Overrated . . .
Mary-Kay Wilmers Daniel Johnson says the editor-proprietor of the London Review of Books is clear about her prejudices. Not so clear is why the Arts Council should fund her magazine
For Clive James, the London Review of Books is “the house magazine of the [British] intellectual elite”. With a circulation now approaching 50,000, the fortnightly boasts that is the most important literary journal, not only in Britain but in Europe. It easily outstrips its closest rival, the Times Literary Supplement, though it still only has about half the readership of its original model, the New York Review of Books. Last October, the LRB celebrated its 30th anniversary, apparently in robust health. With a circulation of this size, it should at least be breaking even.
Yet the LRB has always received an Arts Council grant, now around £21,000 per annum. No other comparable literary magazine has enjoyed such long-term, inflationproof, no-strings subsidy from the taxpayer. The Arts Council offers no justification. It merely states that the money is used to pay contributors. Perhaps the Commons Public Accounts Committee will inquire into how the taxpayer benefits from singling out the LRB for preferential treatment.
The magazine’s accounts, as submitted to Companies House, do not include a profit and loss account, but they do reveal that the LRB has to service a debt of more than £23 million, paying interest at a rate of eight per cent, and rising by £3 million a year. It is a reasonable inference that the £23 million debt represents loans, plus compound interest, accumulated over 30 years during which the magazine has come under the control of one person, an Anglo-American heiress. Editor, proprietor and creditor: Mary-Kay Wilmers virtually is the LRB.
When the LRB was launched in 1979, inspired by a piece by Frank Kermode, its editor was Karl Miller, who combined the post with his duties as Northcliffe Professor of English at University College, London, and worked tirelessly to attract distinguished critics. Mary-Kay Wilmers—first deputy, later co-editor—was then married to Stephen Frears and close to Alan Bennett, who had introduced them. There is a certain irony in the fact that, as the magazine became increasingly dependent on the Wilmers fortune during the Thatcher-Reagan boom years, it flourished by feeding the British intelligentsia’s anti-Thatcherite fury. Friction between the fashionable crowd that surrounded Mary-Kay and the fastidious intellectuals around Karl was inevitable, and could have only one outcome: Miller departed in 1992, leaving Wilmers in sole charge. Since then, the LRB has grown steadily more politicised, its tone shriller, its coterie more exclusive.
Long before she joined the LRB, in the late 1950s, Wilmers showed her true colours on a trip to the Soviet Union. In Moscow, she recalls, her fellow Oxford students “went on the sly to visit [Boris] Pasternak” while she “instead travelled several stops on the Metro to look at some heavy machinery, out of a feeling—what possessed me?—that I should acknowledge what the Soviets did well.”
Whatever it was that possessed her then has never departed. She spent 20 years writing her only book, The Eitingons: an apologia for her Russian-Jewish relations Max, Motty and Leonid Eitingon—a shrink, a crook and a killer—which assumes that in the 20th century, unless you were a Freudian or a Stalinist, you didn’t really count. She describes herself as “neither communist nor anticommunist, captivated by the Left but never quite of the Left”.
The facts tell a slightly different story. In Bad Character, a privately-printed festschrift for her 70th birthday in 2008, her LRB colleague Jean McNicol compiled “You and Non-You”, a Wilmers glossary. Under “Stalin” we read that “bad Stalin and bad communism pieces don’t find favour” with the editor of the LRB. Wilmers tells a Guardian interviewer: “I don’t think it’s necessary to say how bad it all was.”
On Israel, however, she finds condemnation is all too necessary, having been converted by Edward Said. A list of her contributors reads like a roll-call of the anti-Zionist, anti-American Left, from Tariq Ali to Slavoj Zizek, from Eric Hobsbawm to Tom Paulin. Virtually the only Tory to have written regularly for the LRB was the late Sir Ian Gilmour, who hated Israel and Margaret Thatcher in equal measure. In an interview with Anne McElvoy, Wilmers was at least frank about her prejudice: “I’m unambiguously hostile to Israel because it’s a mendacious state.”
It was in the LRB that The Israel Lobby appeared in 2006. This article, by the American political scientists Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, has unleashed a flood of conspiracy theories. Thanks to them, the notion of an all-powerful network of Zionist agents, neocon think-tanks and Jewish plutocrats manipulating US foreign policy has now become received wisdom in left-wing circles on both sides of the Atlantic.
This overtly or covertly anti-Semitic propaganda is now parroted in senior common rooms, where the LRB is required reading for the academically ambitious. Its influence permeates British culture through the arts and the media. The editor who takes credit for the LRB’s success must also take responsibility for its bigotry.
96 . . . underrated
Nancy Sladek Allan Massie praises the editor of the Literary Review who gives its writers a free hand—as long as they do not succumb to puffery and hype
The Literary Review is 30 years old. It was started by Dr Anne Smith when Times Newspapers were closed down and the TLS therefore didn’t appear. An academic, she edited it from her flat in Edinburgh’s New Town where I remember discussing it with her and regretfully concluding it wouldn’t last six months. Indeed, it soon ran into difficulties from which it was rescued by Naim Attallah. Dr Smith and he soon parted company, though she is still commemorated in the magazine as its “Founding Editor”. Emma Soames then took over the editorship before Attallah surprised everyone by offering the post to Auberon Waugh. People were equally surprised, given his other commitments, that he accepted the offer, and still more so when his complete and even jealous devotion to it became obvious. He surrounded himself with bright young people, cajoled distinguished writers into reviewing for him for next to nothing, and delivered vigorous and characteristically contentious judgments from his “Pulpit”. He made the Literary Review great fun and enjoyable reading.
When he died in 2001, many thought the magazine would expire with him. Attallah sold it to Christopher Ondaatje and Nancy Sladek. Born in London of Czech parents who had emigrated in 1950 after the communist takeover and later moved to Canada, where her father was first an academic, then a successful businessman, Nancy attended university in Geneva and London. (She now has three passports—British, Canadian and Czech.) After freelance work in London, she was Waugh’s assistant editor for ten years, and it was natural for her to succeed him. With money invested by her father, she subsequently bought out Ondaatje and is therefore both proprietor and editor. Far from folding, the Literary Review has gone from strength to strength, with an estimated readership of at least 60,000. It has become the best magazine in the country for what Virginia Woolf called “the Common Reader”, for people who like books and good-humoured but serious discussion of new work.
How has Nancy Sladek done it? She has changed little. The magazine still has its poetry competition, which attracts amateur versifiers, and its Bad Sex Prize, which adds to the gaiety of the nation. The “Pulpit” is now written by different hands every month, Nancy modestly declining to take over the role herself—though I am sure she would do it very well. Whereas in early days it had TV and film reviews, it now austerely confines itself to reviewing new books, with the occasional author interview. Nancy lays down no editorial line, but the magazine is conspicuous for eschewing personalities and bitchiness. Reviewers are given no instructions at all and Nancy has the ability to match reviewers with books. This is one of the secrets of her success. As a consequence, most reviews are knowledgeable and tend to enthusiasm and just appreciation rather than to denigration. Academics such as Richard Overy, Felipe Fernández-Arnesto, David Cesarani, Robert Irwin and David Watkin are as happy to write for the Literary Review as indigent novelists and expensive journalists, and to do so in a manner that is informative, readable and free from jargon. Where else would you find an enthusiastic review of an edition of Landseer’s Private Drawings by Paul Johnson, nestling beside Tom Nichols on Titian?
People enjoy writing for the Literary Review because they are given a free hand. If they exceed the recommended length, they rarely find heavy cuts being made. In general, reviews are printed just as they are received from the reviewer. As a result reviewers are seldom dissatisfied. They are still paid just £50, but at least this arrives as a cheque pinned to the copy of the magazine in which the review appears.
Some years ago in “Pulpit”, Waugh explained the absence of a review of Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters: the publisher had placed an embargo on copies being sent early for review. It is one of the boasts of the magazine that books are not reviewed late. This means that reviewers are often required to read books at proof stage. This is less agreeable than reading finished copies. Nevertheless we submit to it to please Nancy.
She has kept the magazine proudly independent of the celebrity circus. If most reviews are generous, even enthusiastic, they never descend to puffery and hype. The Literary Review exists for its readers, and the assumption is that they want to be informed and entertained. I find that almost every month I read every review—this is not a boast I could make about the TLS or the London Review of Books. Nancy never, it seems, forgets that, while some are compelled to read for professional reasons, most people read for pleasure—and this is what the Literary Review offers. In sour and often philistine times, its message is that you can be serious without being dull or solemn, and that good literature still matters.
Nancy’s watchword is appreciation, not denigration. Reading the Literary Review, you can believe that we still enjoy a common culture. Our world would be poorer without Nancy Sladek or the Literary Review.