Like any truly well-respected critic, the kind you can’t condemn for their own life choices or attempts at “personal” writing, so little is truly known about Michiko Kakutani. She has remained, since her first year in 1983 as a literary critic for The New York Times, largely arcane and unknowable. Which has made her perhaps even more controversial to those she’s eviscerated over the decades (Jonathan Franzen, anyone?).
And, like yeah, it is weird that in a routine name search of Kakutani on the internet, a picture of Joan Didion comes up before any pictures of Kakutani herself, and that one of the only “tidbits” on her Wikipedia page is: “Kakutani is a fan of the New York Yankees.” Who is this mysterious woman, known to inhabit the voices of other literary characters herself (Holden Caulfield and Holly Golightly have been just a few of the personas she’s tried on in the past)? We might never actually know. Unless she decides to use her retirement to finally write her own novel. But then, isn’t the biting saying about critics that they themselves could never succeed in the medium they’re criticizing?
Over the years, Kakutani has become a legend in New York (that Sex and the City name check in Season Five serving as solid proof) and beyond. This in spite of the condemnation of her glaringly disparate author gender ratio (see snarky pie chart below), which, if you think about it, isn’t really her fault considering she is a woman of integrity who isn’t going to review a goddamn book solely because of the genitalia that hung below the proverbial typewriter during its creation.
The New Yorker has argued that her criticisms have continued to hold the most weight/sting power over all this time because “‘I’ is a word that you will never read in a Kakutani review. She had no interest in the first person as a critical device, and that avoidance of the personal pronoun is part of what could make her negative reviews feel so lacerating.”
Most telling of Kakutani’s lack of concern with popular opinion is her first truly historic review of the 1980s, that of Bret Easton Ellis’ debut, Less Than Zero, of which she wrote, “…while his descriptions of Los Angeles carry a few too many echoes of Raymond Chandler, Joan Didion and Nathanael West… they nonetheless demonstrate a keen eye for grim details (the dead fish in the Jacuzzi, the cigarette butt stubbed out on the kitchen floor, and so on) and a sure sense of the absurd.” Though Easton Ellis was the literary darling of the time, few critics viewed his work as possessing anything that resembled long-term promise, that could presage he was capable of even more ghoulishly macabre works in the form of American Psycho and Glamorama.
Elsewhere in her career, Kakutani satisfyingly castigated the universally applauded Infinite Jest by noting, “…his 1,079-page novel is a ‘loose baggy monster,’ to use Henry James’s words, a vast, encyclopedic compendium of whatever seems to have crossed Mr. Wallace’s mind. It’s Thomas Wolfe without Maxwell Perkins, done in the hallucinogenic style of Terry Gilliam and Ralph Steadman.” And yes, best of all about Kakutani is that she mixed her references, not limiting herself to the usage of esoteric “literati” mentions that only those in the NYC inner circle would know–her pretentious pop culture allusions only adding to the venom of her words, all with the underlying question: Is everyone a fucking retard?
Still, there are undeniable moments of tenderness in Kakutani’s reviews, if only you would bother to notice them. For instance, in one of the few assessments of a female author’s (per above pie chart) work, Kakutani said of Joan Didion’s 2005 novel, The Year of Magical Thinking, “At once exquisitely controlled and heartbreakingly sad, [it] tells us in completely unvarnished terms what it is to love someone and lose him…” In the subtlety of her positive remarks, her parsimonious accolades, was Kakutani trying to tell us the whole time that she, too, has been burned? What one will find in their research of Kakutani is that, like any stoic, anyone truly committed to the cause of objectivity, Kakutani has never fallen prey to any dalliances, shall we say. And she’s certainly never been married.
It doesn’t seem likely that she will in her “withdrawal” from such a high position of power in literature either. For those who thought they could breathe a sigh of relief at Kakutani’s palpable absence from the realm of criticism oughtn’t get too settled; she’s said that she plans to use her retirement period to write even longer pieces of criticism on culture and politics. And that’s very good news at this point in time, what with the millennial generation unable to rise to the challenge of offering competent work in the genre–ever less credible and incisive–and, of course, their constant use of “I,” “I,” “I.”