How to be a literary editor

Done well, book reviews have never been more important

Books

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.


Despite a long and varied freelance career, during which he was several times reduced to writing brochures for defence procurement manufacturers and articles about options trading, the Secret Author has never worked as a literary editor.

For 20 years it was impossible to introduce a disobliging reference to Ian McEwan into the Guardian

Thirty years ago, he regarded them as a debased and unreliable breed, resolved to exclude anything worth reading from their pages whilst sucking up to established reputations. Now, in a world where books pages are in terminal retreat and most author interviews are there on sufferance, he has undergone a 180-degree turn and regards them as the saviours of our literary culture — spangled impresarios of taste and discernment whom we mock at our peril.

On the other hand, the Secret Author’s admiration for the average literary editor doesn’t preclude an interest in the principles of the trade. Basically, anyone inducted into the craft would do well to:

a) Remember your audience

Most readers who glance at the books pages — if they even do that — are not paid-up bibliophiles, but people with a vestigial interest in literature who want to be entertained. Above all, they need reassurance: books by authors they’ve heard of, usually on subjects they’ve heard of. The astute lit. ed. nearly always leads with, say, Max Hastings on the Second World War rather than Professor Drone of the University of Uttoxeter on Proust’s letters. Leave the clever stuff for later on.

b) Resist doing favours

Many newspapers and magazines have a distressing habit of conciliating amis de la maison. Conditions are thought to have relaxed a bit in recent times, but for about 20 years it was impossible to introduce a disobliging reference to Ian McEwan or Salman Rushdie into the Guardian. Similarly, you will rarely find Terry Eagleton being traduced in the London Review of Books. Get everything reviewed on its merits, and you will gain a welcome reputation for objectivity. The grand fromage who has written a stinker needs to be apprised of this fact as soon as possible

c) Always employ a maverick

Safe, predictable reviews by safe, predictable reviewers are one of journalism’s most tedious forms. So, make sure you have at least one wild-eyed dement on the staff prepared to trash that star-spangled 700-page American novel acclaimed as a masterpiece throughout literary London, or argue that Sally Rooney is hopeless. Readers like this kind of going against the grain and will look out for it.

d) L’esprit, c’est tout!

The late Auberon Waugh — the most notorious reviewer of his day, of whom the literary agent Pat Kavanagh once said that something seemed to come over him when he saw a sheet of blank paper — used to maintain that book reviewers would be judged, above all, by the liveliness of their response. So encourage your reviewers to say exactly what they think about the items before them, make jokes if jokes are necessary and be absolutely unsparing in the face of pretension, “genius” and writers who take themselves with a greater degree of seriousness than is merited by their work. Remember that culture, as the Marxists used to say, is ordinary, and so are most of the people who labour at its coal face.

e) No book has a right to be reviewed

Confronted with the seventeenth novel by some grand old stager who has been writing this kind of thing for 30 years, the literary editor is quite entitled to jettison it in favour of the debut work by one of these talented newcomers we are always hearing so much about. On the other hand, a household name is a household name (see section A) — ignoring the new Nick Hornby is a step too far.

f) Readers want basic information

Any literary editor worth their salt ought to employ angry young people who think modern literature is rubbish

Sadly, from the angle of the diehard litératteur, the specimen book-page browser who reads a novel review is interested in two questions: is this book any good? and is it worth £16.99 of my money? There is a place for anguished fence-bestriding of the kind that used to characterise old-style TLS reviews, where even the final sentence could sometimes fail to yield up its import, but in most cases reviewers ought to make up their minds. They should also be discouraged from writing mini-essays in which the book itself takes second place to the reviewer’s brainy thoughts or the thesis of his own last darling work on which the item under review might just tangentially impinge.

g) Nothing wrong with a row!

Factitious disagreement is better avoided, but should you possess the email addresses of two grand eminences who really loathe each other and can look after themselves in debate, then there’s no harm in encouraging one to let the other have it with both barrels and then commission a response. 

h) Youth must have its say

Any literary editor worth their salt ought to employ several angry young people who think all modern literature is rubbish and bear fantastical grudges against senior figures in the trade. They, believe it or not, are the future. 

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