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John Leonard: One-Year Anniversary

  • 11/5/09 at 4:30 PM

John Leonard died a year ago, after nearly a quarter century as New York Magazine's television critic.

John's legacy is too wild to sum up in any simple way. As a critic, he was a brilliant clown, cheerleader, chastiser, and philosopher, sometimes acid with disdain, far more often passionate with praise. As a writer, he was a fantastically original stylist who was downright loopy on the page. His trademark move was big, sloppy, madcap, omnivorous lists — the "cascades" — inferring connections everywhere. He drew links between worlds that many thinkers kept separate (TV and literature, psychology and left-wing politics). And he was also one of the most interesting people in New York City.

Leonard came of age during the time in which Mad Men is set, and for what it's worth, he didn't much like the show, finding it phony-baloney. (He said it felt "like a fifties leftover, chock-full of unimportant secrets.")

But what he did like was criticism that took its own effects seriously, that had humility about the act of creation. Here's his sharp 2004 meta-takedown of Dale Peck's Hatchet Jobs, in which he argues of Peck's gleefully malevolent literary pans:

This isn't criticism. It isn't even performance art. It's thuggee. However entertaining in small doses -- we are none of us immune to malice, envy, schadenfreude, a prurient snuffle and a sucker punch -- as a steady diet it's worse for readers, writers and reviewers than self-abuse; it causes the kind of tone-deaf, colorblind, nerve-damaged and gum-sore literary journalism that screams ''Look at me!'' The rain comes down -- and the worms come out -- and just what the culture doesn't need is one more hall monitor, bounty hunter or East German border guard.

Instead, he recommended something very different, which David Edelstein quoted in his homage to Leonard when he died last year, and which might serve as a warning and inspiration to all of us who stand in judgment.

First, as in Hippocrates, do no harm. Second, never stoop to score a point or bite an ankle. Third, always understand that in this symbiosis, you are the parasite. Fourth, look with an open heart and mind at every different kind of book with every change of emotional weather because we are reading for our lives and that could be love gone out the window or a horseman on the roof. Fifth, use theory only as a periscope or a trampoline, never a panopticon, a crib sheet or a license to kill. Sixth, let a hundred Harolds Bloom.

Our hearts go out to John Leonard's loved ones today.

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