Former Times Book Critic Asks: What Happened to Truth?

Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 6.05.33 PM

When Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic Michiko Kakutani left her post as the chief book critic for The New York Times after 38 years, Vanity Fair declared, “The novelists of the world will sleep a little easier tonight.” It was the end of an era. Readers who had grown up with Kakutani’s book coverage — and whose tastes had evolved under the guidance of her insightful, impassioned (and sometimes brutal) reviews — wondered what she’d do next.

The answer? Write her own book, of course.

9780525574828Part of what made Kakutani’s reviews must-read literature in their own right was that she believed books played an essential role in both shaping and reflecting the world around us. She took literature seriously — whether it was the magic of Harry Potter or Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. So it shouldn’t be surprising that when given the time to delve into subject matter of her choosing, Kakutani picked the most serious topic on her mind: current events and the state of our nation.

Her new book, out today, is a short essay collection called The Death of Truth, in which she looks back at the trends that led our country and our culture to where it is today and suggests a way forward. She quotes authors in her manifesto — including the likes of Philip Roth, George Orwell, and Hannah Arendt — and also references television, social media, and politics. David Grann (Killers of the Flower Moon) says, “The Death of Truth is destined to become the defining treatise of our age. Everyone should read this book.”

Kakutani answered a few questions from our Musing editor, Mary Laura Philpott, by email.

Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me (which just came out in paperback) was a Parnassus staff favorite, and it was the last book you reviewed — very positively — before stepping down from your regular New York Times position. Can you tell us about your choice to go out on that one?

9781101974414.jpgMK: One of my favorite things as a critic was writing about debut fiction and calling attention to new young writers. And so I was delighted to be able to write about Stay With Me as my last daily review for the Times. It is a stunning novel by an immensely gifted storyteller – a novel that is, at once, a moving portrait of a marriage, and a work (in the tradition of books by Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) that explores the tensions in Nigeria between tradition and modernity, old social mores and more contemporary yearnings and imperatives.

What excites you most about this new phase of your career?

MK: I was excited by the opportunity afforded by a book to address a subject at extended length – something not possible to do in a review or essay.

Truth — especially the warping or eroding of it — is something you’ve written about before as it relates to literature. How long has this topic been brewing in your mind, and when did you know you had a book’s worth of something to say about it?

MK: The Death of Truth was a response to the campaign of 2016 and the Trump presidency. Like many people, I was increasingly alarmed by Trump’s assault on the very idea of truth, and the disturbing implications for our democracy. The shamelessness of his lies and his efforts to redefine reality for the American people represent dangerous new developments. At the same time, he is also a kind of apotheosis of many broader, intertwined dynamics undermining truth today, including the poisonous polarization that has overtaken our politics, the growing populist contempt for expertise, the merging of news and entertainment, and the accelerated spread of fake news and speculation over social media.

Was The Death of Truth always the title, or did you consider other contenders?

truth-has-died-1814.jpg!LargeMK: The Death of Truth is the title I had from the start. Trump and company’s assault on truth reminded me of the Goya etching titled “Truth Has Died” – showing the goddess of truth lying on the ground, surrounded by shadowy and ominous figures. (The next etching in the series provides some reason for hope; it is titled with a question “Will she live again?”)

Looking around at the social, political, and cultural landscape of our world right now, what gives you hope?

MK: There are reasons to hope. More and more people are realizing that we’ve taken our democratic freedoms for granted – that we need to implement measures that safeguard the electoral process, restore civics lessons to school curriculums, and make information literacy (how to differentiate between accurate reporting and fake news) a priority. Investigative journalists are doing essential work, holding this administration to account, and unraveling the role that Russian interference played in the 2016 election.

And the Parkland students continue to provide inspiration – rejecting the fatalism of their elders, and by turning their grief into action, showing us how a small, committed group of individuals can help change history.

 * * *

Michiko Kakutani’s The Death of Truth is available today. Get your copy at Parnassus Books.