For all the stock Leonard places in the importance of reviewing, he stalwartly guards against the inflation of self-regard that encroaches on most experts. American literary critics of a strong political bent have been the worst among them, assigning a level of importance and historical necessity to their opinions that Leonard finds specious. “The Partisan Reviewers” — Philip Rahv, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer — “were never as important as they thought they were. Nobody could be, and intellectuals never are,” he writes in his essay on Ex-Friends.
Such suspicion of intellectual arrogance is behind the impulse to dismantle one’s pretenses in public that runs through Leonard’s essay collections; it is an impulse that all critics might take to heart. Critics, after all, play games in their reviews, often preening and primping at the expense of the writer. As Leonard put it, reviewing a biography of Saul Bellow by James Atlas, “A hoary old reviewer’s scam is to pretend you already knew all the inside stuff before you ever read the biography you’re about to quibble with by poaching from. Let me be upfront: Almost everything I know about Bellow that I didn’t guess from reading him I got from the encyclopedic Atlas.” For all his knowledge, Leonard has been able to build into his writing a form of ambivalence and questioning, and it’s this point of view that separates the good reviewer from the great critic. Writing about why he travels, he says, “I want to go anywhere, and to feel ambivalent about it,” explaining that what he most desires is to “dislocate myself.” It’s an apt summation of his critical approach.
These days, Leonard finds himself feeling a little too dislocated. He worries that the dry season of literary culture has arrived. “You talk about this and you begin to sound like an old fart,” he says. “You hear it coming out of your mouth and you wonder whether anything you’re saying is true. But it seemed there was a greater number of serious reviews. And there was certainly a better quality of book reviewing. Certainly at magazines like Time and Newsweek; it’s a scandal what they’re doing now,” he says, noting how little space they give to serious books. In his mind, it’s not just the shrinking number of pages that is the problem; it’s also the sense of opportunism and entitlement that many young critics, wanting to make a name for themselves, bring to the table. “Reviewing has all become performance art; it’s all become posturing. It’s going to have to be the lit blogs that save us. At least they have passion.” But even a fan of literary blogs may wonder if their enthusiasm is enough; passion is a crucial aspect of literary criticism, but passion alone doesn’t produce the essayists of the sort who shape our deepest thinking about our literary culture.
Leonard also believes that young reviewers aren’t encouraged to diversify their knowledge base. In one journalism class he taught, students told him they didn’t want to read some of the critics and novelists on the assigned reading list because “they didn’t want to be influenced.” Influence, in Leonard’s mind, is an asset — the way we become versed in the language of criticism. “I think a young critic has to find a situation, paying or not, where they can expand, not specialize. But you’ve got to throw yourself into deep water. You’ve got to review a writer whose other books you have to read and that means you have to find a comfortable place with an editor who is elastic enough … . You only find your voice by using it on a variety of subjects, not just repeating the same tune.”
The poet William Wordsworth once wrote of “The marble index of a mind forever/voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone” — lines that Leonard recently quoted in an essay on the book Herman Melville, by Elizabeth Hardwick. One can see why these lines might appeal to a literary critic. It is not quite apt, though. John Leonard’s mind is not a marble index, but three-dimensional, contoured, and warm with the palpable energy of a life lived in the strange and complicating literary seas of ambivalence.