Begin by rereading—or reading, because you couldn’t be bothered the first time—that gaudy subtitle. Think about it a little. Do those adjective-noun combos interest you? Do they interest you more than the long, defensive final clause puts you off? I ask because, even if it was deceptive of this Serious Fiction maven to bury “Author Gods” in the middle, he’s summed up his latest collection pretty accurately. “I read this stuff so you don’t have to,” he declares, and although he’s referring to the novels of the “Poisoned Twinkies” (Bret Easton Ellis et al.), that could be his credo. In the same essay, Leonard, who is 60, recalls “the monastic cell in which I read all night” as a teenager. When he’s on, he writes like he’s still that teenager—inhaling a raft of spy books, or several decades’ speculation on Atlantis, or the whole vast oeuvre of Doris Lessing (obliged to review each new one because none of his colleagues had the heart to keep up), then coming downstairs with all-new info. In addition to outlandish noun-adjective combos fueling arcane series, his discourse bristles with weird theories bouncing off each other, with words and names you never heard of. Paranomasia, sacajou, fatidic, tiger op, parlamente, torii. Gaviotas, Yuratum, Akroteri, Rawalpindi, Hermapolis, Ascona. Matteo Ricci, Sabbatai Zevi, Aristarchus, Aby Warburg, Christa Winsloe, Johann Valentin Andreae.
Leonard worked for the Times from 1967 to 1982—reviewing books, profiling culturati, even editing the Book Review during the brief period when radical connections had cachet on 43rd Street—and by age 40 had published four novels and two essay collections. He’s also written TV criticism for Life, Newsweek, and eventually New York, his money gig since 1983, and held down broadcast spots with NPR and CBS; from 1995 to 1998, he ran an excellent book section with his wife, Sue, at The Nation, where most of the gratifyingly full-bodied essays that dominate When the Kissing Had To Stop first appeared. This is a prodigious amount of writing for a guy who watches so much television on top of reading everything in creation. But without both inputs Leonard couldn’t have turned himself into a 20th-century generalist. It’s clear from 1997’s Smoke and Mirrors that TV is his main way of staying in touch with the world beyond books. Far from having no personal life, he is unusually forthcoming with autobiographical marginalia—about his marriages, his friendships, his career, his alcoholism—that put flesh and crotchet on his ideas. But the normal guy in him is hooked on the tube, which he believes has its mitts on some crude version of the American zeitgeist—plus it’s good for more info.
Cultural journalists are paid to care mightily about how they write, which leaves a book man like Leonard in a state of ongoing postpartum anxiety—all his tiny babies, interred in microfiche. He’s so productive you assume he doesn’t sweat blood over every sentence, but he’s such a show-off you know he loves his own prose. So he must have suffered in the 14-year stretch between his hot youth and his gray eminence, when he published no books. Having read one of his novels once, I’m entitled to hope there’ll be no more; he has better uses for his creative juices, like transforming journalism into bound volumes with his name on them. This isn’t as easy as is
believed. His Times-dominated 1973 collection, This Pen for Hire, which opened with a longer essay (written for Cultural Affairs) dissecting the limitations of the book reviewer’s “800-word mind,” ended up exemplifying them—however entertaining and insightful, it also seemed arbitrary, undeveloped, a bit herky-jerk. Humbler now, he’s edited hard and worked for flow with his three ’90s titles—which include the 1993 anthology The Last Innocent White Man in America as well as Smoke and Mirrors, a full-length polemic that folds plot descriptions and analyses from his New York and CBS work into the thesis that TV is our most socially responsible popular medium.
When the Kissing Had To Stop is the best-realized of these, in part because it avoids the left-liberal point-scoring that was right on in the context of New York and New York Newsday but seems too predictable from the nonprofit New Press (although it’s nice to imagine high school students happening upon his class-warfare stats in the
library, a possibility that would be enhanced were the books indexed). Freed of any obligation to preach to the heathens, Leonard reserves The Nation for more recondite projects. There’s the Atlantis essay, which climaxes in two utopian communities, the fictional Botswanan one of the glorious Norman Rush novel Mating and the actually existing Colombian one of Gaviotas. There’s a measured appreciation of
Edward Said opening onto the surprising vista of the obscure Ahmadou Kourouma masterwork Monnew. There’s a mordant overview of the moral lives of the philosophers—against the mean-spirited likes of Hypatia, Wittgenstein, Simone Weil, Foucault, and other more curtly dismissed notables, he’ll take the “boozehound, pillhead, and womanizer” Jean-Paul Sartre and his 20 pages a day. There’s an invidious Willie Morris–Paul Krassner comparison, a surreal history of the CIA, a defense of Luddism, a piece that calls complaints about public television’s “Byzantine complexity” “unfair to Constantinople.” There’s more.
For any partisan of intellectual journalism, Leonard is a small treasure. Combined with his sheer fecundity, his double specialty in television and literature leaves such fellow progs as Barbara Ehrenreich and Ellen Willis (although not the Alexander Cockburn of the wild and woolly The Golden Age Is in Us) looking rather austere. But while his intimacy with Serious Fiction—the subject of nearly half the book—adds flair and texture to his arguments, which break into literally novelistic detail at the oddest moments, it’s also his weakness. Like many left-wing aesthetes before him, Leonard wants to believe that his pet pleasure is the key to human progress. But if indeed “good writers are better citizens than most of the rest of us,” constituting “a parliament of hungry dreamers,” then they’re trickle-down legislators at best. When television’s feel-good humanity fails to dent America’s real-life social brutality, how are mandarins writing for other mandarins supposed to make themselves felt?
Though Leonard is no snob, he’s enough of a climber to forgive elitism in the unforgiving likes of William Gass and Joan Didion (about whom he at least has the perspective to cite Randall Jarrell on T.S. Eliot: “he’d have written The Waste Land about the Garden of Eden”). As a corollary, he’s a brazen old fart. Novel lovers of every birthdate share his disdain for the Poisoned Twinkies. But when his essay on the cyberpunks, whom he’s sci-fi enough to enjoy, ends by suggesting they read Toni Morrison, fight Viacom, and help the homeless, the burnt-rubber smell of ’60s self-righteousness spinning its wheels leaves one to conclude that his sniping at sitcoms in general and Seinfeld in particular has nothing to do with art. And hey, he’s not to be trusted on popular music either. But without him I would never have gotten the dirt on James Jesus Angleton, discovered Mating, or had the chance to opine that Monnew is twice the formal achievement Beloved is. Really, who has the time? Somehow John Leonard does. Then he comes downstairs and tells us about it.