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After three decades as the Times’s book critic, Michiko Kakutani has written her first book.

“His lies are meant to wear us down,” says the Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic Michiko Kakutani of our president. “To overwhelm and exhaust us, to make people so cynical that they cease to distinguish between fact and fiction.”

This is just one of many musings on the nature of reality Kakutani chronicles in her slim yet wide-ranging new book The Death of Truth, her first book. At its core, Kakutani seeks out to question how the notion of the truth became such a contested subject in our present moment. Kakutani concedes that the attack on objectivity is nothing new, but also maintains it has been “exponentially accelerated” in recent times by postmodernism and social media.

The former chief book critic for the New York Times, Kakutani worked for the paper for 38 years until she took a buyout last year (she still writes periodic pieces for them). During her tenure, she was arguably the most influential book critic in the US, playing a crucial role in boosting the careers of writers like Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and George Saunders. Some thought she was too influential, wielding too much clout in publishing.

She was feared and loathed by writers like Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, and Jonathan Franzen for her scathing reviews. Yet she always avoided the spotlight while at the Times, refusing to do interviews or panels, and hardly ever appearing in photographs. Given her intellectual range and output over the last several decades, it’s surprising that The Death of Truth is her first book.

I talked with Kakutani about, among other things, what the response should be to those who attack the truth, whether artists have a responsibility to be political, her thoughts on the late Philip Roth, and what books she’d recommend to Trump and Mike Pence. Our conversation, lightly edited and condensed, appears below.


Eric Allen Been

You write that some “dumbed-down corollaries” of postmodernism have seeped into the thinking of the populist right.

Michiko Kakutani

With its suspicion of grand, over-arching narratives, postmodernism emphasized the role that perspective plays in shaping our readings of texts and events. Such ideas resulted in innovative, groundbreaking art — think of the work of David Foster Wallace, Quentin Tarantino, Frank Gehry, to name but a few — and it opened the once-narrow gates of history to heretofore marginalized points of view.

But as such, ideas seeped into popular culture and merged with the narcissism of the “Me Decade” also led to a more reductive form of relativism that allowed people to insist that their opinions were just as valid as objective truths verified by scientific evidence or serious investigative reporting. Climate change deniers demanded equal time, creationists argued that intelligent design should be taught alongside “science-based” evolution, and Fox News insisted it was “fair and balanced.” All this proved fertile ground in which lies spread by Donald Trump, alt-right trolls, and Russian propagandists could take root.

Eric Allen Been

As you track in the book, Trump did not spring out of nowhere. What writers from the past can help us better understand this notion that those in power often try to define what the truth is?

Michiko Kakutani

Books by Hannah Arendt, such as the The Origins of Totalitarianism and Crises of the Republic examine the role that the despoiling of truth played in the rise of Nazism and Stalinism. Her work not only provides a look at how two of the most monstrous regimes in history came to power in the 20th century, but a more universal sort of anatomy of what Margaret Atwood has called the “danger flags” that make a people susceptible to demagoguery and propaganda, and nations easy prey for would-be autocrats.

The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s 1942 memoir The World of Yesterday gives readers a haunting account of how Europe tore itself apart in World War I, then lurched only decades later into the calamities of World War II, charting how easily reason and science can be dethroned by emotional appeals to fear and hatred.

Books by Richard Hofstadter — The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life chronicle the episodic waves of a dark strain of thinking in American history animated by grievance, dispossession, and conspiratorial thinking. Earlier eruptions include the popularity of the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know Nothing Party in the mid-1850s, and the spread of McCarthyism in the 1950s.

Eric Allen Been

Until last year, you of course were the chief daily book critic for the New York Times. And you’ve spent most of your career avoiding putting yourself front and center — shunning public events, interviews, photographs, etc. Why did you take that approach? And has putting yourself more out there while promoting this book been difficult?

Michiko Kakutani

Being a shy person, I have preferred to let my writing speak for itself. In fact, I probably became a writer partly because I’ve always felt more articulate on paper than in person. Writing The Death of Truth felt like a natural progression from what I was doing at the Times — a kind of amplified version of the sort of notebooks I wrote as a critic.

Eric Allen Been

Are there any notable reviews you’ve published that you’ve had a change of mind about?

Michiko Kakutani

Most readers are likely to think somewhat differently about a book, if they re-read it years later. My perspective on individual books has probably evolved — or been tweaked by reading the author’s subsequent work — but I can’t think of cases in which my view of a particular book changed in a more fundamental way.

Eric Allen Been

You’ve been called the “most feared woman in publishing.” And I’m sure you know about some of the more infamous pushbacks you received while at the Times, notably from writers like Jonathan Franzen, who called you “the stupidest person in New York City” after you panned his memoir. How did you view those personal attacks?

Michiko Kakutani

I tried to never take things personally. I tried to review every book on its own merits; what an author said about me was irrelevant to how I approached a book. As it happens, I very much admired Franzen’s last two novels and said so in my reviews.

Eric Allen Been

You were a champion of Philip Roth’s work and you quote him towards the end of The Death of Truth. Many people find Roth’s work off-putting, however, often arguing that his books are shot through with a misogynist sense of sexual entitlement. Do you think the criticism is fair?

Michiko Kakutani

Philip Roth was an author who helped define the American experience in works like The Human Stain and The Plot Against America. At the same time, much of his fiction also reflected the country’s narcissistic, inward-looking proclivities in the aftermath of the 1960s.

I regard his 1997 novel American Pastoral as one of the masterpieces of postwar fiction, and greatly admired Roth’s myriad gifts — his provocative exploration of the American embrace of the principles of rebellion and reinvention and the resulting sense of rootlessness; his tireless ability to complicate his own life on paper; his verbal inventiveness and his manic wit.

Roth did manage to create a handful of genuinely complex female characters in American Pastoral and The Human Stain, but many of the women in his books are shallowly depicted as simple objects of lust or the source of endless vexation for Roth’s heroes. I was sharply critical, for instance, of Sabbath’s Theater, which I viewed as a tiresome and willfully repellent portrait of a narcissist, who treats women with cruelty and contempt.

But Roth does not necessarily endorse the point of view of his misogynistic heroes — in fact, they often emerge as misguided, limited, and deeply flawed characters, who hurt themselves and the people around them with their selfishness and inability to love.

Eric Allen Been

Do artists today have a responsibility to address politics?

Michiko Kakutani

Artists need to have the freedom to follow the promptings of their own imaginations. That freedom is conferred by democracy; it’s only in autocratic states that artists are expected to produce one sort of art or another. And sometimes art that springs from the most personal of sources — like Franz Kafka’s novels and stories — comes to acquire great political and historical resonance.

Eric Allen Been

If you could recommend one book to Trump, and one separately for Mike Pence, what would they be?

Michiko Kakutani

For Trump, Shakespeare’s Richard III. For Pence, John Oliver Presents A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss and Marlon Bundo.


Eric Allen Been is a freelance writer who has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, Vice, Playboy, the New Republic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Atlantic.

Author: Eric Allen Been
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