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HOME > Biographical > 100 New Yorkers of the 1970s > EASTSIDER JOHN LEONARD
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Book critic for the New York Times


"It's as if the job I have were designed for me," says bearded, bespectacled John Leonard, lighting his fifth cigarette of the early afternoon as he sits relaxed at his Eastside brownstone, talking about the pleasures and perils of being one of the New York Times' three daily book critics. Like his colleagues Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and Anatole Broyard, Leonard writes two book reviews for the Times each week, and is syndicated nationally. An avid reader since childhood, he now gets to read anything and everything he desires.

That's the advantage. The disadvantage, explains Leonard, is that "there are 50 thousand books published every year in this country. You can never even pretend to be comprehensive. You can't even pretend to be adequate in your coverage, whereas the Times will review almost any play that opens, on or Off Broadway, and almost every concert and movie. We'll review maybe 400 books a year in the daily paper."

A smallish, balding man of 41 who dresses purely for comfort and has a calm, refined speaking manner, Leonard looks precisely like the bookworm he is. "I'll get here, in this house, probably 5,000 or 6,000 books a year, mailed to me, or brought by messenger. The luxury of this job is that there's so much to choose from that any mood or interest or compulsion or desire to educate oneself or amuse oneself can be matched by some book that has come in."

New books by well-known authors, he says, are the first priority because "they've earned reviews, for service to the literary culture over the years." He and his two fellow critics "divide up the plums and divide up the dogs. Since I did Kissinger's memoirs, the next huge, endless book that has to be reviewed, whether anybody wants to review it or not, will not be reviewed by me."

Somewhere between 100 and 140 serious first novels are published in the U.S. each year, according to Leonard. "This is not pulp paperback westerns. It doesn't even count science fiction or gothic or all that. I think a special effort is made by all of us in the reviewing racket to review first novels."

He reads many authors' first books on the recommendation of trusted agents and publishers. "Over the years you decide who isn't lying to you. … Christopher Lehmann-Haupt was telling someone about that the other day. He said, 'Sure, you can call me as often as you want. But I'll say that you begin with a hundred dollars in you bank account, and if it turns out that you are begging me to review a book that has no other redeeming virtues but the fact that you have ............
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