The London Review of Books
Since we have yet to cause any letters to be written to us, we have asked a number of people to respond to the questions: what should a literary journal now be doing, and what else would they like to say about the current state of literary journalism and publishing? Ian Hamilton was the editor of ‘The Review’ (1962-72) and the ‘New Review’ (1974-79). T.G. Rosenthal is Managing Director of Secker and Warburg. John Sutherland is the author of ‘Fiction and the Fiction Industry’. The biographer Michael Holroyd has served as chairman of the Society of Authors.
SIR: My hope is for justice for fiction.
There is a mythical syllogism that goes: Fiction (or at least fiction in hard covers and with artistic ambition) doesn’t sell; its publishers don’t, therefore, advertise it; papers are therefore doing an act of charity if they allot it review space.
That, however, is to ignore the readers (as distinct from buyers) of books. (In Britain those two are very distinct, thanks to the unique size of our public library service.) All papers depend immediately on advertising, but a paper about books must find itself an ultimate constituency among the people who read books. And the books those people read are, predominantly, fiction.
Puritans, who hate and fear fiction, regularly pronounce ‘the novel’ dead, using the singular because they wish there were only one. But champions of fiction often do it no better justice, with their appeals to pity and duty on behalf of the poor, démodé, tottering old thing.
The old thing is in reality a bounding pop art. Some 65 to 70 per cent of adult borrowing from public libraries is borrowing of fiction. In absolute numbers, 365 or so million volumes of fiction-for-adults a year (or one million a day) are given temporary housing in British homes.
It is regrettable for novelists who want to stay alive, and for readers who want them to stay alive to keep up the supply, that British readers borrow rather than buy their fiction. However, they do it for the most sympathetic reasons: namely, that they want such a lot of the stuff. Fiction is perilously addictive. Even though publishers still keep the average price of a fiction book considerably lower than that of a book-in-general, any addict who bought all he wants to read would be quickly bankrupted, not to mention crowded out of his home.
It is probably true that many of the works that addicts borrow in such mass are not imaginative creations but commercial manufactures, which are legitimately considered below the Plimsoll line for review. But so long as there are misapprehensions about fiction’s standing in present-day society, any squeeze on review space squeezes fiction first, with the result that good novels, too, get ignored or slighted, especially the ones that are written within a given form. Snobs who dismiss thrillers, for instance, because they adhere to a set of conventions, should re-examine their attitude to Greek tragedy.
Even the novels that are reviewed are for the most part treated like dirt – that is, swept up in swathes by whoever can be persuaded to take on the chore. Addicts of fiction positively like having their credulity stretched, but even they balk at the straining symphonic bridge-passages (‘From Amsterdam to intellectual agony may seem a big jump’) of round-up reviews.
A more catholic choice of titles for review; more space; and solo space: these are the least that decency demands for what is at the same time the most popular species of books and the one ‘in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed’.
SIR: The London Review doesn’t have, or intend to seek, an Arts Council subsidy. This means that the envious, the indolent, the mischievous must, if they wish to be damaging, take issue with the journal itself, and not with the way it is financed. Most writers believe that they are (or, given the chance, could be) terrific editors, and they are particularly contemptuous of the skills that go into producing journals from which their own works are excluded. Arts Council grants, I’ve come to see, make it all too easy for the whimper of neglect to masquerade as public-spirited dismay. The London Review won’t have to get annoyed about this kind of thing.
It will have other things to get annoyed about, but many of these can be seen as pretty well routine: the publishers will be cagey, the librarians won’t want to know, the backbiters will go on about élitism, metropolitan cliquishness, lack of compassion for the avant-garde, the sycophants will wait and see. The appalling thing about our ‘literary culture’ at the moment is that a large section of its representatives seem to get more of a kick out of seeing things collapse than they do out of seeing them survive. Sooner or later (and I would like to think that this might be the moment) they must ask themselves if they really do want another serious reviewing journal; or if, in their heart of hearts, they prefer to sit around complaining that they haven’t got one.
SIR: I greatly welcome the London Review of Books in its marsupial form, and I hope that eventually it will leave the maternal pouch and leap on its own two feet. The absence of Times Newspapers’ various review columns has been, and, alas, continues to be, in my view, catastrophic for serious publishers, and I wish you and your colleagues the greatest success in a venture which is vital to the continuing health of dedicated writing and quality publishing. On the grounds that nothing can replace – particularly when one bears in mind the heavy reliance upon British reviewers – the spaciousness of the New York Review’s contributions, could I possibly suggest that the London version covers more books more briefly – at, shall we say, New Statesman or Listener length – in order to give the comprehensive coverage we have so expensively lost? And perhaps some serious poetry reviewing?
SIR: Travelling from New York to London, one often has the feeling of entering a kind of cultural echo-chamber. Books and films which are running or have run their course transatlantically are typically just about to take off here. Thus, in early September, the big ‘new’ novel drawing solo reviews in Britain is Styron’s Sophie’s Choice (over there it has been in the NYT best-seller list since June). Penguin’s lead title for October is Greene’s The Human Factor (the American mass market has had the Avon paperback since February). The films just released and most talked about in Britain at the moment are Alien and Manhattan – works which have, one imagines, been talked to death in New York. It’s not a systematic or even a consistent thing; nor does it make one want to raise the feeble complaint of ‘cultural imperialism’ (Alien and The Human Factor are, after all, ours in a sense). What it amounts to is a persistent suspicion of London’s being in shadow, or at a provincial distance from the centre of things. Important British novelists (Spark, Burgess, et al) and British star reviewers (Kermode, Spender, Donoghue, et al) gravitate to New York because of what they are and what it is – the prime site.
Given its parentage, one would expect the London Review of Books to address itself to the intimate but necessarily uneasy Atlantic cultural link. Not to try to be the equivalent of Time and Newsweek’s appallingly condescending ‘European Editions’, but to bring out and work within a relationship which no other periodical has come to terms with and to which we conveniently apply Spender’s description ‘love-hate’. The worst that could happen would be a double-yoked journal which merely synchronised its staple reviews to fit the London calendar. The best would be a pervasive and assertive sense of awkwardness at the problems of dealing with segments of common ground and radical difference in the London and New York book worlds.
SIR: No amount of literary festivals, conferences, parties or other amiable get-togethers can disguise the natural solitude of writers. But in a society that undervalues literature this solitude may grow into unnatural isolation. What we need is what we have never had: a strong Minister for the Arts who could bring about the radical change in attitude of central government towards all the arts that was once promised by Norman St John-Stevas. He has urged ‘the promotion of more literary magazines’. Here’s one – promoted from abroad.