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 CONTENTS
T HIS MONTH ’ S P ULPIT is written by D J Taylor, a novelist and biographer. Returning: Three Novels has just been published in paperback by the excellent Timewell Press. His Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918–1940will appear from Chatto & Windus in October.
R ICHARD S ENNETT was a cellist before the gates of the London School of Economics closed behind him.
C ALLUM R OBERTS is Professor of Marine Conservation at the University of York. His forthcoming book, The Unnatural History of the Sea, will be published by Island Press and Gaia Books in August.
P AMELA N ORRIS ’s Words of Love is published by HarperPress.
M ICHAEL H OLMAN grew up in Rhodesia. His first novel, Last Orders at Harrods, is published by Abacus. The sequel, Fatboy and the Dancing Ladies, (Polygon) comes out this summer.
A NDREW R OBINSON is the author of biographies of Thomas Young, Albert Einstein and others, and a visiting fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge.
P ETER M C D ONALD ’s most recent volume of poems is The House of Clay (Carcanet). His edition of Louis MacNeice’s Collected Poems is published by Faber.
T OM S TACEY covered the world for the Sunday Times and others, winning the Foreign Correspondent of the Year accolade for his despatches from Africa.
J ANE R IDLEY is writing a biography of King Edward VII, to be published by Chatto & Windus.
P ETER J ONES is the founder of Friends of Classics.
DJ T AYLOR
C AROLE A NGIER Leni: The Life and Work of Leni Riefenstahl Steven Bach C HARLES E LLIOTT Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis Kim Todd Amazing Rare Things: The Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery David Attenborough, Susan Owens, Martin Clayton & Rea Alexandratos P AMELA N ORRIS The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History Linda Colley I SABEL Q UIGLY Ingrid: A Personal Biography Charlotte Chandler
P AUL J OHNSON The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution and the Birth of the Smithsonian Heather Ewing F RANK M C L YNN Walt Disney: The Biography Neal Gabler R ICHARD S ENNETT Mstislav Rostropovich: Cellist, Teacher, Legend Elizabeth Wilson J ANE R IDLEY The Queen’s Knight: The Extraordinary Life of Queen Victoria’s Most Trusted Confidant Martyn Downer A LEXANDER W AUGH Fulfilment and Betrayal Naim Attallah
D EREK M AHON Collected Poems Louis MacNeice(Ed) Peter McDonald J EREMY L EWIS The Angry Years: The Rise and Fall of the Angry Young Men Colin Wilson P ETER M C D ONALD Cecil Day-Lewis: A Life Peter Stanford P ETER W ASHINGTON The Letters of John Murray to Lord Byron (Ed) Andrew Nicholson
R ICHARD O VERY Comrades: A World History of Communism Robert Service D ONALD R AYFIELD Young Stalin Simon Sebag Montefiore J ONATHAN M IRSKY An Un-American Life: The Case of Whittaker ChambersSam Tanenhaus
N IGEL J ONES Pistols at Dawn: A History of Duelling Richard Hopton C HARLIE C AMPBELL Bigger Deal: A Year on the New Poker Circuit Anthony Holden
Editor:N ANCY S LADEK Deputy Editor: T OM F LEMING Editor-at-Large: J EREMY L EWIS Assistant Editor: P HILIP W OMACK
Contributing Editors: A LAN R AFFERTY , S EBASTIAN S HAKESPEARE Advertising Manager: T ERRY F INNEGAN Classified Advertising: D AVID S TURGE Founding Editor:D R A NNE S MITH Founding Father: A UBERON W AUGH Cover illustration by Chris Riddell Issue no. 343
LITERARY REVIEW May 2007