With Tanenhaus’s disappearance before the Q&A session, the conversation became smarter and more relaxed, with John Leonard offering fascinating tales of his NYTBR tenure. As I entered the room, just after setting up a conversation with Nigel Beale that regrettably never happened, Levi Asher was in full force, asking the question I had intended (and he intended) to put to Tanenhaus, pondering the ethically dubious assignment of Henry Kissinger reviewing a Dean Acheson biography.
John Leonard offered an interesting anecdote in response to Levi’s question. He noted that one of the contributing factors that led to him leaving the NYTBR was one notoriously protracted piece of vetting. A review of one of Kissinger’s memoirs had quibbled over Kissinger’s claim that he had only one sleepless night during the course of his career (this sleepless night was before his secret trip to China).
Leonard continued to object to what he styled “performance art criticism.” He evoked Isaiah Berlin, suggesting that critics should simply quote the writer he is reviewing and to think like a writer in service of the book.
Leonard kept the interesting anecdotes coming. He noted a case where he, as book editor, received a telephone call from the hotshot attorney Melvin Belli asked to review a book called Judges in America, because Belli insisted to Leonard that he could offer some interesting words on the subject of American magistrates. Leonard commissioned the review and received an entertaining and favorable piece from Belli. What Leonard did not know, until a reporter from the Philly Inquirer had called him, was that Belli was a friend of the author and had posed with him in a photograph. Leonard ended up writing an essay called “Suckered,” in which he confessed how Belli had bamboozled him. None of this, Leonard insisted, was funny.
There were other theoretical rules on ethics offered by Leonard: One could never trust a poet, because a poet would wait for decades. Leonard jocularly insisted that all poets behave badly.
Prose objected to the common reviewing notion that if a reviewer does not like a book’s characters, there is no way that the reviewer could like the book.
Romano, becoming an increasingly amusing gadfly, then suggested that the world could use less of “Kakutani killing babies in cribs.”
With only a few minutes left, there was then a regrettably long soliloquy from a former reviewer who didn’t really have a question, but had much to say about the visual nature of the book review. Leonard, with Romano’s peremptory calls to this gentleman to offer a question, was gracious enough to answer it. He bemoaned “the misery that graphics have brought into the world.” He pointed out that under his watch, the NYTBR turned out a 70 page section every week. Since those days, graphics have caused book reviews to lose about a third of the words that they once had.
Ulin also suggested that there was no space in the pages, but that he had plans to institute Letters to the Editor on the LATBR website.
On the subject of authors responding to reviews, Ulin said that he usually didn’t permit the reviewer to respond. Leonard added that it was “almost always a mistake for an author to write that letter.” Offering yet another amusing anecdote, he pointed to a case where Alfred Kazin had left a long letter in response to a Joan Didion review, accusing Didion of being “a young whipper snipper,” inter alia. Leonard permitted Didion to respond. She answered with only five words: “Oh come off it, Alfred.”
And from here, the delightful panel ended.
It was a great pleasure to see so many experienced and committed editors in the same room. And I was particularly honored to listen to John Leonard’s wise words, in large part because I’ve spent many hours in dark microfilm rooms getting lost in the NYTBR pages edited during his tenure. It is the very editorial quality that Leonard insisted upon which has made me so frequently disappointed (and vocal) in Sam Tanenhaus’s abject results over the past three years. But if the NYTBR is a hopeless cause, so long as oily editorial interlopers willingly steer great vessels into literary reefs, it was a relief to learn that there remain committed editors and writers who actually care very much about ethics and less about stunt writing, much less stunt crises.