The New York Times‘ chief book critic is a polarising figure, but her writing has taken on a new dimension in response to the Trump era.
Chief book critic for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani is a titan of America’s literary community.
Not only is she one of the longest serving book critics writing for an American newspaper – an impressive 34 years – but she is also one of the most respected, and with that, feared. For more than two decades, Kakutani’s book reviews have commanded an authoritativeness that is emblematic of the newspaper itself.
Still, in her long tenure, Kakutani has faced criticism from readers, authors and publishers alike on her trademark criticism. Many have complained of her writing style, her often cut-and-dry responses to books – reviews can waver from rich, laudatory praise to unapologetic and analytic take-downs – and her penchant for using archaic words, notably ‘limn’ (‘to sketch’), for which she has repeatedly been parodied. Some have found reviewing strategies such as emulating the voices of famous fictional characters (from Holden Caulfield to Austin Powers and Family Guy’s Brian Griffin) patronising and maddening. She has even angered other critics, such as Susan Sontag who said of Kakutani: ‘Her criticisms … are stupid and shallow and not to the point’.
Other criticisms have been far more high profile. In 2007, she faced significant backlash for breaking a strict media embargo of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, releasing her review on the day of the book’s release. In 2015, Kakutani once more broke a tight media embargo around Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, one of the first reviews to reveal the beloved Atticus Finch was now ‘a racist’.
These same criticisms, though, are part of Kakutani’s appeal: her unapologetic, cut-and-dry approach to assessing a book, even ones by the likes of Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie; her playful ploys and strategies in reviews (such as imitating a fictional character) that engage or enrage readers; her indifference to media embargoes; and her antiquated vocabulary, which may frustrate readers but highlights a keen intellect.
With books coverage diminished or decimated in an increasing number of media outlets, Kakutani’s cutting, assured assessments can be revitalising. As Alex Shephard recently argued in The New Republic, there is a current and endemic culture in literary criticism of ‘niceness … lack of intellectual rigour … mediocrity’, where (often freelance) reviewers might feel pressure to pander rather than make more critical assessments, so as not to risk their relationships with publishers and thus future work. Kakutani, by virtue of her staff position and relative job security, bypasses this kind of problematic culture completely.
With books coverage diminished or decimated in an increasing number of media outlets, Kakutani’s cutting, assured assessments can be revitalising.
In a rapidly changing media climate and publishing industry, Kakutani is one of only a handful of full-time book critics working within the American media. Paired with her reclusiveness and longevity, it’s easy to understand her mystique. She rarely attends book launches or literary award ceremonies, and there are few photographs publicly available. These gestures, ironically enough, have only compounded her elusiveness and amplified the importance of her job at the Times as a kind of sacred, private practice.
But in recent years, foes and followers of Kakutani have enjoyed some closer access to the critic thanks to Twitter. Since joining the website in 2009, Kakutani’s following has exploded. Her profile is a curated offering of clippings from the news cycle matched with postings of her own book reviews and other timely cultural criticism.
Importantly, Kakutani has begun to lend her online presence a personal voice, sharing her own book reviews and older work in the first person – a far cry from her initial presence online, which was mostly retweets and postings of daily news stories. Indeed, despite her reclusiveness – and her egg avatar – Kakutani is now one of the most followed, and indeed visible, book critics working in America.
Today, the legendary book critic is part of the larger vanguard of the New York Times – and indeed the New York media – interrogating the worrying new Trump era. Building on her unique position at the newspaper, Kakutani has been able to extend her book criticism beyond reviews, enacting a more political pivot in her writing to critique the current political realm through the lens of books, language and writing.
Donald Trump’s use of language has been a common theme in critiques of his stratospheric rise to the Presidency. Conversation has centred on his unpolished, crude speech, meandering rants, aggressive and divisive language, and the us-and-them attitude fostered in speeches – whether that be against the media, Hillary Clinton, or other ‘enemies’ of the United States.
Trump’s words – especially as expressed on his controversial Twitter account – have been closely examined. Commentators point to his petulant and antagonistic tweets, underscoring his astonishingly fragile ego – but also note his inability to spell, his poor and unclear syntax, and basic word choices. These critiques, from Kakutani and others, have then been mapped to larger expositions on language and its political ends found in literature and history.
Like the subversive critiques of Trump-era politics throughout her essays and book criticism, Kakutani’s Twitter itself forms part of a resistance that mobilises literature, language, and history to challenge Trump’s harmful administration. A recent series of tweets about ‘Watergate’ were shared in the wake of Trump’s threats to leak ‘tapes’ from conversation he had with the director of the FBI.
Kakutani, along with others like Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood, use this kind of online activism to connect contemporary politics with literature and culture, highlighting her eagerness to engage in a rigorous and culturally-oriented way, starkly at odds with the anti-intellectual, Orwellian energies from the White House.
As Kakutani’s online presence has increased, so too has her own writing become more political. Recent essays include an examination of the reasons behind George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four’s return to the top of the Amazon bestsellers list earlier this year, as well as a thoughtful personal essay about her attraction to Twitter. These more personal, as well as political, pieces demonstrate the critic’s desire to mount as involved, active, and resistant a critique of Trump as she knows how, drawing on her knowledge of literature and culture to engage more and more in the zeitgeist.
In her Twitter presence, her essays in the Times’ ‘Critic’s Notebook’ series and elsewhere, Kakutani has argued that literature acts as vital lens to understanding the current political sphere. It can provide a welcome reminder to readers about what happens when power goes unchecked and truth becomes mediated through the political players of the world.
Literature acts as vital lens to understanding the current political sphere.
One example of this new shift in Kakutani’s criticism is found in a recent Vanity Fair essay, one of the few times Kakutani has appeared in a rival publication – one that, much like the New York Times, Donald Trump despises. In it, Kakutani asserts that Trump is rendering language ‘meaningless’ by ‘conjuring a reality at odds with verifiable facts’. Not only does he dispense inaccurate information in his speeches – the number of voters who ‘voted illegally’ in the US election is but one example – but Trump also uses the tricks of hyperbole, learnt from his years of reality television and chasing the tabloid media for publicity to appeal directly to his core voting base, providing them with memorable catchphrases – ‘fake news’, ‘Crooked Hillary’, and of course, ‘Make America Great Again’ – and summary explanations for larger complex issues to shore up their loyalty in an age where memory is often short-term and headlines linger longer.
Kakutani’s piece examines how Trump, both in his speeches and on Twitter, speaks in headlines, using this language technique to not only stir up conflict but to also deflect from his failings – if blame is shifted elsewhere (FBI leaks, Hillary Clinton’s emails, allegations of Obama wire-tapping, the list goes on) the onus is on the other party defend their position, well before Trump must explain his:
It’s a somber [sic] reminder, despite Team Trump’s cynical and transactional use of language, that words – and the precise use of words – do matter very much.
While Kakutani’s Vanity Fair piece uses the intellectual mode of the essay, as opposed to the book review, to point to the enormous dangers of Donald Trump’s exploitative using of language, her book reviews do also provide a rich bridge between US politics and American literature. In one recent and high-profile example, she took the opportunity, while reviewing a new biography of Adolf Hitler, to mount a scathing, if ever so subtle, critique of Trump, conflating the dangerous rhetoric and incendiary propaganda of Adolf Hilter’s campaign for German chancellor with that of Trump’s campaign.
The review itself was a master stroke. Not only did it mockingly critique Trump without ever mentioning his name, it also used Hitler as a kind of filter and barometer through which to view the current political world. Moreover, the piece largely underscored the necessity of reading and engaging with history today – perhaps more than ever. While Trump is overt and painfully explicit, Kakutani is nuanced, and subtly deceptive, playing with language and meaning to build a firm and historically grounded critique. With the very nature of truth seemingly at risk of becoming irrevocably polarised and unstable, Kakutani’s awareness for connecting contemporary political events with larger ideas, themes and messages found in fiction and non-fiction, make her an urgent and authoritative voice in the front line against alternative facts and fake news.
Perhaps the culmination of Kakutani’s engagement with both political and literary criticism came in the form of her interview with former president Barack Obama in his last days in office. The conversation between Kakutani and Obama was rich in insight and provided some heartening details of Obama’s active reading life. We learn Obama read such recent urgent historical novels like Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad during his time in office, believing works of literature like themes have the power to ‘change minds and hearts’. Obama explains how he turned to the writings of Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi after a national tragedy, using their writing to help feel less isolated as they provided him with a ‘sense of solidarity’.
Kakutani’s interview with Obama…draws a very real and direct link between the place of literature in American life and its relationship to the President.
Not only does Kakutani’s interview with Obama highlight the more political pivot in her literary criticism but it also draws a very real and direct link between the place of literature in American life and its relationship to the President. By contrast, Donald Trump does not seem to read at all. In multiple interviews, Trump claims to not ‘have time’ to read but ‘love[s] to’ when possible, a dubious claim coming from a man who struggles to name a favourite book he hasn’t written himself.
As a literary critic, Kakutani’s weapon is cultural criticism, and she uses it to great effect. In an age awash with op-eds and hot takes, Kakutani’s thoughtful, sustained and engaging commentary and essays turn a sharp eye to US politics in a way that underscores not only the importance of cultural criticism today, but also argues the value of literature in informing and guiding our approach to the world. The explosive popularity of Nineteen Eighty-Four after the advent of ‘alternative facts’, the interest in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as conservative attitudes to reproductive rights return to the White House, or the prescience found in Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America underscore the way people turn to literature to try and understand and interrogate their current reality.
Kakutani’s political shift in her writing, openly engaging with these texts and offering sustained critical analysis of their appeal and urgency, demonstrates how vital the critic’s role is today as a conduit between art and politics. Online, Kakutani is constant reminder that culture itself can act as a powerful force of resistance.
In spite of Kakutani’s apparent reclusiveness – and, of course, apparent unpopularity – she has become a strangely respected public figure, who has galvanised a new constituency to engage with art and interrogate power through the lens of literature and language. Her Twitter activism, sustained and forceful critical essays, and her sharp, subliminally powerful, book reviews work as small but meaningful acts of resistance, urging all of us to engage more with history and art in order to approach the strange new world we find ourselves in.