Michiko Kakutani, Feared and Revered by the Literary World
Imagine harboring an entire library of knowledge in your head ready to call upon and express in an eloquent, brilliant, and worldly review about a debut novel. Not only is the familiarity with previous novels written by an author imperative, but also previous works of the same aesthetic, current events surrounding the novel, and an ever-ticking philosophical mind.
And imagine having this knowledge at the tip of your fingers. That’s the mind of a book critic. That’s the mind of Michiko Kakutani, the New York Time’s chief book critic who is stepping down after 38 years of making or breaking books and authors. Sometimes making and breaking, in the case of Jonathan Franzen.
Following a decent review of Franzen’s The Corrections, Ms. Kakutani wrote a brutal one for his memoir, The Discomfort Zone. She writes, “Just why anyone would be interested in pages and pages about this unhappy relationship or the self-important and self-promoting contents of Mr. Franzen’s mind remains something of a mystery.”
This prompted Franzen to call her “the stupidest person in New York City.” At the end of her sword, one would lash back. However, standing by her side as she praises, is a completely different story.
The most feared and revered book critic since beginning her role in 1983, Ms. Kakutani has reviewed everything from JK Rowling to Zadie Smith to Bill Clinton. Any major novel released during her years at work is nearly guaranteed to have her review, and then some.
A bad review from Ms. Kakutani could take down an author. Whereas, a raving review could throw an unknown author into the limelight. So sacred are her words that even an average person could be swayed from reading or not reading a novel. The New York Times put together a list of her greatest critical highlights.
“No one has played a larger role in guiding through the country’s literary life over the past four decades than Michi,” Executive Editor Dean Baquet wrote in a note to the NYT staff. “And no one, I would venture, knows more about the literature and writing that flowed out of Sept. 11.”
The End of an Era
— C.J. Chivers (@cjchivers) 27 July 2017
Michiko Kakutani, universally known as Michi, was merciless in her critiques. This reputation made her ever more trustworthy in her reviews. She once called a book a “lumpy hodgepodge of a book [that is] didactic, at times intriguing but in the end thoroughly unpersuasive,” not caring that the author was Margaret Atwood.
It is honesty and grittiness such as this that gave her the respect of the literary world. In 1998, Ms. Kakutani was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism.
Her latest and final review shows the tremendous power her words can give a debut novel. Stay with Me, a novel by Ayobmi Adebayo received Michi’s golden stamp of approval, the greatest gift a debut novelist can receive.
“It is, at once, a gothic parable about pride and betrayal; a thoroughly contemporary – and deeply moving – portrait of a marriage; a novel, in the lineage of great works by Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, that explores the pull in Nigeria between tradition and modernity, old definitions of masculinity and femininity and newer imperatives of self-definition and identity.”
Woof. Time to pick up that novel.
Book Critic to Political Critic
In a tweet last week, Michiko Kakutani wrote, “Moving on to focus on longer pieces about politics & culture, though I will always love & write about books.” Michi told Vanity Fair that last year’s election sparked a desire to branch out and write essays about politics and culture in Trump’s America.
Her review of Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939, doubles as criticism towards Donald Trump. “Hitler,” she wrote, “was often described as an egomaniac who ‘only loved himself’—a narcissist with a taste for self-dramatization…”
In her review of Bill Clinton’s memoir, My Life, she writes, “In many ways, the book is a mirror of Mr. Clinton’s presidency: lack of discipline leading to squandered opportunities; high expectation, undermined by self-indulgence and scattered concentration.”
A powerhouse woman with an unapologetic mind is just what America needs right now. And with that in mind, we can only anticipate merciless, powerful, and brilliant insight from Michiko Kakutani’s future political essays.