It's not often that the comings and goings of book critics make news. But when Michiko Kakutani decided to retire from the New York Times in July, Vanity Fair broke the story breathlessly online, calling her "the most feared woman in publishing."
During her 34 years as a book critic for the Times, Kakutani was indeed influential, and often controversial. She won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1998 and is credited with helping to make the careers of such writers as Mary Karr, George Saunders, Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace with glowing reviews.
She could also be crushing. Jonathan Franzen called her "the stupidest person in New York" after she panned his memoir, and Norman Mailer (among others) protested that she disliked white male authors, telling Rolling Stone, "I'm her number-one favorite target. ... But the Times editors can't fire her. They're terrified of her."
Some fellow critics and others praised her for her wide knowledge and fearlessness; others slammed her for a thumbs up-thumbs down approach and cliched writing. Her verbal tics, like her fondness for such words as "limn" and "lugubrious," have played into parodies.
Kakutani has a strong sense of privacy; she has been even less photographed than the Times' restaurant critics. I've never met her, and interestingly, the day after her retirement was announced, in a Facebook thread with a group of other book critics, I found that none of them knew her either. Her avoidance of the public eye led to a clever piece on McSweeney's by Colin McEnroe, one of her former Yale classmates, that posited that Kakutani herself was a fictional character, invented by one of those white males who so resented her.
(I'll cop to my own petty resentment: When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published in 2007, Kakutani got national props for reading the 784-page book and writing a review in one day. I did the same thing, except she got the book a day earlier.)
The fact that Kakutani so often attracted both praise and protest is a sign of how powerful she has been as a cultural gatekeeper — a role that may well be going extinct.
Kakutani reportedly took a buyout from the Times and plans to write about culture and politics.