12:53pm PT by Andy Lewis
N.Y. Times Book Critic Michiko Kakutani Stepping Down After 34 Years
Michiko Kakutani, the long-standing The New York Times book critic regularly referred to as legendary and legendarily feared, is retiring, after 34 years in the job. She joined the paper as a reporter in 1979 before moving to book reviews in 1983.
In announcing the news, Times book review editor Pamela Paul called Kakutani's "tenure at The Times ... among the most storied and influential in our history." Kakutani won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1998, and her reviews often drove the conversation about books. She famously reviewed the final Harry Potter book on short notice when a Times employee noticed a copy mistakenly on sale at a drugstore ahead of the official release. Kakutani's January exit interview with President Barack Obama about his reading habits was a must-read story that went viral.
Her championing of authors such as Brett Easton Ellis, Zadie Smith and Dave Eggers, among others, helped make their careers. But she could also be withering in her criticism. She called Bill Clinton's memoir "sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull" and called Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird sequel Go Set a Watchman "disturbing reading" that left her "baffled and distressed" in the way it rewrote our understanding of Atticus Finch.
Some who came in for criticism, like Norman Mailer and Jonathan Franzen, punched back. After she panned his novel The Discomfort Zone, Franzen called her the "stupidest person in New York City."
Kakutani opted to take a voluntary buyout from The Times, and her last review has already appeared. Joe Pompeo, who first reported the news for Vanity Fair, wrote, "Sources familiar with her decision, which comes a year after The Times restructured its books coverage, told me that last year's election had triggered a desire to branch out and write more essays about culture and politics in Trump's America."
Parul Sehgal, a senior editor and columnist at the Times' weekly Sunday stand-alone Book Review, moves over to take her place, joining a team that includes Dwight Garner, Jennifer Senior and contributor Janet Maslin.