FROM THE PULPIT
D J T AYLOR In Defence of the Literary Editor
in size and less constrained in attitude. There were more of them, they had more space for books and, miraculously, they were keen on young talent. Anyone under thirty who could hold a pen and fancied cutting up the likes of Margaret Drabble and Kingsley Amis could be sure of finding a berth under this
O NE OF THE funniest scenes in Jonathan Coe’s The Closed Circle comes when Doug, the hitherto high-flying political journalist, learns of his latest professional appointment. Is he to be the paper’s political editor? Deputy editor, even? Alas, the news is too irksome to be borne. ‘LITERARY EDITOR’ he informs an audience of concerned friends. ‘Do you hear me? LITERARY – FUCKING – EDITOR. They want me to commission book reviews. They want me to spend every day putting novels into fucking jiffy bags and sending them out to… to… The cunts. The fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking, fucking CUNTS.’ I thought about this harangue the other day when, files of ancient press cuttings mournfully to hand, I became aware of the advent of a rather dreadful anniversary: twenty-five years ago next month that I got my first commission to review a novel. I can remember the circumstances with greater clarity than my wedding day: sitting in Alexander Chancellor’s office at TheSpectator – a much less glamorous concern then than it is now – a week after Finals and hearing him say ‘Why don’t you go downstairs and find Andrew and see if he’ll give you a book?’ I went downstairs and found Andrew – A N Wilson – and he gave me a book, Sue Roe’s Estella: Her Expectations, as spiky a piece of left-field experimentation as the Harvester Press ever printed. Twenty-one years old, strolling out into the bright sunshine of Doughty Street, I told myself that life could hold no finer prospect. Over the next few years there were similar stake-outs in similarly book-lined cubbyholes crammed with proof sheets and other young men like myself: at the London Magazine’s office in Thurloe Place, from which one would stagger away with, as it might be, six foreign novels in translation and the promise of £25 for a 1200-word review, or Encounter’s premises in St Martin’s Lane, where the prestige of knowing that one wrote for such a tip-top intellectual concern was rather dimmed by the fact that the cheques took six months to arrive. All highly gratifying, and yet throughout this piecemeal apprenticeship I always regarded real literary editors – the people on national newspapers – as the enemy. The source of this early contempt was strictly generational. This was the early 1980s, remember, and to my callow eye the top end of the trade – David Holloway at the DailyTelegraph, Terry Kilmartin at TheObserver – were the most leathery collection of oldsters, still happily filling their columns with chaps they’d sauntered round college quadrangles with at the time of the Two Cultures debate. Come the late Eighties, the press revolution begun in the Murdoch bunker at Wapping had blown this staid confraternity away. With the print unions routed and the new technology in place, newspapers were suddenly larger
new dispensation. And yet, even then, however pressing the invitations from the boys at The Independent and the Sunday Times, I still regarded the source of all this bounty – the literary editor – with grave suspicion. It was he, I diagnosed – and it was mostly ‘he’ in those days – who was responsible for something called the ‘middlebrow conspiracy’, that time-honoured puffing of second-rate books, he who quietly kept from public notice anything remotely challenging, marginal, or published by that highly deserving small press in Macclesfield… Nearly two decades later, and with a fuller understanding of the way in which print journalism works, I will happily admit to being hopelessly wrong about this. Who in these days of declining circulations and blog-frenzy would be a literary editor? Budget cuts always start with the arts pages. ‘Let’s have some well-known names, shall we?’ the Arts supremo will cheerfully suggest, oblivious to the fact that the pay on offer is so low that the well-known names can find better ways of occupying their time. There you are, snug in your book-stacked box, congratulating yourself on the excellence of a particular spread, and in marches Advertising to demand half a page for the latest Waterstone’s promotion. Worse even than these traditional hazards is the presence, half a corridor away, of the idiot in the suit, the editorial executive to whom you ultimately report, who would probably not know what a book was unless it fell on his head from a great height but enjoys causing trouble among the paper’s less profitable redoubts. Claire Tomalin has written amusingly about her dealings with Andrew Neil at the Sunday Times, a prolonged war of attrition that ended only when Rupert Murdoch told Neil to leave her alone on the grounds that ‘Nobody reads the books pages anyway’. A friend of mine had a similar falling-out with Neil’s successor. One wanted lead articles on Proust, the other the latest biography of Rowan Atkinson. Naturally, book reviewing is as susceptible to graft as any other form of journalism, and there are several books pages that continue to advertise breathtaking scandals of wire-pulling and favours done. But the real weakness of the current reviewing circuit – deference to established reputations – is the fault of the reviewer, not his, or her, editor. A quarter of a century ago I used to think the average books page a kind of Gehenna of back-scratching and cheery conspiring. Now I think it a small oasis of sanity and high-mindedness surrounded by an advancing tide of rubbish.
LITERARY REVIEW May 2007