Michiko Kakutani (b. January 9, 1955), Japanese-American book critic.

“Glossy, efficient prose, garnished with a pinch of irony and a dab of melodrama.” - Kakutani on The Book Class by Louis Auchincloss.

“You wonder how much Michiko Kakutani is affecting the course of modern literature." -anonymous book critic

Michiko Kakutani is the chief book critic for the New York Times. Not only is she an immensely influential and powerful figure in the publishing world as a result, she has become the object of a bizarre fascination among many authors and people who follow book culture, mostly white males. What is unspoken in public is the implications of a bunch of old white guys obsessing over a single Japanese lady in what was once a traditionally male bastion, but someday a Nicholson Baker or Don DeLillo might write a book about it.

Feeding the fascination is the fact that Kakutani is a notorious recluse. Despite the millions of her words published each year in one of the world’s most prominent publications, she guards her privacy as much as a J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon. She doesn’t tour the book circuit, or the book party circuit, and almost none of the people who obsess over her have met her. When she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988, she refused a Times interview and her only comment on the record was "It feels unreal."

Background info on Kakutani is hard to dig up. According to her Pulitzer bio, she has a BA in English from Yale University. She was a reporter and writer for the Washington Post and Time Magazine before she joined the Times in 1979 as a cultural news reporter. She became a critic for the newspaper in 1983. Her sole book is The Poet at the Piano (1989), a collection of profiles of artists.

Reviews of her work are mixed. Many praise her work and thought her Pulitzer was overdue. On the other hand, Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley threatened to give his Pulitzer back when she won. The most persistent criticisms accuse her of being a faddish critic who follows trends and of disliking dark, gritty works in favor of brighter fare. Many fear that younger authors will, consciously or unconsciously, alter their work to curry her influential favor. This wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened, and many speculate the Times will rotate her out as it has done with other overly influential critics in the past. But they’ve been saying that for years, and she’s still around. To her credit, while she picks her assignments at the Times, she regularly takes on new challenging books by important authors instead of passing them on to others.

The most bizarre instance of Michiko obsession has to be that of Leib Goldkorn, a fictional Holocaust survivor and novelist whom Kakutani called “a truly enchanting character.” Goldkorn is the creation of Leslie Epstein and populates many of his short stories and novels. In his Ice Fire Water (1999), Goldkorn becomes smitten with Kakutani - whom he thinks is Finnish, not Japanese - after a favorable review and imagines her beating him in a sauna. He invites her to lunch, and when she arrives, he mistakes her for a cleaning lady.

To promote Ice Fire Water, Epstein disregarded the advice of his agent to conduct a more traditional ad campaign. Instead, he spent $10,000 of his own money on classified ads on the front page of the Times. While some of the ads mentioned Rudolph Giulani and Esther Williams, they also targeted Kakutani. "DEAR SWEET MISS MICHIKO K. -- Call your Leib Goldkorn." read the first one directed at her. A call by Kakutani to the advertising department nixed the next one: “YOO-HOO! MY CUTE KAKUTANI! -- Leib Goldkorn is calling.”

Other Michiko obsession highlights include:

Colin McEnroe’s McSweeney’s confession that he invented Kakutani as a dorm prank in 1972. Some think that “Colin McEnroe” was Dave Eggers himself.

Caleb Carr’s nasty rant to Salon’s Laura Miller, where he accused her of “the club that meets at Michiko's to watch 'Sex in the City' and spout a lot of nonsense about things they don't know.” Okay, so that doesn’t have much to do with Kakutani, but I thought it was funny.

Sources include:
http://www.pulitzer.org/year/1998/criticism/bio/
http://www.salon.com/directory/topics/michiko_kakutani/
http://www.mcsweeneys.net/1999/01/23michiko.html
Wilson Biographies Plus database

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