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
  • Night 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.

You are not logged in