After Michiko Kakutani announced she was stepping down from her book critic post at the New York Times, media outlets treated it like a death.
The pieces that have come out from The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Slate, etc. all have the ring of obituaries which is nice for Kakutani–she’s one of those rare people who gets to hear what people will say about her before she dies.
But the piece I like most is the lead item in James Campbell’s NB column in the TLS (if I had half his voice I’d be a happy man) for August 4.
Campbell’s less interested in Kakutani’s ability to skewer the high and mighty than in her temperament. When he describes her, he uses a long list of “not’s.”
Kakutani, he writes, lapsing into the past tense, “was not the ideal literary critic… she didn’t give interviews, judge prizes or appear at festivals….In her reviews, she avoided the first person and never opened a review with a dreary anecdote.”
He adds other things: no memorable literary style, no taste for the red carpets and spotlights (even though I know at least one reviewer who would milk it if she were in her place), a personality as hard to pin down as her photograph, etc.
Campbell’s language reminds me of the Buddhist teachings about the void, of emptiness, of expressing existence in terms of its opposite. (I’m sure I’m oversimplifying this, but hey, this is my blog.)
I think I rarely attained these qualities when I was regularly reviewing at the Times. I was striving too much, like other people, to cultivate a persona that might mean as much to people as the books we were supposed to be reviewing.
But the great thing about Kakutani is that she has never forgotten that: for her, it has always been about the books.
That’s how it should be.