Books: Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up
You scratch my back, I'll stab yours ...Valentine Cunningham finds blood on the books pages
Saturday 07 March 1998
by Anthony Curtis
Carcanet, pounds 25
L iterary journalism - so scores of memoirs and dozens of fictions tell us - is the lowest hell of writing. It's Gissing's New Grub Street, a scene of utter self-loathing and disgust, where you turn from the big books you'd rather be finishing to hack through the many books you envy others for getting done - in Cyril Connolly's case in the Thirties, six novels a fortnight for the New Statesman, six more for the Daily Telegraph, as well as crime and the odd non-fiction singleton for the Sunday Times.
In this nether region of the spirit you're Thackeray's Mr Hurtle, a machine- gun of opinion, firing away every day for precious little loot, corruptly puffing your mates while keeping your hatchet sharp for when an enemy happens along. You seek to show off verbally at the expense of everybody - writing, as Virginia Woolf put it, "a few true things", but also "some very clever things".
And your literary editor, or lit ed as Anthony Curtis has it, is the procuress or pander in these sordid transactions, the book trade's necessary Mephistopheles: tempting oldsters to keep on selling their souls by deferring yet again the great work, pushing innocent books into the gross clasps of the reviewing roue and hanging about vampirically at the university gate to lure more young flesh on to the literary game.
So the old satirising story runs. And Anthony Curtis's lovely reminiscing ramble through the Literary Pages then and now, both English and American, doesn't do all that much to improve on it. And he should know, snatched as he was in youth out of the cradle of Oxford English for a life of labour in the London literary world - as deputy editor at the TLS, founding literary editor of the Sunday Telegraph, literary editor of the Financial Times. He's roved about the US (on a Harkness Fellowship) investigating the reviewing trade, and served as a Booker judge. And he's come back to tell us all.
Curtis has hunted Big Names as star reviewers (will T S Eliot bite? will Graham Greene?), wrestled with the imperialist design people for space, locked the book-room against marauding staffers, done the grim daily triage on the droves of incoming books, killed off pieces galore, cut and pasted almost every name you can think of - except the great Bill Haley, one- time editor of the Times, whose prose alone was sacred.
What becomes very clear, in the historical parts of our Curtis's accounts as well as in his memoirs, is that the reviewing economy involves dishing out and receiving pain at every link in the chain. Deadlines drive reviewers to drink and threaten family harmony (V S Pritchett, doyen of the New Statesman and New Yorker, had to do a few hours' reading on Christmas morning). The freelance - even Virginia Woolf, loyal slave of the TLS - is ghosted by fear of the chop. The shove comes with rude abruptness. Angus Wilson stumbles away to penurious despair when Terence Kilmartin, fabled lit ed of the Observer, refuses his star reviewer's request for a consoling retainer. And any adverse comment will make writers suicidal - let alone the punch-lines that the likes of Dorothy Parker, "Constant Reader" of the New Yorker, delighted in smacking home. (While reading The House at Pooh Corner , "Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up".) The continuing fame of such put-downs is a sure sign that our yearning for instruction figures far less in our reading of reviews than a taste for more venial pleasures. And any review-reader with even an averagely venial liking for literary gossip and scandal will find plenty to enjoy here.
For all Mr Hurtle's perennial gaffes and venoms, the lit ed has been the midwife of some of the greatest critical encounters of our time: in marvellously non-ephemeral reviews from Woolf and Pritchett, Updike and Orwell, D H Lawrence and Edmund Wilson, and their sort. And it's most right of Anthony Curtis to want to celebrate that.
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