Michiko Kakutani, the chief New York Times book critic once placed by Esquire magazine at “the red-hot center of the literary universe” and “the only one who serious people take at all seriously,” is the latest iconic Times culture department byline to take a buyout and call it quits.
She has been a key figure in the pantheon of young critics brought to the paper by legendary managing editor Arthur Gelb — along with Janet Maslin on film and Frank Rich on theater — since becoming the paper’s fiction critic in 1983. Parul Sehgal, a senior editor at The New York Times Book Review has been named book critic, joining Dwight Garner and Jennifer Senior in the weekly rotation (along with Maslin, who contributes as well).
“[N]o figure has played a larger role in guiding readers through the country’s literary life over the past four decades than Michi,” NYT executive editor Dean Baquet wrote to the staff after Vanity Fair scooped the Paper of Record on its own story. He added that Kakutani, universally known as Michi, had expressed a “desire to branch out and write more essays about culture and politics in Trump’s America.”
Cultural criticism has, however, long been part of Kakutani’s portfolio at the Times as one of its most astute observers, not to mention king- and queen-makers, on the one hand, and unflinching voice of dissent on such popular writers as Ann Beattie and Jonathan Franzen on the other. As a result, Kakutani’s influence on pop culture, especially film and television, extended far beyond the culture pages of the Times and into Hollywood corner offices where deals were made determining which hot property would become the next film or series.
Here she is, for example, writing on the 10-year anniversary of 9/11:
“Sept. 11 changed the context in which we live, and so it percolates beneath artists’ choices and audiences’ expectations in myriad, unseen ways. It’s there in Bruce Springsteen’s new songs memorializing the victims, but it’s also there in the lumbering suspense of the Mel Gibson thriller Signs, which plays to our anxiety about the unknown, and the Jodie Foster movie The Panic Room, which suggests that there is no place safe to hide. The title of the second film installment of the Tolkien trilogy, The Two Towers, has taken on an unwanted collateral meaning, and in the case of the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical Into the Woods, the plot – involving an angry giantess who menaces the show’s fairy tale community – now resonates with new associations. When the show was first staged 15 years ago, it reverberated with the threat of the AIDS crisis; today, it is terrorism that lurks in the giantess’s shadow.
“With movies, television and Broadway shows, it’s often less a question of what artists are thinking or what the public wants than what second-guessing producers think will sell…In the wake of the blockbuster success of Spider-Man this spring, studios have jumped on the comic-book bandwagon; there are more than a dozen superhero movies in development or production… Much like the Harry Potter franchise, they are movies meant to generate good clean escapist fun, while dramatizing President Bush’s good vs. evil language and neatly evading the complexities of depicting the real world.”
Tenacious and fiercely competitive, Kakutani and the Times went to extraordinary lengths to make cultural criticism as newsworthy as possibly. As famous at the paper for her chain-smoking, nearly hermetic lifestyle as for her speed and acuity, Kakutani often read – and wrote – through the night to turn around a review of an important tome, whether a presidential memoir or the latest Harry Potter installment.
“So, here it is at last,” she wrote of the seventh Potter novel, which had been held back from advance copies. “The final confrontation between Harry Potter, the Boy Who Lived, the Chosen One, the ‘symbol of hope’ for both the Wizard and Muggle worlds, and Lord Voldemort, He Who Must Not Be Named, the nefarious leader of the Death Eaters and would-be ruler of all. Good versus Evil. Love versus Hate. The Seeker versus the Dark Lord…J. K. Rowling’s monumental, spellbinding epic, 10 years in the making, is deeply rooted in traditional literature and Hollywood sagas — from the Greek myths to Dickens and Tolkien to Star Wars. And true to its roots, it ends not with modernist, Soprano-esque equivocation, but with good old-fashioned closure: a big-screen, heart-racing, bone-chilling confrontation and an epilogue that clearly lays out people’s fates….With each installment, the Potter series has grown increasingly dark, and this volume — a copy of which was purchased at a New York City store yesterday, though the book is embargoed for release until 12:01 a.m. on Saturday — is no exception. While Ms. Rowling’s astonishingly limber voice still moves effortlessly between Ron’s adolescent sarcasm and Harry’s growing solemnity, from youthful exuberance to more philosophical gravity, Deathly Hallows is, for the most part, a somber book that marks Harry’s final initiation into the complexities and sadnesses of adulthood.”
Which is not bad for a 12-hour deadline from start to finish. Kakutani’s departure follows those of two other significant contributors to the Times’ culture report: film (and cabaret) critic Stephen Holden, who left this spring absent the institutional fanfare he richly deserved, and highly regarded drama critic Charles Isherwood. At least two key editors on the Times culture desk also requested buyouts in the latest round of staff changes, sources said.