Critical distance

Our intrepid editor tries to track down the scariest—and most elusive—book critic in the world

Illustration By Joel Smith

Call it obsolete, oppressive hegemony, but among American newspaper book-review sections, there’s The New York Times, and there’s everybody else. And among the reviewers at the Times, there’s Michiko Kakutani, and there’s everybody else. Kakutani isn’t famous, or infamous, exactly—not by contemporary American indexes of fame—but she is prolific, and presumed to be a launcher and crippler of literary careers. More than 50,000 books get published each year, and Kakutani passes judgement on those that are deemed to matter, the so-called Books of the Times. Whenever a significant publishing event occurs—a David Foster Wallace novel, a Bill Clinton autobiography, an Art Spiegelman comic about September 11—Kakutani is there.

At the same time, she’s nowhere. Kakutani is all but invisible. She doesn’t go in for literary society. She doesn’t do parties, or photos, or press interviews. She writes reviews. Routinely she has been despised, on account of seeming acerbic, unfair, insulting, disdainful, moralizing—a critic, basically—and, what is apparently worse, for not being very social. In the important circles, it has been unnerving; for a long while, the mystique of Michiko Kakutani has consisted of wondering whether she is, truly, an insider or an outsider.

But it is time to retire the mystique. It has stopped being “What is it about her?” and become “What is it about people asking what it is about her?” Thus, another article about Michiko Kakutani inevitably amounts to an article about the previous articles about Michiko Kakutani, and about the absence of access to the actual person.

For the writer of such a piece, the experience comes close to a kind of self-conscious Charlie Kaufmanesque anguish, only less hip and more exhausted. For the obscure journalist, at least, there is still no access to Kakutani, nor, even, to her peers. Mystique or no, this journalist tells himself (and this journalist is telling himself), the Michi quest is intrinsically cursed. There is awareness that Gay Talese wrote well about Frank Sinatra even with bad access, followed by despair at the many reasons this is a different situation. There is brief flirtation with the idea of fictionalizing the critic, followed by more despair at recalling how Leslie Epstein already has done it, as brilliantly as will ever be possible, in his novel Ice Fire Water. (Leib Goldkorn, Holocaust survivor, well-reviewed novelist and obsessive fantasist: “Kakutani! Let us have a coition!”) There is required rereading of “I Am Michiko Kakutani,” a great moment in McSweeney’s history by Kakutani’s college classmate Colin McEnroe: “The whole thing started at Yale in the winter of 1972 when my roommates and I made up the name as an all-purpose coinage. We’d answer the phone: ‘Kevin? No, he’s not here. This is his roommate Michiko Kakutani.’ We’d use it as a catch-all for any nameless broken part of our stereo: ‘Aha! The problem’s with the michiko kakutani.’” There is registration of the sheer having-been-doneness of it all.

Whatever personal questions we have for the bête noire of book reviewing already have been asked and answered, inasmuch as they can be. And as if her hundreds of thousands of words of literary commentary won’t cover it. She might not even be the bête noire anymore, now that B.R. “Reader’s Manifesto” Myers and Dale “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation” Peck have hit the scene. Peck, of course, already has resigned from writing book reviews, leaving opponents to suss out a connection between the abusive father he describes in memoir and the tough love of his fiercely contrarian criticism. But we have no such purchase on Kakutani, and that’s just how it’ll have to be. We should let her go about her work, and write letters to the editor or essays for The Believer if we think she’s full of it, and finally just stop reporting that she hasn’t returned our calls, because no one ever expected her to.

For responsibility’s sake, here are some facts: She was born in New Haven, Conn., in 1955. Her father, who died in August 2004, was the Yale University math professor Shizuo Kakutani, as well-known an ergodic theorist as anyone can be. Michiko attended Yale herself, where she studied literature and graduated in 1976. She began working at the Times in 1979 and became a book critic there in 1983. In 1998, she won a Pulitzer. “It feels unreal,” she said at the time. There aren’t many pictures of her.

Two years ago, on the front page, she called Bill Clinton’s My Life “sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull.” Recently she has eulogized Saul Bellow; growled at the Yankees for their 2004 playoff loss to the Red Sox (“the greatest choke job in baseball history”); obliquely abhorred the Bush administration’s management of the Abu Ghraib scandal; shamed Tom Wolfe; assayed both Shakespeare’s beginnings (Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare) and civilization’s ends (Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed); and just a few weeks ago flayed a whole subculture of book-biz publicists, and Truman Capote, by impersonating his character Holly Golightly.

Magazine features have been devoted to comparing the incidence of Kakutani’s favorable and unfavorable reviews (a ratio low enough, apparently, to be newsworthy) and even to her choice of words—in particular, the verb “limn,” which has turned up in a lot of her reviews, and in other people’s reviews, probably because it’s a useful term for describing how books work. Perhaps a better measure of Kakutani’s vocabulary would be her well-stocked arsenal of negative adjectives. A random sample includes: blockheaded, annoying, hectoring, biased, didactic, tendentious, obtuse, inane, haphazard, messy, highly mediocre (incomplete without the adverb), narcissistic, long-winded, tedious, turgid, graceless, bogus, derivative, blatant, gratuitous, phony, lazy, voyeuristic and reductive. Those last nine occurred in a single review, of John Updike’s 2002 novel, Seek My Face.

You can see how she might have accumulated some enemies. The Nation’s former literary editor, John Leonard, is on the record decrying Kakutani’s “tin ear” and “benighted” analysis. The Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley said that when he heard Kakutani had won a Pulitzer, he wanted to give back his own.

“I remember one review where she liked precisely the thing everyone else hated,” an editor at a major publishing house observed recently. “I thought, how perverse. Otherwise, it’s interesting how she seems to hate everything. Which in some way I totally respect her for. We used a blurb from her for something maybe once, because it’s so rare that we can.”

Salman Rushdie has called Kakutani “a weird woman who seems to feel the need to alternately praise and spank,” an assessment with which Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers probably would agree, if they felt like talking about it. They don’t. Most people don’t, at least not on the record. By far the commonest Kakutani comment these days, from authors, fellow critics and general publishing folk, is “no comment.”

Even those who a few years ago were delighted to have at her apparently have wearied of the subject. “The truth is, I don’t really know Michi,” McEnroe recently confessed. “I had lunch with her once, because she was friends with my roommate. There was this very edgy crowd working on something called the Yale Daily News magazine. I wasn’t part of that, though. I was kind of a nobody.”

So, here is a critic about whom plenty of people have already said plenty, and who still won’t talk about herself, won’t be talked about very much anymore and won’t be quoted very often on dust-jacket blurbs. How sustainable can the Michiko mystique possibly be? After a while it seems degrading to maintain it.

For a while, we’d come to expect a few distinct nodes in the continuum of commentary: the reviewer, a consumer reporter functionary; the critic, a maker of pronouncements; and the essayist, a user of thousands of words to convey ideas for which hundreds probably will do. Today’s book-culture carnival has allowed room for others, many on the reader’s side of the equation: the content-aggregating blogger; the flirtily hostile novelist (Epstein); and, God forbid, the wackjob stalker, possibly lurking outside the critic’s residence, wherever the hell it is, with a Roth paperback in one tweed blazer pocket and a revolver in the other, waiting for the right moment to strike, shouting, “You just don’t get it! Well, who’s the dying animal now!?”

It needn’t come to that. Celebrity being what it is in America, the peculiar personality cult of the literary critic is at odds with the big-screen scale of fame and obscurity. Such a critic as Kakutani, by being influentially opinionated but also invisible, has been characterized as a kind of literary guerrilla warrior, an insider and an outsider. She may be a fighter, but only for ideas, as far as we’re concerned, which is any critic’s prerogative. Otherwise, she might well be nothing more than a byline. Someday the Times will need to write her obituary, and who knows what secret material it will unveil? For fun, though, the paper should do it in three words: “It was unreal.”