NYT's revered book critic Michiko Kakutani will step down

NEW YORK (NYT) - Michiko Kakutani, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic for The New York Times who rigorously assessed the works of emerging and established authors including Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Toni Morrison and J.K. Rowling, has decided to step down as the publication's chief book critic, The Times announced on July 27.

Kakutani's departure quickly rippled through journalism and literary circles. Expressions of admiration and appreciation from writers and readers alike mingled with the occasional sigh of relief from those whose work she had not viewed favourably - a verdict she never shied away from sharing with readers.

"A rave review from Michiko Kakutani has been the equivalent of a badge of honour - it's the ultimate endorsement for a serious writer," said publisher Jonathan Karp of Simon & Schuster. "She has been greatly respected and greatly feared."

The Times also announced on Thursday that Parul Sehgal, a senior editor and columnist at its Book Review, would join Dwight Garner and Jennifer Senior as one of the paper's book critics.

Kakutani started her career covering cultural news at The Times in 1979 and became a book critic in 1983. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1998.

"No one has played a larger role in guiding readers through the country's literary life over the past four decades than Michi," the executive editor of The Times, Mr Dean Baquet, wrote in a note to employees announcing her retirement on Thursday. "And no one, I would venture, knows more about the literature and writing that flowed out of Sept 11."

He added: "No one could be as well-read as Michi."

On Twitter, Kakutani expressed gratitude to The Times and said she intended to "focus on longer pieces about politics and culture".

Over her 38-year career at The Times, she offered critical assessments of virtually every major author working during that time, but she also broke news. In 2015, her review of Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman was the first to tell readers that the beloved character Atticus Finch, the progressive hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, harboured racist views.

And in his waning days in the Oval Office, then-president Barack Obama sat down with Kakutani to discuss the role books had played for him during his presidency and his life.

Her career was not without controversy. In 2007, she wrote a review of Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, the last instalment in Rowling's Harry Potter series, that The Times published before the book went on sale, earning criticism.

Kakutani also used fiction and non-fiction as a lens to analyse politics and political figures. Her review in September of a biography of Adolf Hitler, Volker Ullrich's Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939, was widely read as a critique of Donald Trump.

"What everyone loved was that she took it so seriously, so personally, that she would argue with writers and get mad at them when she felt they were not doing their best work," said Mr Michael Pietsch, the chief executive of Hachette Book Group. "There aren't many critical voices like that, where you see someone, over a long period of time, responding to a writer book by book and to an entire body of work."

By Sydney Ember, Alexandra Alter contributed reporting