Magazine | August 28, 2017, Issue

Who Critiques the Critic?

On the career of Michiko Kakutani

Michiko Kakutani, who retired in July as the New York Times’ chief book critic after 38 years at the paper, never wrote fiction herself. Nonetheless, she is responsible for one of the great fictional characters in recent memory: Michiko Kakutani.

In 1998, citing her “passionate, intelligent writing on books and contemporary literature,” the Pulitzer Committee awarded Kakutani its prize for criticism. The Times, in its nominating letter, had suggested that Kakutani possessed “something close to a pure critical intelligence: fearless, disinterested, and responsive.”

Kakutani’s employer was, perhaps, entitled to its enthusiasm. The year before, “in steady, almost relentless procession, publishers brought out important, controversial, and, in some cases, career-capping novels by virtually all of the Great White Males of American fiction: Salinger, Mailer, Roth, Updike, Pynchon, and DeLillo. In between were major nonfiction works: Henry Louis Gates’s timely and personal look at race in America, Gabriel García Márquez’s foray into investigative journalism.” So wrote the Times. Kakutani “took upon herself all of the year’s big challenges.” Roth, whose last novel (Sabbath’s Theater) she had panned, she praised for his latest effort (American Pastoral). Updike, whom she had previously applauded (for In the Beauty of the Lilies), she excoriated (for Toward the End of Time). “What these examples, among many, prove,” the Times insisted, “is that Kakutani reviews books, not reputations.”

Apparent even-handedness, unflagging output, and a distaste for confessional writing (“I” almost never appears in a Kakutani review) combined with a fiercely guarded private life to give the impression of a critic who was less a human reader than a Delphic oracle, pronouncing upon this or that quaking mortal’s latest oblation.

The result in the literary world was a de facto dictatorship. Books lived or died at the end of Michiko Kakutani’s pen. A good review was “like having the good fairy touch you on the shoulder with her wand,” said Mary Karr. A bad review, said Nicholson Baker, “was like having my liver taken out without anaesthesia.” In the television series Sex and the City, a book published by Carrie Bradshaw (played by Sarah Jessica Parker) earns a Kakutani review. “Are you excited?” a friend asks. “More like terrified.” Vanity Fair, which broke the news of Kakutani’s retirement, described her as “the most feared woman in publishing.”

Naturally, this occasioned bitterness. When Kakutani ripped Norman Mailer’s 1997 novel The Gospel according to the Son (“a silly, self-important and at times inadvertently comical book that reads like a combination of Godspell, Nikos Kazantzakis’s Last Temptation of Christ and one of those new, dumbed-down Bible translations”), Mailer retorted that she was a “one-woman kamikaze” who “disdains white male authors” and that the Times retained her only because she was Asian and female. In 2006, Kakutani bashed Jonathan Franzen’s memoir The Discomfort Zone (“an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass”); two years later, during an appearance at Harvard, Franzen remarked: “The stupidest person in New York City is currently the lead reviewer of fiction for the New York Times.”

Yet while “Kakutanied” has come into the lexicon as a negative, it’s also true that Kakutani published many positive reviews. Roth’s American Pastoral was “a big, rough-hewn work built on a grand design, . . . moving, generous and ambitious.” The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov was a “sumptuous volume,” “a glorious recapitulation of the sorcerer’s entire career.” Occasionally, her reviews ushered unknown or almost unknown authors to literary stardom: White Teeth, published by Zadie Smith in 2000, “announces the debut of a preternaturally gifted new writer—a writer who at the age of 24 demonstrates both an instinctive storytelling talent and a fully fashioned voice that’s street-smart and learned, sassy and philosophical all at the same time.” And even when Kakutani had serious criticisms, she could be generous. David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest was a “loose, baggy monster” and “a mess,” but Wallace was nonetheless “one of the big talents of his generation, a writer of virtuosic talents who can seemingly do anything, someone who can write funny, write sad, write serious, write satiric, a writer who’s equally adept at the Pynchonesque epic and Nicholson Bakeresque minute, a pushing-the-envelope postmodernist who’s also able to create flesh-and-blood characters and genuinely moving scenes.”

This is all to say that Kakutani does possess critical sensitivity and that she is more than a put-down artist. But a study of Kakutani’s reviews—take as a start just those highlighted by the Times shortly after her retirement (“38 Years on Books: The Essential Michiko Kakutani Reader”)—makes no particularly compelling case for the reverence with which she has been treated for at least two decades.

Kakutani is rarely elegant. Her reviews are workmanlike. There is frequent comparison and contrast (“if Author X had a love child with Author Y, and the fruit of that union was reared by Author Z, the result would be Author Being Reviewed”). The prose is plainspoken. Certain words recur (the verb “limn” showed up so often that she was teased in Harper’s for being a “limnphomaniac”; “deeply felt” has been her adjectival phrase of choice in recent years). Once in a while, plainspokenness tumbles into sub-literacy (“The stakes today are infinitely so much huger”).

But occasional stylistic deficiencies are secondary to what is most strikingly absent from Kakutani’s criticism: any significant imaginative ambition on the part of the critic herself. Besides a general sentiment that fiction, at its best, is a uniquely powerful aesthetic experience, Kakutani gives little if any impression of having any broad vision of what literature is or ought to be, or of its role in contemporary American culture. Of the “organic wholes” that T. S. Eliot suggested are constituted by any literature (continental, national, regional, etc.)—“systems in relation to which, and only in relation to which, individual works of literary art, and the works of individual artists, have their significance”—Kakutani seems uninterested, if not unaware, and with Eliot’s notion that the “true artists” of any period form an “unconscious community” and share certain preoccupations, she seems unconcerned. With this in mind, perhaps one ought to see Kakutani’s famous unpredictability in her likes and dislikes less as the application of a “pure critical intelligence” than as intellectual narrowness.

It is striking that a literary culture that was once shaped by, among others, Eliot, Edmund Wilson, Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin, Lionel Trilling, Saul Bellow, and Susan Sontag, not to mention the “southern critics” (e.g., Robert Penn Warren, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate)—that once carried on urgent, vigorous debates about literature in the pages of Partisan Review and Commentary—has for decades prostrated itself before the judgments of one person, and that person of no particular genius. It is impossible to imagine Kakutani writing something on the order of Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” or Tate’s “The Man of Letters in the Modern World,” or spotting anything like the disjunction between literature and mainstream politics that Trilling did in The Liberal Imagination when he observed that “Proust, Joyce, Lawrence, Eliot, Yeats, Mann (in his creative work), Kafka, Rilke, Gide—all have their own love of justice and the good life,” and that “in not one of them does it take the form of a love of the ideas which liberal democracy, as known by our educated class, has declared respectable.”

And that is a loss, to put it mildly. Critical and creative work are mutually reinforcing. Intelligent art offers the critic an opportunity to unfold the meaning that is compressed into an aesthetic object; and intelligent criticism can refine and deepen the artist’s sensibilities. Meanwhile, good art and good criticism ennoble and elevate those who encounter them sympathetically, cultivating the moral imagination of individuals and, by extension, the public.

According to Vanity Fair, in lieu of literary criticism Kakutani plans to “branch out and write more essays about culture and politics in Trump’s America.” Kakutani’s politics, insofar as they are knowable from her reviews, are constituted largely of boilerplate liberalism, whether the subject is George W. Bush or Donald Trump. (Trump was the target of Kakutani’s review of Volker Ulrich’s Hitler: Ascent, 1889–1939, published in January 2016, although she did not explicitly name him.) No doubt these forthcoming essays will be received with more breathless admiration.

That the most important book critic in the country has for decades been a dispensary of, at best, accurate but circumscribed judgments and, at worst, semi-learned whims seems to have gone largely unnoticed, even by people supposedly of cultivated taste. One begins to wonder: In literary America, who critiques the critics?

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