tough is, even when refracted through Sex and the Citys kaleidoscopic caricature of New York City, an extremely apt description of Kakutani, the woman who, for 38 years, has reviewed books, toughly and brilliantly, for the city’s—and the nation’s—paper of record. On Thursday, the Pulitzer-winner announced her retirement from the Times, the latest high-profile journalist to take one of the buyouts the paper has been offering to its staffers. The Books desk at the paper will now be led by Parul Sehgal, Dwight Garner, and Jennifer Senior, with regular contributions from Janet Maslin. The group, a Times press release announced, will oversee the desk as it “expands its coverage, reaching out to new audiences while continuing to provide the high standard of authoritative literary criticism our readers have depended on for decades.”

That criticism has been authoritative in large part because of Kakutani. She hasn’t been, over these past several decades, merely a critic; she has been a critic who has elevated the art form she has criticized. In a media environment that sometimes treats books as fusty, dusty things—as distractions, as indulgences, academic and isolated from the world’s more pressing problems—Kakutani has insisted on the urgency of books. She has understood that if a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself, then a good book review, published within such a paper, would have a similar conversational effect. Books, she has insisted, are their own form of civic discourse. We marginalize them at our peril.

Kakutani found an eager market for that message—so much so that the book critic became, against so many odds, a pop-culture phenomenon. It wasn’t just Sex and the City, after all, with its book-specific plot lines, that has celebrated her impact on the world. Kakutani has also been mentioned in The OC. And in Girls. She has been the subject of satire. And of fan fiction. And she has—perhaps the greatest tribute of all, for a woman who wields words like weapons—been made into a verb. (“Kakuntanied,” verbal adj.: to fall victim to “the poison pen of America’s most powerful literary critic.”)

Some of the interest in Kakutani as a person has likely stemmed from the fact that, during a time in which authorship itself has been subject to the whims of branding, Kakutani has refused to hold anything—or, more specifically, anyone—sacred. She has managed both to shape literary consensus and to delight in rejecting it. Over the years, Kakutani has offered up notably blistering reviews of the likes of Toni Morrison, and John Updike, and Don DeLillo. She has called Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake a “lumpy hodgepodge of a book” that is “didactic, at times intriguing but in the end thoroughly unpersuasive.” Her poison pen has dismissed Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son as “silly, self-important, and at times inadvertently comical.” It has assessed Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down as a “maudlin bit of tripe,” and Martin Amis’s The Second Plane as “a weak, risible” volume, and Jonathan Franzen’s The Discomfort Zone as “an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass.”

For that, understandably, Kakutani has often invoked the ire of those—and other—authors. Franzen called her “the stupidest person in New York City.” Salman Rushdie described her, more elegantly and even more cuttingly than his fellow wordsmith, as “a weird woman.” Nicholson Baker said that reading one of her reviews “was like having my liver taken out without anesthesia.”

And yet Kakutani, operating within a book culture that can bend toward hagiography and enthusiasm and smarm, has also distinguished herself for her willingness to anger those authors. She has embraced “criticism” in every sense of the word. She has assessed each book on its merits. She has been sharp, but she has never been cruel. And: She has been on the side of the reader, always. If a book is a “lumpy hodgepodge,” she has said that it is a lumpy hodgepodge—even if the creator of the mess has happened to be Margaret Atwood.

This in turn meant that, when Michiko Kakutani liked a book, the liking itself was a very, very big deal. Her criticism has helped to make the careers of David Foster Wallace, and Zadie Smith, and George Saunders, and Mary Karr. And it has helped, as well, to make her byline itself into a literary destination of its own. When Kakutani won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, the judging committee cited not only her “fearless and authoritative” journalism, but also the fact that her work had become “destination programming” for people in the book world, such as it is, and beyond.

It’s the beyond that has made Kakutani such an inimitable force in American journalism and American criticism. And it’s the beyond, as well—that sense of books as living, breathing, angering, inspiring, wondering, wonderful things—that may well shape the next stage of her career. Vanity Fair, which broke the news of Kakutani’s retirement from the Times, suggests that her departure from the paper will not necessarily be a departure from writing itself. As Joe Pompeo reported, “sources familiar with her decision, which comes a year after the Times restructured its books coverage, told me that last year’s election had triggered a desire to branch out and write more essays about culture and politics in Trump’s America.”

Perhaps one thing that launched that desire is the lauded review Kakutani published, in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, of Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939. A masterpiece of rhetoric as well as reviewing, the piece compared the years Ullrich was studying with those we are living in now, to teasing, and somewhat tragic, effect. “How did this ‘most unlikely pretender to high state office’ achieve absolute power in a once democratic country,” Kakutani asked, “and set it on a course of monstrous horror?” Maybe now, as Pompeo suggests, she will continue asking such questions—in a different setting, but with the same sense of urgency. Maybe Kakutani’s retirement from the Times will be not a retirement in full so much as the start of something new. Maybe the ethos that has guided her work—books, not as separate from culture and politics and the world at large, but as their most thoughtful measures—will continue. Here’s hoping. These are times, after all, that demand good conversations. And the best of those are generally led by people who are both brilliant and, yes, really tough.