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What the Departure of the Times’ Michiko Kakutani Means for Books Coverage

18 August 2017

From New York Magazine:

Except for the few people who were privy to Michiko Kakutani’s growing estrangement from the job of country’s most powerful book critic, most readers were surprised by her decision last month to take a buyout after 38 years at the New York Times. But one book publicist did have a premonition a week before the announcement. She had emailed Kakutani about a controversial political book for the early fall, which was technically under embargo, and hadn’t heard back with a request for an early copy. Books that break news are zealously guarded from most reporters and critics, but when Kakutani asked, you just mailed it off and bit your nails waiting for the verdict.

It’s usually overreaching to call any critic’s departure the end of an era, and Kakutani’s writing career isn’t over at all: This week she signed a multiple-book deal with Crown’s Tim Duggan Books. The first book, published next year, will be a controversial political book of her own, a cultural history of “alternative facts” titled The Death of Truth. But an era really has ended. As chief book critic, Kakutani was inimitable and irreplaceable. (In fact, there are no plans to name a new “chief critic.”) She was the “voice of God,” as one writer put it to me. Her column was a gauntlet no major author could escape, a maker of new stars (Zadie Smith, Alice Sebold, Jonathan Franzen) and punisher of old (Mailer, Updike, Franzen). And as she grew into the job, she became more legend than human, less knowable the more we got to know her. Famously private and therefore ripe for rumors (she’s dating Paul Simon! No, Woody Allen! No, she doesn’t exist!), given to quirks that made her a figure of snark (overusing the word limn, writing in the voice of Holden Caulfield), she attained a status in New York somewhere between Edmund Wilson and Dr. Zizmor. White male writers derided her for bashing their books, though Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw was terrified of her, too. Kakutanied became a verb. But whatever was said about her, which was a lot, the one thing you couldn’t say was that her judgment didn’t matter.

. . . .

Meanwhile, the Times became a tougher place for critical gods. Lone wolves hurling thunderbolts from their garrets gave way to affable co-critics doing online chats, TimesTalks, and video clips, writing personal essays and exploring their own biases. Change has been especially swift in books. Last year, Pamela Paul, editor of the Sunday Book Review, was directed to consolidate the paper’s three separate book fiefdoms — the Review, the print daily reviews, and publishing news — under one print-and-online department. Each of the three daily critics was generally reduced to one review per week (though asked to supplement with essays). Important books that used to be reviewed in both the daily and the Review now usually get only one at-bat, and, as at the Book Review under Paul, there is a move toward appreciations, Q&As, genre roundups, and hot-take debates.

Lead critics are going out of style across the paper; there are now “co-chief critics” in art, theater, and film, and after Kakutani’s departure, no book critic will have the right of first refusal. (Dwight Garner will review on Tuesdays, when the biggest books are published, followed by more recent arrival Jennifer Senior and new third critic Parul Sehgal.) Critics now meet with editors to brainstorm new elements and submit their pitches to the will of the collective. It’s a sea change for the daily, where critics had barely interacted with either editors or each other, and where, per two sources, Kakutani had sometimes been allowed to choose her editors and even copy editors. “For a very long time, Michi got her way,” says someone close to the situation, “until very recently people started pushing back in a big way, and I think that was part of her leaving.”

Link to the rest at New York Magazine

The OP reminded PG that New York City is really a lot of gossipy small towns. In the particular small town in which the OP is set, everybody knows the book critic pecking order and is obsessed by the reviewer who is at the top of that pecking order and every word she writes.

Similarly, the residents of this particular New York small town keep up with the latest gossip about the Times – who’s up and who’s down, what so-and-so said about whoever.

PG has traveled to New York City dozens of times, most on business and a few times for pleasure. Generally speaking, he has enjoyed those visits (particularly when someone else is paying his expenses), so he’s not a New York hater.

But PG doesn’t think New York is the most important place in the world and he absolutely knows that, while some smart people live in New York, the large majority live elsewhere. Since he is an attorney, PG also knows some very good (and some very bad) attorneys practice in New York, but most very good attorneys practice somewhere else.

Without question, New York is a special city. But so is Chicago. And Los Angeles and Dallas and Atlanta and Miami and Denver and Seattle and San Francisco. Plus London, Paris, Brussels, Venice, Florence, Rome, etc. (PG admits a bias in favor of Italian cities.) Like the children in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, almost every city is above average.

A final comment from P.J. O’Rourke:

I live in New Hampshire. We’re in favor of global warming. Eleven hundred more feet of sea-level rises? I’ve got beachfront property. You tell us up there, ‘By the end of the century, New York City could be underwater,’ and we say, ‘Your point is?’


18 Comments to “What the Departure of the Times’ Michiko Kakutani Means for Books Coverage”

  1. Should I feel bad that he’s the greatest and most important book reviewer EVER and I have never heard of him??

    • No …


    • Have you ever heard of the world’s greatest auto mechanic?
      High school biology teacher?

      Lots of people are the best at what they do and we never hear about them, even when what they do isn’t very pretty, but necessary.
      And critics are hardly necessary.

      I wouldn’t fret.
      It’s just the usual incestuous NYC publishing culture. Everybody there knows everybody and they think the rest of the world does, too. Being important in their pond doesn’t mean they are important out in the greater ocean.

    • I believe it’s a ‘she.’

  2. There really needs to be a Like button for your commentary, PG.

  3. kakutani has no where to go from nyt. Washed up,
    but then that was true years ago when they cut back book reviewing at the times. If the nyt’s strength is their investigative reporting behemoth, kakutani is and always was, a pencil dot. Preening and being book-lite was and faux draconian and otherwise chirpy, Kakutani’s product, fed by the publishers sending her free books by the boatload. She used to be able to pull advertizing from pubs. No more. When was last time you saw a full page nyt ad for a book? Prob not in last 20 years. Hoards stopped reading nyt book reviews years ago. My grandchildren, college grads, have no interest in other people telling them what is ‘good and proper’ to read, and what is not. Buggy whip is nyt’s idea of ‘current.’

    • Buggy whip is the nyt’s idea of ‘current’

      You know… If they’re into that, it might well explain some publishing house practices… Maybe they think people enjoy being bond and restrained and abused…

      Take care.

  4. Smart Debut Author

    What the Departure of the Times’ Michiko Kakutani Means for Books Coverage

    About the same as the death of Henry Ford means to the release of Tesla’s Model 3.

  5. Well, since I don’t read the NYT’s book reviews, this is utterly inconsequential to me.

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