Condition: Critical: The London Review of Books - 'house mag of the intellectual elite' - is 15 years old this week. Despite the difficulties such small publications face, it seems to be thriving

Click to follow
LAST NOVEMBER, in an article praising the New York Review of Books, the critic George Scialaba was forced to admit that 'the NYR is now only the second most interesting journal in the English-speaking world'. The most interesting was, in his opinion, the London Review of Books - a view which many now share on both sides of the Atlantic.

In fact, the LRB was originally spawned 15 years ago by the New York namesake it has now surpassed. By the spring of 1979 the strikebound Times and its supplements had been off the streets for six months, its staff suspended as their employers sought to impose new working conditions. Without the Times Literary Supplement, withdrawal symptoms had been gnawing at the guts of senior common rooms and librarians everywhere, but now a candyman appeared - the highly successful, very anglophile New York Review, which proposed a London-based supplement.

The NYRB felt it had history on its side: it had itself emerged in the 1960s during a New York Times strike. Karl Miller, who had been a distinguished literary editor of the Listener in the 1960s, was recruited as editor, and brought in two of his old Listener team, Susannah Clapp and Mary-Kay Wilmers (right).

But within days, Sod's Law struck: the Times unlocked its doors and the TLS was back. Although the London Review of Books went ahead regardless (inserted into its American parent) a rapid post-natal crisis developed and, only six months later, under circumstances which were never satisfactorily explained, the New York Review abandoned the newborn infant to its fate.

Luckily the newcomer proved hardy. 'For the first couple of years the circulation was incredibly small,' Mary-Kay Wilmers remembers, 'and sometimes we did think we were going to close. But there were some fairy godparents about - not that we were costing anyone very much money. The real danger was that we would get disheartened and feel insufficiently loved.'

Of the original editorial threesome, the only survivor is Wilmers, who became co-editor with Karl Miller in 1988 and the sole incumbent when he left in 1992. Of Russian origin and Belgian-British education, she spent several years at the TLS under John Gross's editorship after working at the Listener with Karl Miller; although a consistent force in British letters, she has always kept the lowest possible profile. Wilmers is the precise opposite of the baying, bottom-kicking editor of tabloid legend, but her reticence conceals her toughness. She knows what she wants and how to get it. Her secret is to have a cohesive stable of writers, whose performance she monitors with all the care of a racehorse trainer. She is quite prepared to give them their heads, but, 'We read very, very carefully what they send in. We don't have the notion of sub-editing. It's real editing.'

Wilmers is very clear about how she wants her writers to perform. Although many are dons, she insists they shed all academic cant. A certain playfulness and wit is always evident, and while writers must fulfil intellectual criteria, they should also 'bring in a whiff of the real world. If they praise or attack a book, you must be able to see, very clearly, the reason why'.

Writers and academics are not known for their humility, but the LRB has a reputation for handling them well. As Christopher Hitchens says: 'If I haven't written for the LRB for a while, I find I miss it. You feel you're in conversation with a very intelligent readership and a very intelligent editorial team. This is an extremely point-seeing outfit. First of all they trust you to make your point and then they see it. That isn't true of most editors.'

And Martin Amis, a regular contributor under Karl Miller's editorship, says of him: 'He was daunting, so you wanted to be good for him. But he also had a way of making you relax, which meant you could be at your best. Clive James once called the LRB 'the house magazine of the intellectual elite. In the TLS they talk to the world. In the LRB they talk to each other.' James's characterisation was so much liked that it is currently reprinted in the paper's publicity flyers and mailshots.

The choice of writers is only half the equation. There is also the selection of books for review and the space allowed the writer. In this Wilmers sees an advantage over her main rival: 'Unlike the TLS, we're not a journal of record, so we're not obliged to cover any particular books according to any particular formula. We can have a freer approach. We have pieces at 2,000 words - rarely less - and we have gone as high as 25,000 words, which was exceptional; 4,000 seems to be about average.'

The 25,000-worder, by Ronan Bennett, was 'The Retrial of the Guildford Four', an attack on British justice from an Irish nationalist perspective which Penguin subsequently put out as a book. The tenor of Bennett's piece (or Stephen Sackur's angry reportage from the Gulf war) also signals the political cast of mind to which the LRB appeals. Although a leftish paper, it has never had to face the test of a Labour administration, and (apart from a brief, rueful flirtation with the SDP in the 1980s) Wilmers doesn't tie her paper to any party. 'Oppositional' is the word she uses, leaving room in her pages for Ian Gilmour or Edward Luttwak alongside Paul Foot and Terry Eagleton: the iconoclasm is always there, but it is scrupulously democratic.

The only regular items not tied to book publications are the diary (by divers hands) and the letters page (which has seen some fine battles). 'I don't mind if I pick up the LRB and it's only the letters and the diary I want to read,' says Martin Amis. Alan Bennett's diaries first appeared (and continue to appear) there. But often these are not so much diaries as eye- witness features: Leslie Wilson wide-eyed with disbelief at an Istanbul refuse tip; Peter Wollen trundling through the Channel tunnel; the editor looking up her distant relative, a former KGB colonel, in Moscow; Edward Said at Hebron in the wake of the mosque massacre.

LRB has recently decided to get to know its 36,000 readers a little better, and has commissioned a survey. It shows inter alia that 33 per cent have purchased a work of art in the past year, that their favourite poison is malt rather than blended whisky and that, although 10 per cent are professors, none are judges or QCs (is this the Ronan Bennett effect?) Most significantly, however, they are book-buyers: 66 per cent have bought books by mail order in the past year, and over a quarter have bought more than 20 hardbacks. No less than 50 per cent have 'had an article/chapter of a book/book published or accepted for publication'. So there is no doubt that this is an intellectual bunch, nor that - as Hitchens puts it - 'There are more people than the 'market' supposes who will open a magazine like this as easily as if it were Penthouse.' And this gives Mary-Kay Wilmers the justification for her uncompromising editorial stance. Even the (sometimes bizarre) photographic covers of the Miller era have now been abandoned in favour of words; inside, there isn't so much as a cartoon. Words are what the paper is about, first, last and always.

Despite having doubled its circulation in eight years (it stands at 18,000), the LRB doesn't make money. Without its Arts Council grant and a few well-wishers, it would not exist. Nicholas Spice, LRB's publisher for the past 12 years, is critical of the lack of advertising support from the big trade publishers, and he is prepared to name names. 'University presses are terrific. The main traitors in the relationship between ourselves and publishing are Reed, Penguin, HarperCollins and Random House. We have consistently reviewed their upmarket books; they have consistently refused to advertise. Why don't they take advantage of the fact that we filter out for them the very individuals who will buy their books?'

And yet - this aside - the abandoned baby of 15 years ago is flourishing. As a 15th birthday party, the LRB is staging three public symposiums, each tied to a political or cultural question, chaired by Christopher Hitchens and attended by a variety of LRB writers. The implications of the title are characteristic: 'Quarrels in Public'. They will be diverse, surprising, rigorous quarrels. Above all, like the paper itself, they will be uncompromising.

On 20 Oct, the LRB publishes its 15th birthday issue.

'Capitalism Forever?' (24 Oct), 'Who's Afraid of Nationalism?' (25 Oct), 'Literary Theory: What has it done for us?' (26 Oct); all at the ICA, The Mall, London SW1, 7.30pm. 071-930 3647.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments