Vol. 1 No. 2 · 8 November 1979

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The London Review of Books

SIR: Has a journal ever been launched with such a general wringing of withered hands? The wicked godmother Hamilton comes to poison the baby in its crib with bile drawn from the corpse of the New Review, John Sutherland returns hot-wing from the States with new evidence that London lives in New York’s shadow, while you muse darkly on whether the London Review can escape the laws of history long enough to survive the collapse of Western civilisation scheduled for the new year. Fortunately, the vigour and seriousness of your other contributions belie your pessimism and show that you can still pick your authors.

The pity is that Stephen Spender’s Love-Hate Relations is remembered less for its many acute observations on English and American writers than for its proposition that New York has replaced London as the cultural centre of the English-speaking world. Buried in that statement is the assumption – perhaps right, perhaps wrong, but in either case a metaphor, not a fact – that cultures are empires. The imperial model, naturally attractive to English critics, entails a metropolis and provinces, and implies – through association with Gibbon – an irreversible decline and fall. That the intelligent Mr Sutherland can disclaim belief in cultural imperialism, yet speak of London as at some ‘provincial distance’ from New York, shows how insidious and pervasive this unexamined figure has become.

The decline of the British economy may or may not be inevitable (economists are not unanimous on the issue, and anyway there is still the question of how to assess a country’s resources), but I wonder whether the saloon-bar wisdom that this country is all but finished is based on anything more substantial than a loose analogy to the vanished Empire. As for whether a collapsing economy entails a decline in discrimination and creativity, surely that question is even more problematical. I hope the London Review will take advantage of its New York connection to examine some of these shibboleths of Anglo-American cultural relations. The only laws of history are clichés, and a good editor will know what to do with these.

Stephen Fender
Herne Hill

SIR: What needs reviewing critically in London now is not only the best that is written and published, but also the state of the industry to which that sort of production seems more and more marginal. The gentlemen’s occupation’s going, and general lists increasingly reflect the priorities of PR men and accountants. The book trade discusses things only in trade terms – the details of promotions and profits – while the concentration of ownership and control may just be remarked parenthetically well down the financial columns. What gets very little open discussion is the effect all this has on what is and isn’t published: I mean the squeezing of general lists into the profitable middle around a few auction blockbusters; the exclusion of books that don’t fit into easy marketing categories; and the imminence, if not already the presence, of what J.A. Sutherland, in Fiction and the Fiction Industry, called ‘the American Future’ (about which, come to think of it, your New York associates might have had more tales to tell and lessons to pass on over the years).

I know that a great diversity of good books appears still year by year, and that there are publishers new and old who count the real cost of the crude new ‘cost-consciousness’. I know, too, that it’s difficult in our tight little island culture to show the point at which a regrettable tendency begins to turn into a nasty new ball-game. But when so much else that affects authorship is changing rapidly – from London rents to media technology – it’s dangerous that there should be so little effective argument, from writers, about what is happening in the consciousness industry.

Certainly, to start a new literary magazine here and now and hold yourselves mandarinly above these marketplace matters not only wouldn’t be serious: it would be positively unreal – even a bit dull.

W.L. Webb
Literary Editor, the Guardian, London EC1

SIR: The first issue of the London Review expresses a concern for the public usefulness of literature, and in three of the letters printed in that issue there was evidence of a distinction between ‘serious’ and ‘commercial’ literature. Mr Hamilton asked if anyone wanted a ‘serious reviewing journal’; Mr Rosenthal made a request for ‘serious poetry reviewing’; and Brigid Brophy distinguished between ‘imaginative creations’ and ‘commercial manufactures, which are legitimately considered below the Plimsoll line for review’. I wonder about these hard-and-fast distinctions.

Byron’s works were best-sellers, but they were hardly ‘commercial manufactures’. In a commercially-dominated world, something might be achieved through a critical, ‘serious’ reading of books written specifically for financial gain. Literature is still part of many people’s cultural fodder: it can also be the antennae of a culture. If arbitrary distinctions between ‘commercial’ and ‘imaginative’ are left unquestioned, we might consume our own antennae unawares. Shakespeare’s genius flourished in the commercial environment of the theatre, and as soon as a piece of writing is for sale it is commercial manufacture. The London Review should encourage critical reading over a wider range of literature than seems to be promised in the first issue.

N.F. McDowell
London NW1

SIR: One does not wish to carp, but I purchased the London Review of Books for reviews, or at least matters of a bookish nature. There are reviews to be sure (some sixteen pages of them), but I was saddened to find three pages of uninspired ‘Crisis Thoughts’ by Dahrendorf and Godley. You had asked Brigid Brophy and others for suggestions as to what your journal should be doing, but it seems that the sound advice from Miss Brophy and Mr Rosenthal has fallen on deaf ears.

In short, more reviews, please, but no, repeat no, polemic unrelated to literary topics.

Sidney Blackmore
Frome, Somerset

I invite Mr Blackmore to study the present issue and decide whether the first article, by Garret FitzGerald on the state of Ireland, does not usefully belong in the same journal as the review by A.B. Cooke on the politics of Ulster from 1921 to 1939. Perhaps Mr Blackmore has overlooked the statement in last week’s issue to the effect that the proportion of review material would rise thereafter: I warn him that we shall not allow it to rise to the brim by excluding, bookishly, all articles which are not book reviews.

Editor, ‘London Review’


SIR: It appears from Rosalind Mitchison’s account in your last issue of Patricia James’s new biography of Malthus that one of the book’s strengths is its portrayal of Malthus’s ability to change his mind (LRB, 25 October). We are asked to see the producer of a ‘chilling’ social theory as being prepared to alter his positions with ease, as ‘someone who saw the subject as a field not for certainty but for speculation’. But as Mrs Mitchison also suggests, some of Malthus’s views were put forward as being unalterable, and this aspect of the man is important, as it is the essence of his claims to be a ‘scientist’.

Stressing Malthus’s humanity and open-mindedness can obscure the fact that his theory was not offered as speculation but as law. Malthus certainly appears to have been engaging in many personal ways, and also to have had a vibrant and realistic sense of the power of sexuality in life. This forms a strong contrast to the deliberate sexlessness envisaged in the utopia of William Godwin, one of the writers whose work Malthus sought to contest in his Essay. But the point about the principle of population was not that it was a proposition that might be socially contingent, or one that in some liberal way people might accept or reject as they chose. It was a law of nature. Malthus’s Wrangler training led him to hunt for Newtonian certainty in the field of demographic studies; and the claim that he had uncovered a natural law is the foundation of the original Essay. Later editions develop the argument, but do not alter the basic theory. His life may indeed have been a ‘genuine search for truth’ (whatever that may be): he certainly felt that he had uncovered the true relationship between population and resources. This was non-negotiable.

Mrs Mitchison further clouds the issue by overstressing ‘the determination of later Malthusians such as Thomas Chalmers to praise God for this imbalance in provision’. Malthus was not as morally harsh as Chalmers and may not have gone as far as him in the praising: but his Essay undoubtedly argues for the providential designedness of the awsome formula that he uncovered. As Mrs Mitchison hints but does not bring out clearly enough, it is precisely this powerful juncture of the (purportedly) providential and the scientific that makes the Essay so gloomy. The essence of Malthus’s achievement rests on the claim to certainty, not speculation. He may have been a good companion but he was the author of a theory that undermined companionship.

Michael Neve
London NW1

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