August 1, 2017
Farewell, Michiko Kakutani and Thank You!
Farewell, Michiko Kakutani! On Thursday, the Times’ chief daily book critic announced that she would be leaving her regular reviewing post after thirty-eight years at the paper, marking the end of a literary era. Her assessments of novels and memoirs, works of history, biography, politics, and poetry have guided generations of American readers, and the prospect of getting a Kakutani review has been the hope and fear of more writers than could possibly be counted—a seriously big deal, or ordeal, as the case might be. A good review brought on elation. “It was like having the good fairy touch you on the shoulder with her wand,” Mary Karr told NPR. A bad one incited rage, sometimes despair. Nicholson Baker compared getting a negative Kakutani review to undergoing surgery without anesthesia; Jonathan Franzen called her “the stupidest person in New York.” (She had deemed his memoir “an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass.”) What made her scary to writers made her reliable to readers: you couldn’t easily predict where her favor would fall.
Thank You. Michiko, for your Book Reviews in the New York Times. You will be sorely missed. –Din Merican
More so than any critic working today, Kakutani has become synonymous with her profession. Her name long ago entered the lexicon as a verb (“to be Kakutanied”), a signifier of the ultimate cultural prestige. On “Sex and the City,” Carrie Bradshaw declared herself “terrified” of getting the Michiko treatment. A generation later, Hannah Horvath, on “Girls,” just wanted to “lock eyes” with her across a room—not an easy feat, considering Kakutani’s reputation for guarding her privacy. She turns down interviews, never does panels, and is rarely photographed. A head shot of Joan Didion is still, mysteriously, the first picture to appear on a Google search for Kakutani. Her Twitter avatar is an egg, though not one of the old default cartoon ones, beloved of trolls, but, rather, an attractive, hard-boiled number, luxuriating against a sea-green pillow.
Who is Michiko Kakutani? What is she like? One minuscule clue came in the much-discussed interview that she conducted with Barack Obama in January, days before his second term came to an end. When the President referred to his teen-age years, and his adolescent preference for “imbibing things that weren’t very healthy,” Kakutani responded, “I think all of us did.” Michiko Kakutani imbibed unhealthy substances in high school! I thought, with weird excitement. That she had couched this confession in a universal statement, thus disclosing absolutely nothing about herself, only added to her mystique.
She is careful to hide herself on the page, too. “I” is a word that you will never read in a Kakutani review. She had no interest in the first person as a critical device, and that avoidance of the personal pronoun is part of what could make her negative reviews feel so lacerating. When she wrote, for instance, that Don DeLillo’s novel “Cosmopolis” was “a major dud, as lugubrious and heavy-handed as a bad Wim Wenders film, as dated as an old issue of Interview magazine,” the burn was all the sicker from being simultaneously so specific and so remote. (Note how this statement is actually three insults squeezed into one; what did Wim Wenders do to get so brutally Kakutanied along with DeLillo?)
Certain observers resented Kakutani for resisting “I,” a preference that became more noticeable as the chatty, confessional informality of Internet writing started to change the tone of criticism in the early aughts. Ben Yagoda, writing in Slate, accused Kakutani of having no humor, no wit, and no voice of her own. (He was, to this critic’s mind, overly aggrieved by the goofy reviews that Kakutani sometimes wrote in character. It’s a gruelling business, trying to find fresh ways to write about other people’s writing, let alone trying to do it multiple times a week. Let a critic have some fun.) Yagoda implored Kakutani to retire the old-fashioned epithet “the reader,” which she preferred to the personal pronoun. Then there’s the argument that the critic should use the first person to lay all her cards on the table, owning up to the particular experiences that shaped the taste that she’s bringing to bear on someone else’s work. But self-exposure wasn’t Kakutani’s style. What a critic needs most is independence, the ability to evaluate a work on her, and its, own terms. Some people find their independence through the first person, stressing the subjective nature of the whole critical enterprise. Kakutani found it by screening herself with the privacy afforded by the third. If she loved your book, or if she hated it, it wasn’t personal. “The reader” might always change her mind—next time.
Kakutani had deeper concerns about the possible pitfalls of relying too much on the first person. Writing in 2006 about the fraudulent memoirist James Frey, whose partially fabricated account of his struggles with addiction came to be seen as a high point of narcissism during the era’s memoir craze, she connected Frey’s slippery personal revisionism to broader cultural trends eroding the value of objectivity and truth. It was surprising, to say the least, to find, in a piece about one guy’s lies, references to Holocaust historiography, Bill Clinton and the Lewinsky scandal, and the Bush White House’s manipulative cynicism regarding the invasion of Iraq. But Kakutani’s argument—that postmodernism and deconstruction had ushered in a view of the world in which “all meaning is relative, all truth elusive,” easily manipulated by people in power—proved perceptive and darkly prescient.
“We live in a relativistic culture where television ‘reality shows’ are staged or stage-managed, where spin sessions and spin doctors are an accepted part of politics,” she wrote. “This relativistic mindset compounds the public cynicism that has hardened in recent years, in the wake of corporate scandals, political corruption scandals and the selling of the war against Iraq on the discredited premise of weapons of mass destruction. And it creates a climate in which concepts like ‘credibility’ and ‘perception’ replace the old ideas of objective truth—a climate in which the efforts of nonfiction writers to be as truthful and accurate as possible give way to shrugs about percentage points of accountability.” Kakutani has said that she’ll take advantage of her retirement as a regular critic to write longer pieces about politics and culture, and that’s a good thing. For all the uproar that any given rave or take down of hers could incite, she kept her eye on the bigger picture.