This summer, in affiliation with the Book-of-the-Month Club and something called Creative Television Associates, PBS perpetrated a twelve-part series called “First Edition,” which took as its subject the wonderful world of contemporary American letters. The hosts were John Leonard, for many years The New York Times’s house expert on books, culture, and agonized white male sensitivity and awareness, and Nancy Evans, a tony young book reviewer for Glamour who was born to play Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story. Also on hand, as a sort of public-TV version of Andy Rooney of “Sixty Minutes,” was Book-of-the-Month-Club judge Clifton Fadiman, the eighty-year-old critic, editor, and alumnus of The New Yorker and the radio quiz show “Information Please.”
But the indisputable star of “First Edition” was Mr. Leonard—John, to us viewers. It’s amazing. The man looks just like a thousand other mild-mannered, highly literate middle-aged Manhattanites with neatly trimmed beards and turtleneck sweaters and hunting jackets. But stick a few pages of his own prose in front of him, push him toward a camera, and he acts as if he were Montgomery Gift. What intensity! What electricity! Reading his copy aloud, he caressed each word, nearly strangled it, his voice cracking, body quavering, eyes burning and crossed as he stared intently into the camera lens, looking like he was going to break into tears at any moment because his fragile passion for the writer he was talking about was just too much for him. Or perhaps he was simply torn apart by the sound of his own prose. Which is understandable. For how could anyone not be discomposed by the likes of this:
[Max Apple’s] characters and his states of mind visit Disney World, the Girl Scouts and the Astrodome, the CIA and primal therapy, a movie set and a pizza parlor and a piano bar; Pac Man and Alaska and the national debt. They jog, buy yogurt, drink beer, root for the Detroit Tigers, read the National Geographic and The National Inquirer, fish for the dead through holes in the ice, think about horses and dental floss and sex and carbohydrates and Andrew Carnegie and Eugene V. Debs and add themselves up all wrong on their pocket calculators. They have transplanted hearts and in their ears they hear the sound of the national anthem and Rice Krispies. They are plucky, bewildered Americans, stuck in a discrepant space between history and faith, breakfast and dreams. They miss their mother and so make many jokes, play many games with language and emotion and sacred text, poker-faced for keeps. On Judgment Day they will be represented by the best of New York law firms, batting clean-up. Unreconciled to the bad news of this century, they find enchantment in the contemplation of Yellow Cabs, Reggie Jackson, the pituitary gland, the library.
True, it doesn’t make too much sense, particularly when you hear it only once on television, and it doesn’t illuminate its subject so much as draw attention to itself. But gosh, isn’t it relevant? Isn’t it poetic? And look at the man suffer!
And so there he was at the beginning of each episode of “First Edition,” framed in an unnervingly tight Big-Brother close-up, warbling yet another heartfelt, perplexing panegyric in praise of yet another Guest Author of the Week. There were twelve Guest Authors, one per show, and John had something heartfelt and perplexing to say about every last one of them. About Mailer: “So shape-changing, so nineteenth-century in his appetite for the facts and the night, the texture and the magic, is the one we’ve asked here to explain himself and his literature. We will be asking him his own question: What indeed did Picasso teach us if not that every form offers up its own scream when it is torn?” (They never did ask him that, darn it.) About Updike, that “one-man academy of the arts”: “John Updike proposes a kind of nostalgia for the future, a future that seems to recede, like God, when we most need it. In Rabbit is Rich the dead look up from beneath the ice, while in the winter we run for our lives hoping that if God can’t save us, maybe sex will do the job.” And about our own American Nobel Laureate:
Saul Bellow studied anthropology and sociology, and these disciplines weren’t big enough to contain either his amazing, scourging sense of humor or the complicated things he had to say about the Jewish romance with America, alienation and ambivalence in sex, homelessness and howling like a wolf from the city window, the degraded clowning of this life through which we are speeding, meeting the terms of one’s contract, gangsters, and intellectuals.
After John had gotten the proceedings under way in this fashion, the camera panned to Nancy, whose praise for the Author of the Week was a bit more direct: “Philip Roth has said of Updike, ‘He’s the best writer of us all,’ and there are few who would dispute that . . .” Or: “Although Saul Bellow may have reservations about his earlier work, he is one of the few authors whose every book . . . is mandatory reading for the serious reader of fiction. His consistent seriousness of purpose, laced with an arch sense of the human comedy, has been recognized.”
That, above all, was what “First Edition” was really about—seriousness.
Serious reader. Seriousness of purpose. That, above all, was what “First Edition” was really about—seriousness. With every word, gesture, expression, John and Nancy hammered it home: this was not some frivolous talk show, they were not the usual bubbleheaded professional TV personalities, the Author of the Week was not some best-selling hack. They were here on serious business—to probe the nature of literary art, to get the Great Author “to explain himself and his literature.” Oddly enough, though, when you stripped away the subordinate clauses, most of their questions amounted to vintage cocktail-party material. How does it feel to get a bad review? How do you decide whether to write a story or a novel? Where do you get your ideas? “Were you born with this ear [for dialogue] or did you start listening better?”—Nancy to Elmore Leonard. The most frequently asked question was: How do you feel about being a celebrity? Mailer revealed that his fame is a burden, because he’s a serious writer who wants to sit home and write serious books; Bellow explained that it’s hard to be a public figure and a “man of genius” at the same time.
That was about as revealing as it got. The celebrities’ answers, in general, were less interesting than their behavior in the company of John and Nancy. Bellow was sardonic and wary, Updike tired and amiable, William Kennedy shy and soft-spoken, Toni Morrison warm and garrulous, Mailer bombastic but controlled. Bellow lectured, Updike chatted, Kennedy murmured, Morrison poured out her heart, Mailer made pronouncements. And throughout it all Nancy was aglow with a Revlon-girl smile and John sat there brooding and staring and nodding and looking pensive and occasionally doing something like this: Mailer was talking about his books of journalism, and John interrupted him to say that a book like The Armies of the Night “is not journalism at all. It’s social history—written in blood.” What a conversation stopper! The way he wrung out those last three words, the tortured look on his face—why, even the existential hero of the March on the Pentagon didn’t know how to respond.
Once the Interview of the Week was over, there was (on some episodes) an apparently unscripted segment called “Insights” in which John and Nancy, alone now, discussed what they had just learned about the art of literature. Ruminating over William Kennedy’s remarks about the writer’s choice of form, John told Nancy: “I just have this feeling that what writers do is they hear the voices, they work on the material, and if they’re any good at all, it becomes clear that it has to be done this way.” (Well, you had to be there. It sounded profound.) And after the conversation with Toni Morrison, Nancy brought up John’s “provocative” theory that “it’s young women who are trailblazing in fiction.” John gave us some names: Alice Walker, Anne Tyler, Ann Beattie. “It doesn’t seem to me,” he said, his synapses ablaze, “that they’re just writing about being women.” But then, of course, having unloaded this perception, he went on speaking of them as women. They’re “suppressed voices,” their books are “signals from a submerged continent.” An approving Nancy did her part: “Women are being serious about the act of writing . . . . And I think they are taking their craft quite seriously.” Talk about your insights!
“First Edition” wasn’t advertised as a political program.
“First Edition” wasn’t advertised as a political program, but John and Nancy turned it into one now and then nonetheless. They seemed to be happier this way. Their best chance usually came with “In Review,” the program’s closing segment. On one episode, Nancy reviewed a book called When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America by Paula Giddings. The feminist standard-bearers Germaine Greer, Susan Brownmiller, and Betty Friedan, Nancy observed, have all turned into reactionaries lately, and “in this flat, backward-looking climate, it’s thrilling to come upon an impassioned piece of feminist scholarship that breaks new ground.” Apparently unaware that some people might consider the phrase “impassioned scholarship” to be something of an oxymoron, Nancy went on to declare Giddings’s book “a landmark study that anyone with a conscience should consider required reading . . . . It will send chills down your spine, like the first time you heard Martin Luther King.”
Even more fervent was John’s review of Exile: The Unquiet Oblivion of Richard M. Nixon by Robert Sam Anson. Nixon, John said, is an eternal mystery: “Nixon’s face . . . is a moon in the American night, and we will never find his center, a bat cave.” But we can’t help wanting to find his center, even though
there may be something wrong, something obscene about our fascination. I wanted more. As if a shape was bound to appear out of the mound of words. But there is no more. Norman Mailer himself is just as greedy as I am to know. Mailer calls Nixon “the Eisenstein of the mediocre and the inert.” But he handles his body like an adolescent suffering excruciations of self-consciousness with every move. Nixon is back. He never went away. Government by Jack-in-the-Box. Surprise! Guess what Daddy brought home from the office? A secret bombing of Cambodia! The book, its author, its subject, and this reader, are full of bland uneasiness.
Nancy’s one-word reaction to this: “Bravo.” (They get along very well.)
Best of all, though, was the closing segment of the Updike episode, in which both John and Nancy conspired to steer the ship off course. It started with a review by a tie-and-jacket-clad Nancy of Updike’s new novel, The Witches of Eastwick. Having flashed her Cover-Girl smile at the author through an entire interview, she now bared her claws and tore into his book. “Underneath the smooth talk,” Nancy proclaimed, “lies sexism.” The book was a “tasteless” love letter to “bourgeois bliss.” A dejected John concurred. “What is so dismaying,” he lamented, his voice reed-thin and trembling, “is when a writer that you really like and a writer who is very good behaves wickedly. And this is a wicked book.”
They proceeded to discuss the matter. John was very agonized—fingers on lips, eyes on the floor. “It’s not new,” he said about Updike’s sexism. “Something weird is going on.” Nancy said she hadn’t seen anything like it since “the old days” of The Prisoner of Sex. John said, “Mailer’s gonna do the same thing. Women end up in his new novel as severed heads in bags in the river . . . . Something is going on. I wish I knew what it was.” He posited a connection between these wicked new books and some current television shows. “Every new adventure program, with the single exception of ‘Remington Steele,’ is based on the buddy-buddy beach bum or helicopter-flying . . . jerks, and all the women are bikini-clad bimbos.” The implicit message in all this, he said, was that men were saying “‘we’ve had enough, we don’t want to hear any more about you, we don’t want to hear any more about your struggles, we don’t want to hear any more about your sensitivity, we don’t want to wash the dishes, and now we’re gonna get back.’ I’m flummoxed.” So flummoxed, in fact, that he was at a loss for words. Nancy suggested that “women have been quiet these past few years” and that “by this silence were encouraging these books to come out now.” John, with sad, bitter irony: “‘Break their knees if you can’t go any higher.’ That’s it for ‘First Edition.’ I’m John Leonard.” “And I’m Nancy Evans.”
Slipped in somewhere among these chunks of literary chatter was Fadiman’s little piece of the show, “Uncommontary.” Predictably, there was nothing uncommon about it: Fadiman played pundit emeritus, delivering mildly cantankerous, inconsequential little essays about the distinction between literary criticism and book reviewing; about the boom in the short story; about books versus non-books; about four writers who should get the Nobel Prize (Greene, Borges, Graves, Braudel). Fadiman, who has the anthologist’s predilection for making lists, named his nine great literary critics and his twenty-five (actually twenty-six) “active, interesting American and Canadian short story writers.” He praised Aristotle’s “first-rate mind” and decried The Jane Fonda Workout Book. “A certain air of seriousness,” he complained, “used to cling to the very idea of a book.”
And “a certain air of seriousness” was, when you get down to it, the principal commodity that “First Edition” was intended to deliver. The program was only the latest in a long line of pseudo-cultural offerings from PBS designed not for people with a real interest in culture—literary or otherwise—but for people who like to think they have an interest in it, and who will dutifully watch a show that promises to raise their Culture Quotient, so long as it doesn’t demand any more of them than Merv does. “The little they have to say,” Fadiman observed of non-book authors Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons, “could be contained in a pamphlet.” He might justly, I’m afraid, have made a similar observation about “First Edition.”
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 3 Number 1, on page 88
Copyright © 2022 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com