Today, the New York Times announced that Pulitzer Prize winner Michiko Kakutani — perhaps the country’s most singularly influential book critic for decades — is stepping down from her role as the newspaper’s Chief Book Critic, and that critic/New York Times Book Review editor Parul Sehgal will be taking her place. In a press release, the Times stated, “it is with profound gratitude for her tremendous service to readers of The Times and readers of books everywhere that we take a moment to recognize her remarkable contributions over the past four decades.”
Kakutani has worked for the Times since 1979, and became a book critic in 1983. According to Vanity Fair, their sources say that a combination of changes to books coverage in the paper and changes to the political climate “triggered a desire to branch out and write more essays about culture and politics in Trump’s America.” As the Observer notes, it’s not like she hasn’t already — or, in fact, quite often — ventured into the intersections of politics and literature, having done so very literally when she spoke to Barack Obama about books at the disquieting end of his presidency.
VF claims Kakutani has taken a voluntary buyout that’s part of the NYT‘s new budgetary plan. Earlier this week, Joe Pompeo wrote in a separate Vanity Fair article about growing tension within the Times through “major newsroom reorganizing,” of which the buyouts are a main feature.
The Times released a comprehensive overview of 38 years of Kakutani’s writing on books, a selection they deem a representation of “a vigorously led life of the mind, a crash course in contemporary literature and a tour through the zeitgeist of the turn of the millennium.” It ranges from her reviews of more recent works like Marlon James’ staggering A Brief History of Seven Killings, to an older book with the word “staggering,” in fact, in its review-spoof of a title, Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, to canonized novels like Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Don DeLillo’s Underworld, to works of short fiction like Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America and George Saunders’ CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, to her recent much-discussed review of Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939.
Due largely to the weight of the position at the Times, and given her penchant for not holding back if she wishes to write a takedown, her reviews weren’t just seen as reviews, but potential career-makers-or-breakers. (Carrie Bradshaw is terrified of the incoming Kakutani review of her book in an episode of Sex and the City — and fictional-Kakutani ultimately seems to like Bradshaw’s puns and “couldn’t-help-but-wonder”ings.)
She’s ruffled the feathers of some writers — some of whose ruffled feathers ended up coming across as downright bigoted, others who responded a bit more directly to the nature of her criticism itself. Norman Mailer spoke of her in a Rolling Stone interview in 2005 with an explicitly racist/sexist attack. Meanwhile, Jonathan Franzen, who writes essays asserting that it’s more important to focus on the survival of birds than fighting climate change, called her the “stupidest person in New York” after she wrote a takedown of his memoir, The Discomfort Zone. (It speaks to Kakutani’s professionalism that after this comment she gave Freedom a good review.) Susan Sontag, as Slate long ago noted, had a pretty strong-worded response to Kakutani’s criticism, saying “her criticisms of my books are stupid and shallow and not to the point;” and Salman Rushdie called her “a weird woman who seems to feel the need to alternately praise and spank.” (“Those who rip her are usually authors she has ripped, and their indignation often muddies their logic,” Ben Yagoda wrote in Slate, in the article citing those last two examples.)
Meanwhile, Parul Sehgal has tweeted about the news of her new position:
Should you want to get a sense of the person who’s been given the opportunity to be the next massive influencer of what’s read and discussed nationwide, read Sehgal’s fantastic recent piece on Arundati Roy and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness for the Atlantic (“From the fine-grained affection that stirs her imagination springs an ethical imperative—after all, how can one appreciate the world without desiring to defend it? And it must be defended not merely from war or political calamity, but from that natural, more insidious phenomenon: forgetting.”); or her Times essay on Daphne du Maurier (“Few writers have watched and captured women with such conspicuous pleasure as du Maurier — the way they walk and wear coats and unscrew their earrings.”); or her piece on Diane Arbus for Book Forum (“sex became inextricable from her photography. Both took her deeper into people, into their mysteries, their secrets—and into herself, one imagines”).