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

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.

There is indeed a person named Michiko Kakutani — small, high-voiced, fashionable, shy — and both she and her employer have changed a lot in recent years. Long careers are an old tradition at the Times, and buyouts are a newer one. This round, the sixth since 2008, also culled Kakutani’s fellow Pulitzer winners James Risen and Charles Duhigg. But few writers had Kakutani’s clout, never mind the right to review any damn book she wanted, with the other two daily critics dividing the leftovers. At 62, she wasn’t nearly done breaking out young authors (like Ayobami Adebayo, subject of her last review). But 34 years is a long time to file six reviews a month, and Kakutani’s interests had lately strayed more and more into politics, especially under Bush and now Trump. Friends say she asked to become a columnist or, possibly, a writer-at-large in the mold of former critic Frank Rich or her good friend Maureen Dowd. But the management turned her down. (The Times refused to comment on personnel matters, and Kakutani didn’t answer multiple requests for comment.)

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 share their review selections early to coordinate coverage. It’s a change for the daily, where daily and weekly critics and editors didn’t communicate, 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.” She could be a diva, says this source, “but in a way I fucking admire it. The world would be a sorrier place without divas.”

Biographer and critic James Atlas remembers Kakutani not as a diva but as a 23-year-old Yale graduate in a hurry, “chain-smoking unfiltered Camels and pounding away on her electric typewriter.” Both writers were part of a talented micro-generation who passed through Time magazine around the late ’70s and eventually found powerful perches in journalism (Walter Isaacson, Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, Graydon Carter). Michi, the daughter of a prominent Japanese mathematician, was quieter than most of the group, but just as driven. “She was super-intense,” says Atlas. “Somewhat shy but also very funny. She could write a cover story in two hours.”

Atlas hasn’t seen her in 30 years, except in print. “She became a tough person,” he says. “But in those days she was very sweet and vulnerable. Slightly paranoid, I guess.” At the Times, “she reached a point where she could be eviscerating” of any writer, no matter how powerful, “Mailer being a prime example. People were afraid. I was afraid.” The only time Atlas read his own name in a Kakutani review was when she chided him for blurbing a bad book. “She was very strict, like a teacher,” he says. “‘You can’t do this; you can’t do that.’ She didn’t tend to give people a break.” Jonathan Galassi, the publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, took to calling her “Preachy Michi.”

Kakutani became a book critic in 1983, four years after joining the Times as an arts reporter. In that decade she was social — befriending Paul Simon and Linda Ronstadt — and iconoclastic by Grey Lady standards. “She came on I think with the express purpose of discovering new talent,” says a longtime book editor, “and I would say for about a decade that was precisely what she did. She had an eye for the minimalists, she picked up the baton for Richard Ford and Frederick Barthelme.” Reviews of later Ford books were not so warm. “She had a soft spot for new writers,” says Atlas. “And if the new writers matured and became older, the soft spot hardened often.”

As Kakutani’s reviews became more assertive, her desire to steer clear of conflicts went beyond the usual critic’s reticence. Most book people have seen her twice at most. One prominent editor shared a cab with her, and she never said a word. “I saw her once at a party,” says the agent Bill Clegg, “and it was like spotting a unicorn.” Public photos of her appear slightly more frequently than those of Thomas Pynchon. But the word recluse doesn’t really apply. “She’s a lovely, warm friend,” says someone who has known her for many years. “She dotes on people’s children and families. It’s obviously a very, very small circle, but she is fun and interested in the world.”

Kakutani did socialize with people in publishing, in her own eccentric way. She would have long conversations with publicists, usually “one phone buddy at a time,” as someone puts it. The calls served a professional purpose — finagling finished copies as early as possible, sometimes before others at the Times got them, sent to a home address on Central Park West that everyone in book publicity knows by heart. Once, she complained to a “phone buddy” that the Times Book Review had an embargoed copy of one of the publicist’s books and Kakutani didn’t. After the publicist resisted sending her a copy, their relationship cooled.

Still, her talks weren’t all business. Before the embargo imbroglio, she spoke to this particular phone buddy roughly 20 times, for as long as an hour. She talked about studying art in Paris but giving it up when a teacher told her she could never do better than “a six or seven.” She talked about browsing Givenchy gowns on eBay. When the publicist finally ran into her in person and brought up the gown, Kakutani couldn’t recall that conversation. It was the only time they met.

There wasn’t much personal presence on the page, either. You won’t find the word I in a Kakutani review, just an omniscient “reader.” “She became the official voice of the Times,” says a book editor. “She stopped writing what felt to me like criticism and started making pronunciamentos.” Ben Yagoda wrote an essay denouncing her “evaluation fixation” — a litmus-test mentality that led to clichéd intensifiers (“dazzling,” “cringe-inducing”). Even her overuse of specific ten-dollar words and her occasional parody reviews were exceptions that proved the rule: a limited quiver of quirks standing in for a colorful voice. “I used to call them her book reports,” says Galassi. “They were quite formulaic and they weren’t always subtle, but now that she’s going I think we’re going to miss her definiteness.”

Whatever you thought of her style, she was regarded as a straight shooter with few axes to grind, gifted with what Atlas calls “an undeflectable will to truth.” (Who else could unreservedly praise a novel — Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom — not long after the author called her “the stupidest person in New York City”?) Kakutani’s Times colleagues compliment her in terms that describe a great and serious journalist — incorruptible, direct, unerring, and fast. “You could set your compass by her taste,” says Dwight Garner. “She was an intimidating colleague. Someone would die and she would manage to file within two hours some word-perfect tribute to that writer that drew on deep knowledge.” Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the Times, considers her “hands down the best critic at the New York Times, an intellectual who can synthesize many strands of both culture and politics in a way that I haven’t seen.”

But it was precisely Kakutani’s assembly-line efficiency that detractors harped on, especially as the years wore on. “If you want to get back at somebody you consider your enemy,” says the longtime editor, “give them a column in the Times. Because over time all of your weaknesses and faults are going to become glaringly obvious.” Dwight Garner himself wrote an essay decades ago calling for a four-year term limit for critics, citing Kakutani as a cautionary tale. Ten years later, when he became a Times critic, he renounced his own story. He’s now been on the job for nine years.

Kakutani felt the years, too. When faced with an editor or assignment she didn’t like (usually a digital project), she sometimes grumbled that she longed for the days of culture editor Seymour Peck. Peck died in 1985. Not that she had too much to grumble about. According to two sources, she claimed up to twice the number of books she had the space to review, leaving the next critic down to cover the 13th-best book of the month instead of the 7th. Other times, she would try to grab a book claimed by another critic at the 11th hour. This could lead to inefficiency and tension — especially after the paper’s longtime second-string critic, Janet Maslin, stepped back from full-time reviewing two years ago. “I think that was hard on Michi,” says a friend. “They were very close and had a very collegial arrangement of how they divvied up the books.” Kakutani took literary fiction and history, Maslin the more commercial stuff and memoirs. That precarious balance was upended when the lineup changed.

A year after Maslin’s downshift, Times executive editor Dean Baquet announced the full reorganization of books coverage under Paul. Part of Paul’s mandate was to deal with inefficiencies — duplicate coverage of some books and skipped coverage of others. In a post-Kakutani regime, pieces will be organized and assigned by Paul and books editorial director Radhika Jones. There is ambivalence about the new structure, especially if it means fewer big-book reviews. “I think books are vital enough to our society that they deserve two bites of the apple,” says former Times head Jill Abramson. “They are uniquely important in the life of a democracy, and important books deserve both reviews.” One defender of the new system counters that there will still be some duplicate reviews — just more carefully planned to represent different points of view.

The amped-up planning might have been Kakutani’s final straw. Paul recently convened monthly blue-sky meetings for book critics to figure out what a new, web-friendly books page might look like. Kakutani never showed up, pleading illness or conflicts, leading to a couple of sessions that were deeply undermined by the conspicuous absence of the most influential writer. The editors floated the idea of online conversations along the lines of the A.O. Scott–Manohla Dargis dialogue about the “25 Best Films of the 21st Century So Far,” which was very popular online. “She’s kind of reclusive in life,” says someone who knows Kakutani well, “and this new communality would be anathema to her.”

“They were asking her to do things she was uncomfortable doing, period,” says another confidant. “If she doesn’t enjoy public speaking she should not be made to do so. And her job is not nine-to-five; she works whenever she needs to in order to get a book review done.” Monthly meetings would hardly impinge upon her deadlines, but Kakutani had already begun thinking past the critic’s job. Around the time of Trump’s inauguration she published two pieces in a new direction: a long conversation with Barack Obama about “what books mean to him,” and a screed in Vanity Fair against the dangerous stupidity of Trump’s language. The latter could easily have been a column in the Times (and a better and more substantial one than most). It also sounds like the seed of her forthcoming book, The Death of Truth.

According to two sources, Kakutani asked if she could write a political column for the Times. Because of the solid wall between news and opinion at the paper, that would have meant leaving her job. Others speculate it could have been some kind of plum writer-at-large job, including a Times magazine contract. The confidant says that writing outside the book section was “something she wanted to do more of — just anything you can think of, except food.” (Her Yankees commentary alone could make a small and passionate book.)

Whatever it was she was looking for at the Times, it wasn’t available. Under all these circumstances — a new boss demanding uncomfortable levels of team spirit, a lateral promotion denied — the buyout is perceived by some Times staff members as something short of completely voluntary. “There was a ‘didn’t play well with others’ aspect” to her departure, says one friend. If Kakutani jumped, there was a wind at her back. It must have been pretty strong. Abramson says that while she headed the paper, “there were several attempts by rival organizations to steal her away, and I had to fight to keep her. In the end, I think she understood that the Times has a unique place and importance in the intellectual life of the country, and that kept her there.”

She’s got plenty of options now. Maybe Kakutani will write for Vanity Fair, whose editor, her friend Graydon Carter, published her Trump essay and broke the news of her buyout. But the immediate priority for the freshly retired chief justice of books will be a book of her own, which leads to yet another prospect no one would ever have predicted a couple of years ago: A review in the Times of a book about President Donald Trump that lists Michiko Kakutani not as the critic but the author.

*This article has been updated to make clear that book critics still choose which books they will cover.

*A version of this article appears in the August 21, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.

What Michiko Kakutani’s Departure Means for Books Coverage