You might think Norman Mailer would have mellowed by now. But the 82-year-old literary icon is still settling old scores. In a rant to Rolling Stone magazine, the author lashed out at The New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, calling her 'a one-woman kamikaze. She disdains white, male authors, and I'm her number one favourite target.' Other prominent authors may disagree. Plenty have seen Kakutani rip apart their books. Publishers have even coined a word for these brutal reviews: getting 'Kakutanied'.
So what is all the fuss about this book critic? Why does Kakutani inspire both fear and fascination? The quick answer is that she is the most powerful book critic in America. As the lead critic for The New York Times, Kakutani wields enormous clout. In fact, she's such a large presence in publishing circles that she is often referred to by a single name. Just as Tiger Woods and Oprah Winfry rule over their professions, Michiko presides over the book world.
She is also highly opinionated and often scathing in her reviews. She recently slammed the new novels by young hotshot Jonathan Safran Foer and old warhorse Tom Wolfe. And she's famous for dishing out withering reviews of the biggest names in literary fiction, from Don DeLillo and John Updike to Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood.
Kakutani called Atwood's dystopian novel Oryx and Crake a 'lumpy hodgepodge of a book' that's 'didactic and thoroughly unpersuasive'. Atwood shrugged off the criticism. 'What can I say, critics are critics,' she told me. 'She does have a reputation in the literary world for praising you one time, and then nuking you the next, just so you don't get complacent.'
Kakutani also panned Nicholson Baker's novel A Box of Matches. She described the narration as full of 'ludicrously microscopic examinations' spelled out in 'absurd and numbing detail'. Baker's reaction? 'It was really a horrible review. I mean, it was like having my liver taken out without anaesthesia.'
The late Susan Sontag was more combative after Kakutani panned her last book, Regarding the Pain of Others. Michiko dismissed Sontag's analysis as 'belated and common-sense statements of the obvious'. The review infuriated Sontag: 'Her criticisms of my books are stupid and shallow and not to the point,' she told me. 'It was a dumb, bad review as opposed to a smart, bad review. I expected better of her.'
Of course, Kakutani's ruthlessness is one reason she's so widely read. With Michiko, you won't find the bland, careful reviews that are so common elsewhere. If she doesn't like a book, she eviscerates it. 'I think she's extraordinary,' said Michael Janeway, a Pulitzer Prize juror when Kakutani won the prize for criticism in 1998. 'You can start reading a piece of hers without looking at the by-line, and her voice is so strong, and her sense of what a book is about is so clear, I say to myself, well, that's obviously Kakutani's review as distinct from a review by another daily Times book reviewer.' She is considered 'destination programming' " compulsory reading for the literati.
Michiko's toughness has turned her into a cultural icon unlike any other book critic. In fact, her name figured prominently in one episode of Sex in the City. When Carrie Bradshaw publishes a new book, she's 'terrified' of an upcoming Kakutani review.
Despite her public prominence, though, Kakutani is notoriously reclusive. She does not hobnob with writers or hang out on the literary circuit. …