Must they twinkle?

John Sutherland

  • British Literary Magazines. Vol. III: The Victorian and Edwardian Age 1837-1913 edited by Alvin Sullivan
    Greenwood, 560 pp, £88.50, December 1984, ISBN 0 313 24335 2
  • The Book Book by Anthony Blond
    Cape, 226 pp, £9.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 224 02074 9

The volumes of the British Literary Magazines series (three out of four of which have now been published) are primarily works of ready reference. Alphabetically arranged within historical period, entries supply brief profiles of around four hundred ‘representative’ journals, together with some bare-bones factual data. The coverage is wider (but less full) than the 48 titles covered by the Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals; less wide (but fuller) than the Waterloo Directory of Victorian Periodicals which heroically aims (one day) to bring all the age’s thirty thousand journals under bibliographic control. Although its range extends from Augustan to Modern, the BLM project shares with these other catalogues a central interest in the 19th century, and marks another forward leap in charting what Michael Wolff twenty years ago called the ‘golden stream’ of Victorian periodical writing.

More than most directories, the BLM series can be read as literary history. Each volume shows lines of development, innovation, experiment and decay. It was (probably for the surviving remnant still is) an article of Leavisite faith that the health of a culture is gauged by its literary magazines. They reflect the extent and quality of civilised discourse, and by providing a site for ‘creative quarrelling’ indicate the active engagement of reading publics. This recognition of the centrality of the literary journal usually accompanies a nostalgic sense of its historical decline; Romantic coherence gradually disintegrates in the mid-19th century under the impact of new technology and mass literacy, to be followed by 20th-century cultural deluge and minoritisation.

At first sight, this third BLM volume records no clear-cut disaster for the literary magazine over the period 1837-1913. But it does witness to a pervasive shift from gravity to frivolity. The two great quarterly reviews are succeeded as leaders of opinion by the lighter monthlies with their insidiously readable ‘miscellany’ formula (light verse, amusing essay, fiction, illustration). This line, which begins in the Tory high spirits of Blackwood’s, finishes in the family readership trivia of Newnes’s Strand Magazine. In their turn, the monthly miscellanies are overtaken by pictorial weeklies of the Tit-Bits kind, and sink out of the view of even BLM’s surveyors.

A work like Punch (here defined as a ‘literary magazine’) recapitulates the process within its own evolution. Begun in 1841, the magazine proceeds for a few years as a puritanically radical journal, under the influence of the ‘savage little Robespierre’, Douglas Jerrold. In 1846, Punch changes direction, and dedicates itself to apolitical fun. Dickens, among others, objected to the ensuing ‘eternal guffaw’ with its narcotic implication that nothing under the sun is serious or urgent. But Dickens’s own weekly, All the Year Round, suffers a similar decay. Begun in 1859, with a high quality of fiction and investigative reportage, by the 1870s (in the hands of Charles Jr), the paper is a vehicle for hack serials and featherweight journalism for the tyrannous family reader.

As will be evident, BLM’s definition of what constitutes a literary magazine is broad, verging on indiscriminate. Woman’s World and Vanity Fair gain entry, as does Rhythm (although the editors have generally steered prudently clear of little magazines). Journals like the Contemporary Review which snootily considered themselves above noticing fiction and overtly political weeklies like the Saturday Review are included. The TLS is excluded because – as far as I can understand the reason – it is too comprehensively literary to be contained in a brief entry. It’s an unfortunate omission. In the fourth volume, 1914-84 (whose future contents are listed), one sees that the Review gets in, but the New Review does not. Essays in Criticism, PN Review, the Observer Magazine Section, Books and Bookmen and the London Review of Books are not, apparently, British literary magazines: Poor Old Tired Horse, Time and Tide, the Listener and Lilliput are.

I’ll return to the question of BLM’s adequacy as a reference work. For the moment, I want to consider its historical evidence against a provocative assertion by A.N. Wilson, quoted in Anthony Blond’s Book Book. According to Wilson (don, novelist, Sunday Telegraph reviewer, Young Fogey and former literary editor of the Spectator), there is now no literary reviewing worth the name in Britain:

The days have vanished when reviewing was a ‘serious’ matter. The articles in the Sunday papers are far too short to be able to do justice to a book. The New Statesman has collapsed, so has the Times Literary Supplement. Very occasionally one gets a good article in the London Review of Books. The Spectator has never, since the days of Mr Gladstone, made any claims to take literature seriously.

The first three BLM volumes record the origins and heyday of the reviewing (long, serious, ‘good’) whose demise Wilson laments. It begins with the Edinburgh and Quarterly. These were long and serious to a fault, and catered to a public as small as the journals were high-minded. Politically-motivated, the quarterlies were liable to subordinate independent judgment to party ends. Anonymity ensured that the reviewer for his part subordinated personality to the collective self of the journal. There was no attempt to provide a complete view of the books of the day: what makes the quarterlies historically momentous is their automatic assumption that reviewing books was a central participation in social affairs. A review was the equivalent of a Parliamentary speech or an editorial leader. The quarterly tradition of reviewing gravitas and self-importance was carried on in the mid-century by the more rapidly pulsing Fortnightly (in fact, a monthly), Westminster and Nineteenth Century. These journals were conducted in the conviction that their book reviews were forces in the making of Victorian England.

In 1817, a sprightlier variety of reviewing had emerged with the Literary Gazette. The Gazette was Britain’s first successful literary weekly. It was founded not by a political faction but by a publisher, Henry Colburn, anxious to get exposure for his products. Colburn perceived the need for a newspaper whose news was books. The quarterlies’ ‘principle of selection’ was repudiated in favour of comprehensive coverage of the literature of the day. Reviewing, in this context, meant judging the just-published work while advertising its attractions as a service to the consumer and producer. With the associated temptations of crowd-pleasing and puffery the editor’s role as the guarantor of a paper’s independence became crucial. The Gazette set the scene for the first of literary journalism’s battles between editor (William Jerdan) and proprietor and main advertiser (Colburn). Having lost control of the Literary Gazette, Colburn was instrumental in setting up the Athenaeum (1828), the weekly which was to become the top mid-Victorian review.[*] Again a battle had to be fought by the editor which it was necessary that Colburn should lose if the paper was to achieve its necessary independence. Under Dilke, the Athenaeum became ‘the first literary paper to have made honesty its aim’. The notion that a reviewer should say ‘what he really thinks and feels’, as the Fortnightly’s prospectus put it in 1865, was a depressingly late development. Nor was it, as the Fortnightly’s shambolic career shows, a popular formula with the reading public if indulged in too wholeheartedly.

The Literary Gazette and Athenaeum did not conceive of themselves as cradling civilisation. They were central only to the world of books. But in the mid-Victorian era, this was still a sizeable world. Political weeklies incorporated reviewing on Athenaeum lines in a separate but equal section of the paper. The Saturday Review staked its reviewing territory as ‘Politics, Literature, Science and Art’. An honourable secondary status for the book review was enshrined in the New Statesman, which, in 1931, absorbed the Athenaeum (already half-digested by the Nation) as its literary back half, autonomous and with its own editor. Queenie Leavis, in Fiction and the Reading Public, anticipated A.N. Wilson by perceiving in this merger a horrific ‘collapse’.

In the last three decades of the 19th century, there were extraordinary developments in literary journalism. Most portentous was the founding of the Academy, in 1869. As the name indicates, it marks the arrival in force of the ‘academic’ reviewer, pronouncing his opinions with all the corporate authority of his university behind him. Thoroughly Arnoldian, the Academy set about eradicating the ‘taint of the provincial’ from English culture, and looked forward to the salvation of the nation by ‘disinterested’ intellect. The paper foundered on the low-mindedness of its publisher (Murray), who wanted more advertisements. The editor, Charles Appleton, took the path of noble independence and destitution.

The Academy paved the way for the TLS, in 1902. The conception of the paper marked a considerable surge of reactionary confidence. The ‘supplement’ tag with its implication of second fiddle was merely titular (especially after the paper split off from the newspaper as a separate publication in 1914). The TLS proclaimed its sense of continuity with the great quarterlies by anachronistically resuming, and retaining until the 1970s, the practice of anonymous reviewing. Unlike the Criterion or the New Adelphi, the TLS austerely excluded verse, fiction and causerie (though it did have a chess column).

The establishment of the TLS is the overshadowing fact in the history of British literary magazines between 1837 and 1913 – which makes it all the odder that BLM should choose to ignore it. A few other titles have lasted as long (Punch, the Spectator, Blackwood’s); but none has kept so faithfully to its original formula. Part of the explanation seems to be the ideal relationship between criticism and Fleet Street journalism which the TLS represented. Not to put too fine a point on it, the TLS has always been profitable; or if not profitable happily subsidised by its parent title. And yet, unlike the book pages of the daily papers, or the Sunday magazine sections, it has never been enveloped.

The intractable problem for literary magazines in the 20th century is that their potential readership seems obstinately unaffected by either gross population growth or the extension of higher education. The quarterlies’ circulation in the pre-Victorian period peaked around fifteen thousand. Blackwood’s in the 1840s sold around ten thousand, Punch a couple of thousand less. The Athenaeum at its height had an estimated circulation of eighteen thousand. The Spectator seems to have managed quite well on a weekly sale of under five thousand. In 1884, Nineteenth Century claimed its twenty thousand was the highest circulation of all the monthly reviews. A hundred years later, and the figures are little changed: the monthly, fortnightly and weekly literary magazines that survive have sales of between five thousand and forty thousand. But the economics of publishing have changed, if circulations haven’t. The Athenaeum was worth £5000 a year to Dilke. A twenty thousand sale yielded the Nineteenth Century’s editor, as he claimed, a salary equal to the prime minister’s. And the PM who contributed to the journal, Gladstone, received an appropriate £4 a printed page. At twenty thousand today, a professionally-run literary journal struggles. At five thousand, without subsidy, it perishes.

The current reviewing situation in Britain holds its 19th-century legacies in a state of uneasy tension. Wilson is right, I think, in saying that the equivalence of political and literary discussion, represented in the pre-1978 New Statesman, has broken down. That paper now seems to be attempting to work out a style of reviewing which will be ideologically consistent with the front half of the paper and at the same time appeal to the younger reader recruited from City Limits. I don’t think this represents ‘collapse’ so much as an adaptation to the changes which have altered the whole journal. The diminished separateness of literary reviewing is also evident in the Sunday papers where ‘books’ are jumbled together as ‘leisure’ with sport, ‘living’, and Jane Grigson’s instructions on how to stuff a goose.

Other dilemmas are evident. Especially since the abolition of anonymity in the TLS, the top rank of academic reviewers (effectively the top rank of reviewers) are in a role-crisis: are they dull but expert dogs like the Academy’s Mark Pattison or literary stars like Arnold Bennett in the 1920s Evening Standard? Must they twinkle, or do they dare to be professorial? In general, the academic reviewer takes refuge in an offhand smartness, which can be construed either as journalistic slickness or academic esprit. Uneasiness is the dominant tone. In the weeklies or dailies, and away from his ‘specialism’, the academic reviewer must feel a truant. This, after all, is not what he’s paid and given generous time off to do. Nevertheless, most are willing to review, if asked. In the Leeds University School of English ‘Research Review: 1984’ Professor Tom Shippey talks about the double life of the reviewing academic:

Writing reviews is a job with no official rewards. It is true you get paid for them (sometimes); but they do not count as ‘publications’ on a CV, bring no academic credit, and are often dismissed as ‘journalism’ by your colleagues, especially if written for the dailies or weeklies ... Faced with this kind of derogation, and considering how much time writing reviews can take up, it may be worthwhile to take stock. What is the point of taking on regular reviewing assignments?

Shippey’s answer is something of a let-down. The point, it seems, is that reviewing, with its ‘discipline’ of ‘real’ deadlines, concentrates the academic mind, and makes it punctual. This may be so. It is also possibly the case that Ian Botham plays cricket to keep his weight down and his wrists supple. But the ‘encourages good writing habits’ justification seems to me wholly incidental (and possibly outweighed by the bad scholarly habits which reviewing fosters, like making your mind up). An important reason why academics write reviews is, surely, that it gives them a delicious taste of metropolitan fame denied the author of the definitive article in Anglistica. More nobly, there is a lingering sense that reviewing is still culturally important; that there is an apostolic link – however indirect – with Macaulay, Jeffrey, Lockhart, Lewes, Hutton, Stephen. When he reviews the academic can, with a little historical imagination, conceive himself as useful to civilisation in a way that he isn’t when merely adding unasked-for information to the store of human knowledge with his learned articles, monographs and conference papers.

As a reference work, the third volume of BLM has a clear utility and some minor shortcomings. With 90 entries, the coverage, for all its patchiness, is stimulatingly far-flung. The profiles, which are the work of 50 separate hands, vary in quality from the excellent (those on the Anglo-Saxon Review and Nineteenth Century stand out) to the functional. The appendices, which list foreign reviews, comic journals and religious magazines with literary contents are a thoughtful addition.

The main objection to the work is that its production was clearly rushed. There are too many errors which careful editing should have weeded out. For instance, the entry on Tinsley’s Magazine observes that ‘from the 1870s onward, there appeared some good ghost stories, as well as other types of mysteries and detective tales. One deserving mention as derivative from Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone and Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood is “The Yellow Boudoir” (1874).’ In Appendix E, ‘Chronology, 1837-1913’, this is garbled under the 1867 entry as ‘William Tinsley begins Tinsley’s Magazine, noted for its crime fiction, and serialises Collins’s Moonstone and Dickens’s Mystery of Edwin Drood.’ In the 1860 entry, under the heading ‘Social and Literary Events’, we are told that ‘Boucicault’s first play is presented.’ (London Assurance was produced in 1841.) In 1859, the chronology informs us that ‘after 16 years of speculation and planning, Macmillan’s Magazine becomes the first of the shilling monthlies.’ It should be four years. Macmillan’s Magazine seems something of a gremlin. In his editorial preface, Alvin Sullivan tells us on page viii that it ‘appealed largely to a middle class that wanted to be entertained, not confronted with contemporary issues’. On page ix, we are informed that Macmillan’s Magazine ‘represented the conservative upper class and eschewed popular taste’. Neither generalisation is worth very much: side by side they make odd reading.

There are similar lapses in the magazine profiles. That on Temple Bar, for instance, makes the strange statement that in 1866 Richard Bentley was the publisher of ‘over 127 volumes of novels’. (About a thousand over, I imagine.) In the entry on Punch we are told that Thackeray was ‘a man of tremendous output, producing four of his novels while writing regularly for Punch and establishing the Cornhill Magazine.’ The Cornhill Magazine was established in 1860, Thackeray broke with Punch in 1851 (by which time he had written two major novels), and wrote only occasionally until 1854, when he ceased contributing altogether. There are too many of these mistakes of elementary detail for a work of reference. All of which is a pity, since this volume and the series generally is intelligently conceived for practical use.

Anthony Blond comes on in The Book Book like a publishing flasher, set on revealing all. Unfortunately Cape’s lawyers, alerted by the imprudence of his earlier The Publishing Game, seem effectively to have neutered him. The insider’s view is sadly limp compared with Private Eye’s ‘Great Publishers of the World’, and the Spectator’s ‘Bookworm’ columns of ten years ago. (Both of which have sometimes been credited to Blond.) Blond does his best with the now well-known stories (how I bowdlerised The Carpetbaggers in a weekend; how I paid Simon Raven fifteen quid a week to stay out of London and write, etc). And he has been permitted to shy a stone or two at some of his enemies (notably André Deutsch, who – apparently – has had the gall to demand back an advance from Blond). There is also some moderately useful explanation of modern production and marketing processes of the order of ‘book jackets can make or break a book.’ But it all falls very flat. The Book Book is dedicated to Blond’s bankers, which is optimistic for a work which should soon be a remainder remainder.

[*] The Athenaeum’s entry, like that of other journals thriving in the Victorian period but originating earlier, appears in the second BLM volume, The Romantic Age, 1789-1836, edited by Alvin Sullivan (1983).