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Legendary book critic Michiko Kakutani is leaving the New York Times

New York Times Posts Strong Quarterly Earnings On Rise In Digital Ads And Readership Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Legendary book critic Michiko Kakutani is retiring from her role as the chief book reviewer at the New York Times, Vanity Fair reports.

Kakutani, who won a Pulitzer for her criticism in 1998, has been on the staff of the New York Times since 1979 and became a book critic in 1983. During that time she helped launched the careers of literary darlings like Zadie Smith (“someone who can do comedy, drama and satire, and do them all with exceptional confidence and brio”) and George Saunders (“a savage satirist with a sentimental streak”) — and pissed off everyone from Jonathan Franzen to J.K. Rowling.

“The stupidest person in New York City is currently the lead reviewer of fiction for the New York Times,” said Franzen in 2008, two years after Kakutani called his memoir The Discomfort Zone “an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass,” wondering aloud “why anyone would be interested in pages and pages about this unhappy relationship or the self-important and self-promoting contents of Mr. Franzen’s mind.” Franzen went on to complain that “so few people are actually doing serious criticism. It’s so snarky, it’s so ad hominum [sic], it’s so black and white.”

In 2007, meanwhile, Kakutani reviewed a copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (purchased by a New York Times staffer at a chain store in Chelsea) two days before it went on sale, breaking the book’s strict embargo. Kakutani was effusive in her praise and included no spoilers, but Rowling nonetheless described herself as “staggered” that the Times would break the embargo “in complete disregard of the wishes of literally millions of readers, particularly children.”

Kakutani’s unflinching ability to get under authors’ skin has been a major contributing factor to her reputation for objectivity, but it isn’t what made her famous. Instead, it’s the methodical precision of her reviews, which seem to weigh every aspect of a book effortlessly — style, content, character, plot, that certain je ne sais quoi — before coming to a decision: yay or nay?

The Times has curated a list of Kakutani’s best reviews, but if you only have time for one, the lightness of her critical hand is perhaps best expressed by her review of Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939, which went viral this fall. Without ever mentioning Donald Trump’s name or using the word “timely,” Kakutani manages to make it perfectly clear exactly why this particular “Shakespearean parable” was particularly relevant for September 2016. “Hitler’s rise was not inevitable,” she opined in a widely quoted paragraph.

The New York Times has not yet announced a new chief book critic, but it has announced that Parul Sehgal, currently a columnist and senior editor at the New York Times Book Review, will be joining Dwight Garner and Jennifer Senior as one of the Times’s daily book reviewers.

Sehgal is also a frequent contributor to the podcast Inside the New York Times Book Review, where she waxes enthusiastic and esoteric on books like Cleopatra’s Nose (“really sensually written”) and The Age of Insight (“it makes you seethe with ideas”). What’s compelling about Sehgal’s criticism is how deeply she seems to love the books she writes about; she writes with a sort of infectious, deeply intellectual glee.

So as the Times prepares to say farewell to Michiko Kakutani, who is as close as one can get to becoming an institution in the world of book reviewing, it’s already done a fantastic job at finding and spotlighting the kind of talent who can begin to fill her shoes.

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