Diary

Mary-Kay Wilmers

In December 1947 the American writer Susan Sontag was invited to have tea with Thomas Mann. She was 14, a high-minded schoolgirl full of literature and the seriousness of life. She had one friend, and this boy, her disciple, had written to Thomas Mann, who was then living in California, telling him that they had been reading his books and admired them above all others. The young Miss Sontag was shocked that a great writer should be disturbed by two schoolchildren; and shocked again when the great writer acknowledged their letter with an invitation to tea. It seemed ‘grotesque’, she said, that Mann should waste his time meeting her; and besides, she asked, why would she want to meet him when she already had his books. The visit took place the following Sunday, and her disappointment was so painful that for forty years she didn’t mention it to anyone. It wasn’t that she and her friend made fools of themselves or that Mann himself gave them a hard time. He wasn’t forbidding or scornful or difficult to understand – all of which she had expected. On the contrary, what he said was too easy – banal, pompous and boring. ‘I wouldn’t have minded,’ she says now, ‘if he had talked like a book. I wanted him to talk like a book. What I was obscurely starting to mind was that he talked like a book review.’

I know what Susan Sontag means, but I wouldn’t have felt that I was in the wrong job if she had said that Mann talked ‘like a bad book review’. There obviously is a considerable gap on the scale of human achievement between a good book and a good book review – a gap which is indicated by the fact that, while there have been many great books, there are few great book reviews. In the ordinary course of things the best one can hope for is that some will prove memorable over the lifetime of an editor or his magazine. On the other hand, it isn’t at all self-evident, not to me at least, that a bad or mediocre book is superior to an effective or interesting book review simply on the grounds that a book is a book and the authors of books are nearer to God than the authors of reviews. No one would deny that reviews are by definition parasitic, as well as being quicker and easier to write, but a review can still be more accomplished and more thoughtful than the book on whose existence it depends. Which is something worth bearing in mind when academics wrinkle their noses and cry: ‘Journalism!’

In England not many people read books. If you look around you in the Tube you may see someone, usually a man, reading a thriller by Robert Ludlum, or someone else, usually a woman, making her way through one of Catherine Cookson’s romances. On a good day there will be one person reading a novel by Anita Brookner. But that’s about it. Among those who don’t travel on the Tube, the upper-class and the upper-middle-class read – largely books about themselves, of which there have always been plenty. People connected with the universities also read – some of them even read outside their own disciplines. But by and large people don’t read books: those who read at all read book reviews. I exaggerate of course, but not that much or publishers would be a lot happier than they are.

Two things follow from this. First, that fewer and fewer books are published which are of interest outside the universities. Take novels. Seventy years ago, Cyril Connolly described the reviewing of novels as ‘the white man’s grave of journalism’: ‘for each scant clearing made wearily among the springing vegetation,’ he moaned, ‘the jungle overnight encroaches twice as far.’ The jungle has now dwindled to something more like a botanic garden – ‘it’s a knockdown miracle that publishers continue to put out first novels,’ a reviewer noted a while ago in the Times – and far from having to hack his way through the springing vegetation, the critic is required to give the kiss of life to each week’s precarious flowering. ‘Save the novel,’ a young novelist implored, addressing himself to reviewers. A hundred years ago, when novel-writing was a flourishing concern, the most brutal things were said about novelists and their work. ‘It is poor with the poverty not of momentary embarrassment, but of permanent exhaustion,’ Henry James said of Our Mutual Friend. It is inconceivable that a reviewer now would dare to say anything like that about any novel that is published. Both unreadability and mere readability are taken as signs of unusual talent, and if you look at the reviews published in the national press you will find each week a fulsome string of adjectives – ‘rich, mysterious and energetic’, ‘exact, piquant and comical’ – applied to novels which are at best mediocre by reviewers with soft hearts and a desire to see themselves quoted on the jacket of the author’s next book. A literary editor, alert to the danger of one novel review sounding very like another and none of them truthful or even plausible, may resent the fact that he has been given responsibility for keeping the novel alive. It can sometimes seem that in Britain today novel-reviewing is the last bit of the Welfare State that is still in business.

The second thing that follows from the shortage of readers is a shortage of writers. Mrs Thatcher’s Britain is a mean-minded, greedy, impoverished country. The gap between the highest-paid and the lowest is wider than it has been in twenty-five years. In London alone there are over 30,000 homeless children and God knows how many millionaires barely out of childhood playing the Stock Market. Many young people feel that they will never work and are beginning not to care, while their parents are driven into retirement in what would once have been the middle of their working lives. The institutions we used to think well of – the National Health Service, the universities, the BBC – are falling apart, and old notions of fair play are scarcely more than a memory. Where governments in other countries are committed to openness, ours is committed to secrecy and to the notion that there is no such thing as ‘the public interest’.

The London Review of Books is not the sort of literary journal which wishes to confine itself to disinterested assessments of books while remaining silent about matters of this kind. But it hasn’t always been easy to find a voice in which to speak about them. The opposition, official and unofficial, of the left and of the centre, seems to have little to say and still fewer guns to fire. Where one might have hoped for guidance one finds platitudes and despair. As for the young, they keep their own counsel. Our style is very often not their style, which tends to have a capital ‘S’ and to prefer images to words and to be short of breath and of argument. Fifteen or twenty years ago we would have had no trouble finding people to write about the way things were in Britain: the books are still there to provide the occasion – the memoirs of a retired civil servant, an academic treatise on the causes and consequences of industrial decline – but thoughtful writers willing to take up these occasions are few and far between. In the old days, when the country was less troubled, the universities were full of people – historians, philosophers, teachers of literature – eager to have their say. Some of them have now gone to America, and some of those who remain prefer to say it for ten highly-rewarded minutes on television while we rack our brains to find someone with the energy to write three thousand words on these matters without resorting to the jargon of whatever specialism or ideology they profess. It can even seem that the only way we can make up the lack is with the pictures we print on our covers or inside the paper and the captions we write for them. When a book on court life in 17th-century Sweden comes into the office it can take us ten minutes to find a good reviewer, pack it up and send it off. Finding someone to talk about the things that matter to many people in Britain now can take several days.

There are many papers, daily and weekly, general and specialised, which review books and which do it reasonably seriously. So there is no lack of places where reviewers can write. The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi’s last book, was discussed at some length in ten or twelve different papers. Levi may be a special case – there aren’t many translated writers who command that degree of attention – but the regard in which book reviews are held by serious papers can be gauged by the fact that the Independent, the only national newspaper of any worth to have been launched in Britain since the Second World War, publishes a book review every day – something which no other British paper has ever done. On the other hand, all these papers choose their reviewers from a distressingly small pool of writers, so that it can seem to the reader to be merely a matter of chance whether this week will find Joe Smith writing about Milan Kundera in the Guardian, about Kafka in the Observer, or Keats in the TLS.

Since every paper has some writers with which it is specially associated, I am again exaggerating – but not that much. What principally distinguishes one paper from another – apart from differences too obvious to discuss, such as the length of the reviews and the intellectual level at which they are pitched – is the way these writers are used. A writer may, for instance, review books in his own academic field in one paper and in another write mainly about novels or – in a few admirable cases – contemporary political issues. It may just be a matter of chance, or it may be that one paper is more hospitable to political controversy than the other: either way, it’s likely – if the political reviews have any fire – that the writer will become associated with the second paper in the public’s mind, even though he continues to write very effectively about academic subjects elsewhere. But it isn’t just a question of subject-matter: unless he is himself a star, a reviewer will write a different kind of piece for a different kind of editor.

A newspaper editor isn’t in the same league as a film director, whose identity eclipses that of his screenwriter. Whatever the paper, it is the writer not the editor who gets his name in lights. But the character of the reviews which the editor commissions is subtly (or not so subtly) assimilated to the character of the journal he edits, and were a writer asked to review the same book for the New Statesman and the Spectator he would produce two quite different pieces. The differences in this case would have to do not only with politics but, less obviously, with tone of voice, which in Britain at least is closely associated with political attitudes. An editor, to pursue the show business analogy a bit further, is more like a director of plays than of films, in the sense that a play will always be known by the name of its writer, however crucial the director’s contribution to the way the play comes to be seen. In all three cases there is bound to be tension between the writer and his impresario, and, although it can sometimes be painful, it usually bears fruit. In the hierarchy of creativity which is central to the myths of our time, film directors come so far ahead of screenwriters that the latter will agree to almost anything the director wants. Literary editors have to work harder to earn the respect of their contributors. For writers tend to regard editors, whether in journalism or in publishing, as people who have failed in the endeavour which they conceive themselves to have mastered and now wish merely to tamper with the results of their labour. In that scenario, women editors are a still lower form of life and I sometimes have the feeling that writers send me their articles as they might send me their laundry: as if, like washing and ironing, it’s a woman’s job to correct the spelling, and put in the commas. I should add that in this regard women writers are not all that different from men.

‘One might say that the style of a writer is conditioned by his conception of the reader,’ Cyril Connolly said in Enemies of Promise, ‘and that it varies according to whether he is writing for himself, or for his friends, his teachers or his God, for an educated upper class, a wanting to be educated lower class or a hostile jury.’ The London Review of Books, one might say, is edited with a hostile jury in mind: a jury composed of logicians and pedants on the look-out for weak arguments and shaky assertions; of doubters and naysayers, the sort who look suspiciously at every moment of enthusiasm and want to see it substantiated; of enthusiasts who can easily tire of a diet of fault-finding; of plain Englishmen suspicious of what they see as Continental theorising; and of English theoreticians suspicious of native plain speech. We are not like the New Yorker: we haven’t the staff and therefore the time to check every fact in every article we print. But we are all of us sub-editors who work closely on the text of each piece, with the aim of preserving the style of the writer while denying the logicians and pedants the satisfaction of catching them (and us) out; and with the aim, too, of allowing the writer his pleasures and displeasures, while trying to make sure that the foundations on which they rest are tolerably secure. As for the debate between theory and plain speech, and the ideologies which each represents, we see it as our business to be hospitable to both within – reason (while knowing, of course, that reason isn’t supposed to be the end of the matter).

Our hospitality is not without limit, however: a paper, even a literary paper, has to have a position, even if it changes in response to events and to the thinking of the writers it wants to print. It has to accommodate the language and concerns of everyday life while acknowledging that there is such a thing as culpable simplicity and even culpable clarity, and it has to accommodate the language of criticism while remaining alert to its obfuscations. It has to have the courage of its convictions – including the conviction that it knows better – and it has to be prepared to lose friends as a result. It has to have the courage to praise writers who are not generally liked and to argue against others whose work it distrusts, even though this work may have cut a swathe through the media. It also has to recognise that there are issues, and ideas, and ways of writing, which have to be put on the agenda, whatever individual editors may think about them. There are occasions when even the most conscientious literary editors will run articles that they cannot agree with or even believe in. The position of a literary journal is defined over a period of years – by its judgments but also by the range of issues to which these are applied. Readers make punctual assessments – of this issue or that article – on a weekly or monthly basis. But the long haul is more important: the way in which the paper evolves, the questions it addresses – or side-steps – how it looks at the politics and culture of its time, and the efforts it makes to shape them.