Category Archives: John Leonard

The Discipline of Form and the Love of an Educated Heart

From a 1959 essay, “Epitaph for the Beat Generation,” included the new anthology of John Leonard‘s essays, Reading for My Life:

[The Beats] proved at least one thing more. That poetry, painting, music, and fiction are products of the individual. That the great American novel will be written by some antisocial SOB who can’t stand espresso and never heard of Wilhelm Reich—the guy who sits up all night at a typewriter and brings to his particular vision the discipline of form and the love of an educated heart. A generation may be disenchanted, but it takes a man alone to chronicle that disenchantment. Art-by-citadel won’t work. It’s in league with brainstorming and Groupthink and government-by-committee. Movements, Generations, Subcultures—these are the strewn carcasses of sterile imaginations, conjured up to explain lamely the why and how of genius.

Leonard is more or less new to me; while he was alive (he died in 2008), I preferred to read music or film criticism. I’m still reading, but I’ve noticed two terms show up a few times in the essays collected in the book. One is “Author-God,” which is meant to be mildly critical of the magisterial novelist who’s a lot artful and a little disengaged with the wider world. (John Updike would be the exemplar of that.) The other is “unbuttoned,” a word he uses to praise a writer who’s done plenty of hard thinking but projects it casually. (Think Pynchon.) Leonard’s own prose echoes what he praised and criticized in others’ writing. It’s loose, often nut-graf-less, thick with lists of ideas, writers, politicians, philosophers, a millennium’s worth of cultural detritus, all rattling by like boxcars—Leonard makes you want to write like him, something few critics do—smart but always presented in plain speech. He’ll never convince me to read Harlot’s Ghost, but he makes you want to spend time with every writer he discusses, a rarer feat for a critic than it ought to be.

Links: Brat Tacks

Spoiled daughter of world-famous musician starts magazine whose name is taken from a Bret Easton Ellis novel. Rampant horribleness ensues.

In other Brat Pack-related news: Jay McInerney, hugging strangers on the street for all the obvious reasons.

Lots of other writers are excited too, for all the obvious reasons.

The Rake‘s Max Ross proposes a few novels that could be converted into video games. “White Noise: The action is propelled by the protagonist’s nagging, ambiguous fear of death. He has to balance learning German with cowering from the strange toxic cloud that hovers above his city. Final task is to identify where the toxic leak came from, and plug it up.”

RIP John Leonard. There are plenty of tributes making the rounds (New York has a nice one addressing his television criticism). Me, I’m taken with his 2000 essay in the Nation about his experience at the New York Times. It was an era full of backbiting, compromises, officiousness, and embarrassments. But Leonard himself put it best: “Wherever, they always fuck with your copy.”