For 107 years, the New York Times Book Review has been the Goliath of American book reviews. It has also been the section that everyone loves to hate: Decade after decade, the epithets pile up, from “terminally dull” to “the drab wallpaper of the book world.” One gets the sense that readers find its very judiciousness annoying, like finding yourself seated next to a chaste, fair-minded guest at a raucous, gossipy dinner party. This may be an institutional problem, but now that the Book Review’s current editor, Charles McGrath, who has held the position since 1995, is stepping down, the Times will inevitably wrestle once again with its image.
In looking forward, the Times might want to look back—to what was widely agreed to be the Book Review’s golden age, from 1971 to 1975, under the editorship of John Leonard. Nostalgia is obviously a perilous emotion, but in this case, the golden years prove to be more than just the gilt of yesteryear. They provide a useful model for what tomorrow’s Book Review could look like—should it choose to.
What was so special about Leonard’s Book Review? From the very start—his first issue was January 10, 1971—it stood out for its editorial brazenness and its engagement with current affairs. The reviews of Horace translations and the histories of Modernist little magazines slimmed down or shuffled to the back; in their place came a riotous thicket of pieces on film, the black arts movement, the Vietnam War, E. M. Cioran, B. F. Skinner, Michel Foucault. (Remember, it was 1971.) Women began to review political books. Feminist novelists were evaluated thoughtfully but not forgivingly. In 1972, Don DeLillo’s second novel, End Zone,was given the lead review—which in those days meant it began on the cover. DeLillo was a relative unknown. When I spoke to Leonard by phone last week, he told me he’d made the unusual decision to put him on the cover because he liked the review enough to read the novel—and when he did he saw something new in it.
Mostly, though, Leonard’s Book Review was distinctive because its pieces took a clear position—not only on the book at hand, but on the subject at hand. You get the sense that someone sat down and said, OK, what’s a provocative way to talk about this book—why are we interested in reviewing it in the first place? (And if we don’t have an answer, let’s not review it.) The result was opinionated writing by journalists and specialists alike, often polemical but rarely prescriptive (as one might have expected): pointed re-examinations of everything from Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “hooligan communism” to Noam Chomsky’s antiwar stance (more an “outcry against the absurdity … than a sustained argument against it”) to the critical reception of Albert Speer’s memoir. On the fiction front, the equivocation that has become the hallmark of today’s reviews nationwide was nowhere to be found. Instead, heavy-hitters like Eudora Welty, John Hawkes, and Toni Morrison weighed in firmly, dispensing with disposable literary novels—a “drafty little fable”—and fiercely taking on top-tier writers like James Jones: He “writes abominably, like Dreiser.” A sub-par Joyce Carol Oates novel was described (by a reviewer who liked her work) as “bad, very bad.” This wasn’t the dismissive showboating that’s recently won the name “snark”; it was the conviction of engaged people holding one another to high standards.
Finally, unlike many things of its era, Leonard’s Book Review remains visually stylish—jazzy and unorthodox but not too arty. Leonard exploited illustrations for their documentary value and power: contact sheets of Charles Manson; a stunningly bored young Carson McCullers at a party; a nearly full-page black-and-white photo of Janis Joplin performing at Madison Square Garden, eyes closed, fists clenched, her dark hair striped by stage lights. This image, from Leonard’s second issue, sent a visceral message about the modernity of the new editorial sensibility. It also bolstered a point that Jonathan Yardley was making about the perils of rock journalism.
In short, Leonard’s achievement lay in recognizing that the majority of books published any given year are most interesting as an expression of their culture—not as things to be assessed in and of themselves. And so he selected books accordingly, turning the reviews into a probing dialogue about that culture, finding reviewers who were eager to plunge into controversy and urging them on. Senior statesmen like Alfred Kazin and John Kenneth Galbraith shared space with brash younger writers (now our senior statesman) eager to take one another on—Jonathan Yardley, Toni Morrison, Morris Dickstein, John Ashbery, A. Alvarez, Nancy Milford, Hilton Kramer. One of Leonard’s early, risky moves was to make the Review the voice of the antiwar movement. Characteristically, he began, in March of 1971, by publishing a long, splashy essay on whether civilian deaths in Vietnam should be tried as war crimes; it touched on tens of books, including Seymour Hersh’s My Lai 4.
In a sense, Leonard had it easy when he set out to make a talked-about section. He presided during a moment that had a distinct sense of itself as a historical anomaly. The Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, the push for a younger voting age—all stirred up debate. It was an era that lent itself to the creation of an opinionated, youthful, intelligent literary journal. And he had about 80 pages to work with, where today’s has about 30. (It helped, too, that in the midst of this cultural turmoil the Times wasn’t sure what editorial direction it wanted to take with the Review, according to Leonard.) Of course, people did complain—mostly that the Review was too much like the Voice, he told me—and in recent years, as he recalls, one colleague said that Leonard had not been a “Timesman.” Ironically, this failure may have contributed to his achievement: He saw his role as an occasion to put a critical sensibility to work, rather than to keep an institution intact. And when people mention Leonard’s Review today, it’s with the kind of wistfulness that Kane said, “Rosebud.”
What lesson might the Book Review’snext editor draw from the Leonard years? For one thing, we’re clearly at another crucial historical moment—one at which smart people disagree about big issues (the aftermath of Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq being only the most obvious examples). American culture is on the defensive, its distinctiveness under renewed scrutiny. Meanwhile, with the rise of the superstore, the advent of the Internet, and the ever-increasing number of books published each year, the Review, though influential, no longer makes or breaks a book as it did even 10 years ago. The editor in chief of one publishing house describes the Review instead as a “piece of the puzzle”—which now includes TV publicity and decisions made by Barnes & Noble’s buyers. You could lament such a diminishment of cultural authority, except this one provides an opportunity for the Review: It may have more freedom than ever before to re-imagine its role. Leonard’s provocative tack simply may not be what the Times wants, or has ever wanted, but at this particular moment Rosebud looks within reach.