Clive James writes about literary magazines
- London Reviews edited by Nicholas Spice
Chatto, 222 pp, £5.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 7011 2988 3
- The New Review Anthology edited by Ian Hamilton
Heinemann, 320 pp, £12.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 434 31330 0
- BuyNight and Day edited by Christopher Hawtree, by Graham Greene
Chatto, 277 pp, £12.95, November 1985, ISBN 0 07 011296 7
- Lilliput goes to war edited by Kaye Webb
Hutchinson, 288 pp, £10.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 09 161760 X
- Penguin New Writing: 1940-1950 edited by John Lehmann and Roy Fuller
Penguin, 496 pp, September 1985, ISBN 0 14 007484 8
With more than eight hundred high-grade items to choose from, London Reviews gets the number down to just 28. But already it is the third such selection from the London Review of Books. Is three neat volumes sitting on a shelf better than hundreds of copies of the magazine mouldering in a corner? Yes, but not emphatically. When a literary magazine is as good as this one it hurts to throw old copies away. Visiting I.F. Stone once in Washington, I was impressed by his complete bound files of the New York Review of Books, and more impressed still that he had extracted these from the editor as part-payment.
Perhaps contributors to the LRB could work the same trick on Karl Miller, who for this anthology hands over to Nicholas Spice, who in turn sensibly makes sure that Karl Miller’s long essay about the LRB heads the list of contents. This essay is to be relished, not least when it is most uncertain. If the style is less tortuous than usual, the stylist is even more tortured. His highly developed sense of scruple has not let him rest easy since he chose Ursula Creagh as the reviewer of a book by A. Alvarez about divorce. Ursula Creagh, in addition to her sharp critical faculty, had the qualification of being divorced from A. Alvarez. Or should it have been the disqualification? The estimable Alvarez, brave as well as bright, will not mind my saying on behalf of several thousand subscribers that the piece was read keenly.
If the editor didn’t print it just as keenly, certainly he managed to overcome his reluctance. But it can’t be denied that the adversarial casting of reviewer and reviewed is more commonly practised down at the tattier end of Grub Street to produce what is known as ‘lively copy’. Let me give an example, based on close personal experience. Suppose, say, the Literary Review has printed an attack on one of your books a year after it was published. This might be an insult but so far there is no injury. The editor of the magazine then writes you a letter saying that the attacker is about to bring out a book of his own and asking whether you would like to review his book ‘in reply’. You deal with the letter in the only way appropriate, by pretending you haven’t seen it. The assistant editor of the magazine then rings you up to repeat the offer. You reply to the effect that revenge is a bad reason to write book reviews. A more graphic reply is ruled out by the fact that both the editor and the assistant editor are young women, new to the job but learning fast.
In the editorial half-world of the property-market giveaway glossies and Naim Attallah’s corps de ballet, lively copy is pursued in all innocence by fashionable female honourables whose idea of a rigorous literary magazine is Vanity Fair. In the arts-update departments of the fashion mags – and, increasingly, the back ends of the weeklies – lively copy is generated with a greater awareness of how seriousness is being sacrified to trivialisation, and consequently with a more strident self-righteousness. But Manichean explanations are otiose. The Grub Street jobbing editor not only doesn’t see anything awful about being slipshod, he doesn’t see anything slipshod about being slipshod. He isn’t transgressing his standards. Those are his standards. Hence the guileless charm of Karl Miller’s self-searching. Worried about a momentary lapse from a principle the other chaps don’t even know exists, he is so far above the battle that his anxious feet shuffle empty air. Imagine Wittgenstein high up in the grandstand, painfully arriving at his celebrated formulation that a game consists of the rules by which it is played. Imagine, down on the pitch, some clapped-out Third Division football side wanly attempting to avoid relegation by hacking at its opponents’ ankles. The discrepancy is of that order.
The ethical point is not just relevant but crucial, because it is to the principled editor, the worrier, that the talented contributors come in search of prestige. As editor of a literary magazine he will have almost nothing else to pay them with, so all depends on his moral clout. He must conjure up a sense of mission. It is no coincidence, as the academics say, that what joins Karl Miller, now of the LRB, to Ian Hamilton, some time of the New Review, is a dominant, not to say overbearing, personality. Either man is able, by force of self-belief, to make good contributors expend, on an article, energy that they might otherwise have saved up to write books. Getting less good contributors to do this is no problem, but good contributors are more retentive, and eventually reach the stage when they yield up copy like a stone giving blood. It then becomes a matter of the editor’s will. Without a Napoleonic inner certainty, he won’t get the stuff. He must convince the best minds in the country that his magazine is a key factor in its survival as a civilisation, and he can do this only if he first convinces himself. My Observer colleague Neal Ascherson – present in this anthology with an exemplary piece on Ken Livingstone – once observed that the task of the literary editor is to ruin the next generation of writers. In diverting them from what they think they should be doing to what he thinks they should be doing, he had better believe that it is a far, far better thing they do for him than they might have done if left alone. Voice any doubt except that.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 7 No. 20 · 21 November 1985
SIR: Memory’s a funny thing, and Clive James’s memories are usually funnier than most. When I heard he was writing a piece about The New Review Anthology, I rather hoped for some rollicking anecdotal stuff about his Days and Nights in Soho. After all, Clive was pretty close to the action in those days. Curious, then, and just a bit middle-aged and sad, to find one’s old drinking buddy coming on like the Chief Executive of Trust House Forte (LRB, 7 November). Where and how did Clive pick up this crackling business expertise? He certainly showed no signs of it in 1973 when we were misplanning the first issues of the New Review. In fact, one of the ‘excesses’ that we used to get most stick for was a series of satiric photo-caption essays that Clive jovially pressed upon the rear section of the magazine. As you can imagine, sir, these cost a bundle to print and design, and I really can’t remember Clive being other than delighted by our recklessness in this regard. He certainly never suggested that we check the financial outlay against the estimated mirth-return. But then, come to think of it, maybe that was shrewd management on his part – maybe all along he was checking everything against some secret budget of his own. I can’t help noticing that these silly (and, I’d still say, quite diverting) photo-pieces have been keeping Clive in hot dinners ever since. He’s still trotting them out in the Observer colour mag and on TV. I’m not bitter, though. Indeed, I’m actually sharing one of those hot dinners with my chum next week. I’ll see what more I can find out about this new, chairmanlike Clive James. If it’s looking really bad, I’ll get back to you …
Vol. 7 No. 22 · 19 December 1985
SIR: I was surprised that Clive James found time to mention the Literary Review in the course of his brown-nosing session about the LRB in the LRB (LRB, 7 November). The book we asked Clive James to review was about television, a subject he is well-qualified to write about. James thought we only asked him to review the book because it was by Francis Wheen, who had criticised him in previous pages of the Literary Review. I suggest that Clive James ceases to judge others by his own standards – and indeed those of the LRB whom he praises for indulging in the very same ‘adversarial casting’ policy that so piqued him when he thought it came from us. James makes heavy weather of the scrupulous ‘reluctance’ with which you ran pieces by Ursula Creagh and Richard Wollheim. If you object to that kind of journalism, why do you practise it?
Clive James might also learn a few manners. It is customary to reply directly when a magazine invites you to review a book. Given his tired remarks about the staff of the Literary Review, his reply might have been unpalatable. But not as tasteless as airing a spiteful – the word ‘chippy’ rises irresistibly to mind – prejudice months later in the pages of the LRB.
Editor, Literary Review, London W1
Vol. 8 No. 1 · 23 January 1986
SIR: Many of your readers will have smiled at Mr Clive James’s honeyed tribute to the London Review of Books, and also to the late New Review (LRB, 7 November 1985). It was brave of him to write it and brave of you to publish it. The smile was wiped off my own face, however, by the sentence: ‘Grub Street journeymen who could point to no artistic achievement beyond a noseful of burst veins were able plausibly to complain about a waste of the taxpayer’s money’ at the New Review. As one of the rather few people who regularly and in print criticised the New Review’s subsidy, I wonder if you would allow me, pausing only for a hard look in the mirror, to return to the subject.
The objection to state subsidy to publishers and literary magazines is not merely that the money is likely to be wasted (though it often is), and the objection is not essentially cultural but political. Most of the Arts Council’s donations raise trickier questions than is usually realised, especially on the bienpensant liberal-left, with its unreflective sentimentality about ‘the arts’. Mr Michael Foot, for example, is always good for a tear-jerking phrase or two on the subject. But as tougher-minded critics than he on the Left have correctly pointed out, arts subsidies almost always mean in practice a net transfer of wealth from poorer to richer. Even those of us who love the opera will admit that taxing the poor and perhaps tone-deaf citizens living far from London so that an exotic soprano can receive £5000 for an evening’s singing is hard to defend in terms of social justice. The same objections apply to literary subsidy, with other objections besides. It isn’t so much, as some complain, that state subsidy encourages esoteric or coterie writing, though I suspect, and almost detect the same suspicion between Mr James’s lines, that the New Review would have been a better magazine without subsidy. Worse, this involuntary support by the taxpayer distorts the market.
To compare it with the subsidy which the rich have sometimes provided for literary and political magazines which would otherwise run at a loss is to miss the point. For example, if any of the Spectator’s recent owners have chosen to spend x score thousand a year on keeping it running rather than on yearlings, they are making a choice no different in kind (though of course in degree) from the choice a man in the street makes when he spends 95p on a copy of the LRB rather than on a pint. In any case, magazines can survive on their own resources. Your own begetter the New York Review of Books has not only been privately and successfully run for twenty years but not long ago was sold at enviable profit to its founder-editors.
No one can look at the grants made by the Literature Panel of the Arts Council over the last ten or fifteen years and confidently say that these were the best and most deserving writers of the age, only that some of them were good and deserving, which still meant that the grants they received were unfair to other good and deserving writers who got no money. No one unless blinded by Mr James’s love can look back at the New Review and say that it was a great magazine rather than a frequently good and entertaining one.
All this applies to yourself, sir, as well as a fortiori to the New Review. No disinterested reader of the LRB can honestly say that it rather than the Times Literary Supplement (or even necessarily than the object of Mr James’s oblique scorn, the Literary Review) deserves public subsidy. I wish your paper well, but I also wish that you could manage without my money as a taxpayer rather than as a subscriber.
SIR: I am disappointed that the discussion in your columns about the business efficiency of the New Review appears to have died out. Ian Hamilton (Letters, 21 November 1985) promised to get back to us after dinner with his chum Clive James and report if the latter’s new-found financial acumen had impressed him. But silence … My own memories of the New Review’s commercial methods are both simple and warm. As far as I could see, the system went like this: contributors who had little or no money (like me) were escorted by one of Mr Hamilton’s assistants to the ‘bank’ where they received ‘cash’; contributors who had, or were deemed to have, money (like Mr James) received ‘nothing’. Either that, or they were taken to the Pillars of Hercules where they received ‘drinks’. By the time they had recovered from the effect of these ‘drinks’ they had usually promised to write, if not actually sent in, their next piece. This admirable system of Robin Hoodery is commemorated in the following exchange between Lord George-Brown’s secretary and the then books editor of the New Review, Craig Raine. L G-B’s secretary (who had made the mistake of actually sending his piece in): ‘Lord George-Brown’s fee for his piece will be 150 guineas.’ Books editor: ‘Well, our fee for his piece is nothing, love.’
By the way, was it ever decided which way Harrods faces? Perhaps you could persuade Geoffrey Hill to write in and settle the matter.