''Marcel Proust might not make it on First Edition,'' says John Leonard, co-host of a new public-television series featuring celebrated authors and important new books.
''I don't know whether Proust could talk (well enough),'' says the bearded, blue-jeaned Leonard, chatting in his unmanicured town house on a manicured street on New York's chic East Side. He is describing the criteria for authors on ''First Edition'' (PBS for 12 Thursdays, 8-8:30 p.m., check local listings for premieres and repeats).
''Look,'' he says earnestly, ''more than 40,000 books are published every year, many more good ones than the 12 or so I can feature on the program. It won't do the authors or the program any good if I get somebody on who is tongue-tied or pompous or shy. I must know in advance that the author is articulate, or there's no point in bothering.''
Isn't there a certain ambivalence in doing a show about people who choose to communicate in writing - and then utilizing only writers who communicate well vocally?
Leonard nods his head sadly. ''Yes, it's ambivalent. . . . We are stuck with a compromise. But the fact is, there are writers who I admire greatly who I would never have on this program, because I know they can't talk well enough. Their appearance wouldn't do them any good.''
The premiere show started airing last night in some areas (about 50 stations have so far signed for the series, which is distributed on PBS through the Interregional Program Service). Featured is Norman Mailer, a supremely articulate author, who came on the show only because the hosts promised not to focus on his celebrity but on his writing. After a discussion during which he explains that his journalistic writing ''made me discover I had a sensibility that was my own,'' Mailer warns of the dangers of journalism: ''It encourages bad habits - the story is handed to you.'' He feels that ''Executioner's Song,'' which seems to be his favorite book, belongs on a different shelf from his other works. Then he reads from his latest novel, ''Real Men Don't Dance,'' as the camera moves in for revealing close-ups.
The format of the show then features an ''Uncommentary'' by the cantankerous Clifton Fadiman, who discusses the difference between the art of literary criticism and the business of book reviewing - making it clear that the reviewer serves only as a conduit between printer and public.
The final segment of the show will be ''In Review,'' a couple of book reviews by co-host Nancy Evans and John Leonard. In his review of ''Exile: The Unquiet Oblivion of Richard M. Nixon,'' by Robert Sam Anson, Mr. Leonard poses a fascinating question: ''Are we ready to forgive a man who doesn't understand what it is we feel a need to forgive?''
The second in the 12-part series features Elmore Leonard (no relation to host John), author of ''La Brava,'' a writer of suspense thrillers, who has won the praise of critics for breaking the bounds of the crime genre. Future interviewees will include John Updike, Toni Morrison, Saul Bellow, Barbara Tuchman, Joe McGinnis, Paul Theroux, and Joseph Heller. Some are re-edited tapes from last year's Arts cable-TV show of the same name.
Host John Leonard - who is also TV critic for New York Magazine - edited the New York Times Book Review for many years. He was TV columnist for the old Life magazine, writing under the pseudonym Cyclops, and is very proud that during his stint there he called the shot on ''M*A*S*H'' as ''the most important regularly scheduled half-hour in TV history.'' Currently, he is working on his fifth novel , ''The Glee Club.''
''The point of the show,'' says Leonard, ''is to make people read books'' - and not to use the show as a substitute for reading. ''And I think we are falling short in not introducing many unknown writers; we are interviewing too many big names. I hope, if we have another season, that we will have more new writers.''
How about pop writers like Danielle Steele and Sidney Sheldon?
Mr. Leonard shakes his head vigorously. ''We will not have that kind of writer ever. Those people already have publishers' publicity machines working for them, access to 'Johnny Carson' and other talk shows.''
Is TV taking the place of books in many households?
''Not at all.
''TV is a form of entertainment, and many books that used to be published were the same kind of entertainment, so there have been some substitutions. But it doesn't hurt at all. More people are writing now than ever wrote before. There are more high school newspapers, more underground magazines. I see no evidence whatsoever that a good book isn't being published because of television.''
Might it be that a whole generation of young people has substituted TV for reading Saul Bellow?
''No. It is probably true that a lot of people in college have a shorter attention span and want quicker payoffs from their entertainment packages. But these people weren't in college before. And maybe don't belong there now. Maybe we should worry about education rather than TV.''
What would make ''First Edition'' a success, in the eyes of John Leonard?
He thinks carefully, rubbing his beard. ''I want no writer on the program who wouldn't make my children better people, didn't tell me something I didn't know before, make me reexamine positions about life that I held before. But I want the books bought, too. Deep down I just want to sell different books from the books that are sold automatically now.
''That's why there will be no jerks on the program, no politicians, no film stars. There will only be writers, people who know how to put words, paragraphs, pages, books, together.''
A preview of the first few programs of ''First Edition'' finds plenty of famous writers, but no jerks, no politicians, and no film stars. And no newcomers. It is a welcome addition to the PBS schedule - featuring witty and provocative conversation, writers and critics who have something solid to say, and even an occasional droll piece of good wit.
If it's action adventure or mindless entertainment you're looking for, ''First Edition'' won't knock you out of your armchair. But it will provide viewers with stimulating, literate conversation about literary events. It's even worth putting down that book you're reading for a half-hour break.