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.
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