This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
Habitué of the high-brow boulevards that he is, the Secret Author has been reading the London Review of Books almost since it began, back in the winter of 1979 when its presiding genius, Mary-Kay Wilmers, was but a slip of a girl.
It was from the LRB that he snipped the photograph of Jacques Derrida that adorned the wall of his college rooms, and in its august and stately pages that he read the work of Terry Eagleton, Ferdinand Mount, Jenny Diski and half-a-dozen other writers who have since taken up residence in his mental lumber room.
For a publication which describes itself as a “review of books”, the LRB sometimes seems to do anything but
And yet this immersion in what Ronald Firbank would have called “the heart of a brainy district” has come at a price, for if the LRB has always been the principal flag-waver for an exacting brand of austere, left-leaning high-brow culture, then, equally, it has always made an agreeable habit of exposing some of that culture’s limitations.
You can read it to see what the high-minded liberal-left is thinking, but it is also a fail-safe route into some of the topics that the high-minded liberal left doesn’t want to think about for fear of what those topics might tell it about itself.
But first things first. High on the charge-sheet is simple administrative laziness. What is the point of running reviews of books 18 months after publication, particularly when they have (or rather had) some claim to topicality — see, for example, the recent issue which led with two studies of American foreign policy published, respectively, in 2017 and 2018?
Item two is the terrible, terrible poetry which, with rare exceptions, neither rhymes nor scans or has any kind of internal rhythm but is simply prose chopped up into irregular lines and distributed around the page.
Item three is the resolute imperviousness to criticism. Are you a writer whose work has been traduced in the LRB, i.e. badly reviewed by someone who has not only mistaken its point but made elementary errors in doing so? Well, don’t bother writing in to complain because — unlike the Times Literary Supplement, which positively falls over itself in its efforts to allow wounded authors redress — they won’t print it.
Item four is the wonderfully small percentage of female contributors — again, worth comparing to the TLS, which managed to get its gender ratio up to 50:50 during the reign of its last editor, Stig Abell.
But it is item five on which the magazine really slips up. This its failure to honour the promise made on the masthead. In fact, for a publication which describes itself as a “review of books”, the LRB sometimes seems to do anything but. To particularise, the edition of 16 July 2020 managed to feature exactly 10 books over 44 closely printed pages, as did the edition of 22 October. By contrast, the edition of 3 December was a bibliophile’s pool-party with 20 books covered in 52 pages.
And then, having lined up a book for review, how does the LRB go about reviewing it? Why, by specialising in the review-essay, a redoubt of modern literary criticism in which whatever the author happens to have written generally takes second spot to what the reviewer thinks about things in general.
You can read it to see what the high-minded liberal-left is thinking, but it is also a fail-safe route into some of the topics that the high-minded liberal left doesn’t want to think about
Bless you, an academic specialising in the politics of the 1960s and 1970s given a book about Harold Wilson’s government to review doesn’t really want to tell the punters what it’s like. He — and it mostly is he — wants to unload his own opinions, and the book itself will be lucky to get a dismissive paragraph or two somewhere towards the end.
As for the LRB’s “stance”, its keenness on all the good brave causes, its resolute anti-Zionism, its suspicion of almost every aspect of US domestic and foreign policy, its perpetual sneering at Boris and its contempt for the Brexiteers are undercut by a delicious irony. For what is the magazine but a by-product of late capitalism, kept going on money (quite a lot of money, countless millions in fact, prodigally supplied over the years) from the Wilmers family trust, first established by Ms Wilmers’s redoubtable plutocrat father Charles?
None of this is to detract from the pleasure the Secret Author derives from his alternate Friday morning stake-outs over, say, David Runciman’s politics column, or Andrew O’Hagan’s reportage or James Meek’s peregrinations. On the other hand, the LRB’s influence is pernicious. For what has the TLS been doing in the past year or so but following in its wake, attempting to beguile its readers with reports from the Covid frontline or worthy cultural stuff that has very little to do with literature?
Oh for an editor of a major literary organ who realised that his, or her, professional responsibilities are actually very straightforward. Ms Wilmers has recently retired in favour of two under-strappers, Jean McNicol and Alice Spawls. All they need to do is work out what the best books being published are and review the bloody things — on time and with the minimum of fuss. It’s as simple as that.
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