Thursday, July 27, 2017

What Michiko Kakutani Talked About When She Talked About Books

“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 City’s 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.”)

by Megan Garber, The Atlantic |  Read more:
Image: Hannah Thomson, Vanity Fair
[ed. See also: Farewell, Michiko Kakutani!]