Meghan O’Rourke argues, in “The Wonder Years: When people loved the New York Times Book Review,” that in its search for a replacement for long-time Book Review editor Charles McGrath, the Times should “look backâ€”to what was widely agreed to be the Book Review‘s golden age, from 1971 to 1975, under the editorship of John Leonard.”
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 novelâ€”and when he did he saw something new in it.
Mostly, though, Leonard’s Book Review was distinctive because its pieces took a clear positionâ€”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 bookâ€”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….
(First seen at Old Hag, where Lizzie is back in action.)