Books: Snakecharmers in Texas — Lively Copy |
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Lively Copy

London Reviews edited by Nicholas Spice (Chatto & Windus, 1985)
The New Review Anthology edited by Ian Hamilton (Heinemann, 1985)
Night and Day edited by Christopher Hawtree (Chatto & Windus, 1985)
Lilliput goes to war edited by Kaye Webb (Hutchinson, 1985)
Penguin New Writing: 1940–1950 edited by John Lehmann and Roy Fuller (Penguin, 1985)

With more than 800 high-grade items to choose from, London Reviews gets the number down to just twenty-eight. But already it is the third such selection from the London Review of Books. Is three neat volumes sitting on a shelf better than hundreds of copies of the magazine mouldering in a corner? Yes, but not emphatically. When a literary magazine is as good as this one it hurts to throw old copies away. Visiting I. F. Stone once in Washington, I was impressed by his complete bound files of the New York Review of Books, and more impressed still that he had extracted these from the editor as part-payment.

Perhaps contributors to the LRB could work the same trick on Karl Miller, who for this anthology hands over to Nicholas Spice, who in turn sensibly makes sure that Karl Miller’s long essay about the LRB heads the list of contents. This essay is to be relished, not least when it is most uncertain. If the style is less tortuous than usual, the stylist is even more tortured. His highly developed sense of scruple has not let him rest easy since he chose Ursula Creagh as the reviewer of a book by A. Alvarez about divorce. Ursula Creagh, in addition to her sharp critical faculty, had the qualification of being divorced from A. Alvarez. Or should it have been the disqualification? The estimable Alvarez, brave as well as bright, will not mind my saying on behalf of several thousand subscribers that the piece was read keenly.

If the editor didn’t print it just as keenly, certainly he managed to overcome his reluctance. But it can’t be denied that the adversarial casting of reviewer and reviewed is more commonly practised down at the tattier end of Grub Street, to produce what is known as ‘lively copy’. Let me give an example, based on close personal experience. Suppose, say, the Literary Review has printed an attack on one of your books a year after it was published. This might be an insult but so far there is no injury. The editor of the magazine then writes you a letter saying that the attacker is about to bring out a book of his own and asking whether you would like to review his book ‘in reply’. You deal with the letter in the only way appropriate, by pretending you haven’t seen it. The assistant editor of the magazine then rings you up to repeat the offer. You reply to the effect that revenge is a bad reason to write book reviews. A more graphic reply is ruled out by the fact that both the editor and the assistant editor are young women, new to the job but learning fast.

In the editorial half-world of the property-market give-away glossies and Naim Attallah’s corps de ballet, lively copy is pursued in all innocence by fashionable female honourables whose idea of a rigorous literary magazine is Vanity Fair. In the arts-update departments of the fashion mags — and, increasingly, the back ends of the weeklies — lively copy is generated with a greater awareness of how seriousness is being sacrificed to trivialisation, and consequently with a more strident self-righteousness. But Manichean explanations are otiose. The Grub Street jobbing editor not only doesn’t see anything awful about being slipshod, he doesn’t see anything slipshod about being slipshod. He isn’t transgressing his standards. Those are his standards. Hence the guileless charm of Karl Miller’s self-searching. Worried about a momentary lapse from a principle the other chaps don’t even know exists, he is so far above the battle that his anxious feet shuffle empty air. Imagine Wittgenstein high up in the grandstand, painfully arriving at his celebrated formulation that a game consists of the rules by which it is played. Imagine, down on the pitch, some clapped-out Third Division football side wanly attempting to avoid relegation by hacking at its opponents’ raw ankles. The discrepancy is of that order.

The ethical point is not just relevant but crucial, because it is to the principled editor, the worrier, that the talented contributors come in search of prestige. As editor ofa literary magazine he will have almost nothing else to pay them with, so all depends on his moral clout. He must conjure up a sense of mission. It is no coincidence, as the academics say, that what joins Karl Miller, now of the LRB, to Ian Hamilton, some time of the New Review, is a dominant, not to say overbearing, personality. Either man is able, by force of self-belief, to make good contributors expend, on an article, energy that they might otherwise have saved up to write books. Getting less good contributors to do this is no problem, but good contributors are more retentive, and eventually reach the stage when they yield up copy like a stone giving blood. It then becomes a matter of the editor’s will. Without a Napoleonic inner certainty, he won’t get the stuff. He must convince the best minds in the country that his magazine is a key factor in its survival as a civilisation, and he can do this only if he first convinces himself. My Observer colleague Neal Ascherson — present in this anthology with an exemplary piece on Ken Livingstone — once observed that the task of the literary editor is to ruin the next generation of writers. In diverting them from what they think they should be doing to what he thinks they should be doing, he had better believe that it is a far, far better thing they do for him than they might have done if left alone. Voice any doubt except that.

Below Karl Miller’s troubled conscience is an assurance worthy of John Knox, if rather more tolerant. His magazine reflects this — is, indeed, its embodiment. The LRB is the house magazine of the British intellectual elite. In the TLS they talk to the world. In the LRB they talk to each other. The dons let their hair down. Professor Ricks tears his out. Everyone is in character. Ellipsis, allusiveness and casual snidery propagate a coffee-house atmosphere which is no doubt part of the appeal. More important, however, is that good minds are at their best when writing like this, on their mettle rather than up on stilts. Here again, the editor’s personality is decisive. He gives the licence to be quirky. The contributor is encouraged to speak for the paper only in his cogency of argument. Otherwise he speaks for himself. The assumption is that a communal effort can be brought about only by individuals. The individual style is consequently cherished. Within the bounds of grammar, you may speak as you please. Contributors to any American publication at an equivalent level will know that the same privilege, however freely offered by the editor, will effectively be withdrawn by his minions. Edmund Wilson’s famous letter to the editor of the New Yorker, complaining of how the very characteristics of style which had presumably led to his being hired in the first place were comprehensively expunged during the process of editing copy, has been much reprinted but paid little heed. The thrill of earning a dollar a word soon wears off when it turns out that the fact-checkers and guardians of house style will never be off the transatlantic phone.

Writing a single piece for an American magazine which I won’t specify beyond saying that it is not published weekly in the Pacific, I had encounters at length with the disembodied voices of three separate editorial assistants, the last of whom wanted to convince me that the phrase ‘redress the balance’ made no sense, because only an imbalance could be redressed. I gave in for the same reason that rock splits under the impact of dripping water. So small a point ought not to matter, except that having the way you write absorbed into house style is only a step away from having the way you think absorbed into editorial policy. American critical papers, aware of their constitutionally guaranteed role as part of the government of the nation and therefore of the world, must be seen to have weight. Even if a writer has been hired for his light touch, he will find the editor collaborating with him lest due gravity be compromised. The heavy contributor will be encouraged to grow heavier still, by putting down footnotes as a baobab tree puts down roots. At its most extreme the effect is of a learned journal plus woodcuts.

The LRB’s contributors are encouraged to wear their learning lightly and will find their prose interfered with only in aid of clarity. Here again, the editor’s reputation is decisive. As literary editor of the New Statesman and editor of the Listener he proved to a whole generation of writers that his blue pencil hurt only to heal. The LRB’s taste for poetry is a sure sign of its ear for prose. Craig Raine is represented in this selection by a poem of his own and another by David Lodge, who parodies the Martian approach so successfully that you wonder if it has quite enough to it. Blake Morrison’s ‘Xerox’ is a poem to be memorised now if you did not cut it out of the paper and keep it, but he already had a reputation so anyone might have printed it. Fiona Pitt-Kethley, however, was little known until the LRB started printing her poems. For anyone with a teenage daughter their scabrous subject matter is hard to take. They would scare Martin Amis. It needed a true appreciation of literary talent to spot their quality.

The same true appreciation ensures that the prose in the LRB rarely falls below a certain standard and that the level of argument is kept up. Not all of the best LRB writers are here. Such is the paper’s plurality of casual labour that the most diligent contributor can hope to be anthologised only every second time. I can think of several writers for whom this rule should be relaxed. Barbara Everett, for example, is proof that the traditional academic study of English literature, armed against theory and sensitive to real life, is the only sort of attention adequate to the subject. Her presence in the anthology would be a powerful reminder of just why the pseudo-scientists are absent from the magazine. The LRB knows what it wants to keep out. Therefore it is the paper to be in.

A don can make it into the TLS if he is one of the only two authorities on Punic zinc-smelting and the other has just written a book. He will thus be increased as a don. But in the 1,RB he becomes more than a don: he becomes someone whose intelligence counts generally. The magazine’s invitation brings him half-way out of the cloisters and half-way into Grub Street, where the obligation to make himself plain must incidentally ensure, to our benefit, that he gives us the haute vulgarisation of his subject. Attracted by the same laurels while moving in the opposite direction, freelance literary journalists are also constrained to do their best. They are a dying breed, partly because the moonlighting of the dons has kept remuneration artificially low throughout the field. Time spent on writing a review for the LRB is time taken away from fabricating lucrative stuff for the glossies, an activity which doesn’t hurt the conscience all that much because nobody reads it anyway. But one surprises within oneself the church-going urge to be more serious. Alan Bennett’s piece on W. H. Auden, which seemed so good when it appeared in the paper, seems better still reprinted. For this, the justly famous Bennett can have got no royalties, no curtain calls, no green-rooms cries of ‘Darling!’ His reward was the special, monkish sense of release that you get from embracing a discipline, from doing your bit to transcribe the codex. The paper’s monastic air of frugality would be called its bottom line if there were a PR person on the staff.

But this attribute needs no promotion, since the paper’s format embodies it. The LRB started life as the cisatlantic Doppelgänger of the New York Review of Books (for a while they travelled together, like the pre-war Short-Mayo composite flying-boat) and was thus ordained to be a broadsheet on butcher’s paper. But on its own it grew even more austere, without even a resident cartoonist. Nothing except a few photographs and the occasional drawing relieves the letter-press, which if it is to sparkle must do so by itself. The seemingly paradoxical, but in fact logical, result of this harsh physical regime is more latitude for exuberance, as in a playground with high walls. The paper is bright because the editor’s idea of lively copy is the truth told in a short space. This can be a tricky criterion when it comes to the hard sciences, and even in the humanities there is such a thing as fluent falsehood, the enchantingly specious. The editor must follow his strict nose while allowing for the possibility of legitimate controversy. In this respect it is a pity the anthology has no more room than it has for extracts from the letters column, a water-hole at which proud beasts appear fortnightly and charge at one another head down, sometimes for months on end. At the time of writing, Craig Raine and Tom Paulin are still colliding in a dispute which began over a small failure to recognise a quotation and an even smaller disagreement over whether a spondee can be made to rhyme oxytonically with an iamb. The clash would be from Laputa, not to say Lilliput, if the quality of intelligence brought to it were not so generally illuminating. For such a brouhaha not to degenerate into the kind of raree show which elsewhere in Grub Street might be cried up as a ‘feud’, the editor must know when to impose his authority. To do that, he must have it. A literary magazine is a personal creation.

Another case in point is, or was, Ian Hamilton’s The New Review, now excerpted from and introduced by the editor himself. This modest-looking anthology is crammed with good things. Unfortunately the magazine never looked modest, and even when the good things squeezed out the makeweights the effect was seldom one of value for money. The format was too lush. This single error of judgment dogged TNR from the start. The LRB would still look like money well spent if it were to be discovered that the editor was scattering half of his Arts Council grant on the blackjack tables of Las Vegas. TNR would have looked profligate if it had been as well managed as Marks and Spencer. A single copy cost less to produce than you might have thought, but what made this information so startling was the air of extravagance. As Jeffrey Archer might say, it was a problem of presentation. In theatrical parlance, the show was over-billed. The format promoted more expectations than the content could fulfil. Printed on double-coated paper perfect-bound between card covers, excellent material looked merely normal and anything average counted as a minus. More had to be average than the editor would have liked. The magazine’s forerunner, The Review, could go on rejecting material and delaying publication until every issue was a little keepsake. TNR was so much bigger that even had it come out with the same blessed irregularity it could not have been better. But it came out every month and was a Moloch for material.

Speaking as one who supplied TNR with some of its makeweight copy under an assumed name, I can confidently assert that Ian Hamilton’s infectious dedication to an altruistic, non-commercial ideal of cultural duty never ceased to inspire the troops when they gathered in the Pillars of Hercules to be given their assignments. Bohemian virtue, however, was a vice when it came to bourgeois practicalities. ‘The New Review’s grant,’ says Hamilton in his preface to this anthology, ‘was the largest ever given to a magazine — a lot of people took offence at this — but was never large enough, alas, to safeguard the enterprise from penury.’ The sincerely meant candour of this statement would have been more luminous if it could have found space to concede that a budget is something it is wiser to start out with, not be forced by circumstances to adopt piecemeal as you go along. The enterprise being in the hole from the start, lack of money, to adapt Dylan Thomas’s epigram, continued to pour in. A dearth of the ability to calculate meant that blows inflicted by reality were rarely interpreted as lessons: an ad for subscribers placed expensively in the Listener resulted in the enrolment of exactly one subscriber, but this harsh fact did little to dampen some confident talk among the staff of opening a wine bar to defray costs. The prospect of the ailing brewery organising its own piss-up as a fund-raiser did not reassure those of us who were already working a double shift.

Its atmosphere of fiscal unreality made the venture hard to defend with a whole heart when it was attacked. A sitting duck dolled up like a flamingo, it was attacked often, most tellingly on grounds of waste. It should be emphasised that TNR was a Stroheim movie only in the sense that the artists had taken over the accounts department. The total amount of money involved was peanuts — when Ian Hamilton so grippingly interviewed Calvino in a recent edition of BBC2’S Bookmark, the perhaps not entirely necessary scene-setting sequence on an Italian railway station must have cost more than TNR’s annual grant. But they were Arts Council peanuts. Grub Street journeymen who could point to no artistic achievement beyond a nose full of burst veins were able plausibly to complain about a waste of the taxpayer’s money. They were less plausible when they complained about weak material, but honest rebuttal had to encompass the realisation that the good things in the magazine might have been packed closer together if the demand for copy had been matched with more foresight to the possible supply. There is only so much good critical writing to be had — a fact of which Hamilton, with a long history of extracting articles deeply lodged in feverishly elusive contributors, was well aware going in.

Coming out, his innate sense of cogency reasserts itself. As the pall of dust dissipates around the crashed bandwagon, it becomes clear that TNR largely fulfilled its editorial aim of printing the extended critical pieces that the other literary papers would not commission even as disguised book reviews. The verse is of a high standard. We see poems that helped establish the reputations of James Fenton and Craig Raine; poems by Heaney and Lowell; and Peter Porter’s ‘An Australian Garden’, which counts among his best things. Of the short stories, ‘Solid Geometry’ is a reminder that TNR played host to Ian McEwan when he was still regarded as a fairly nerve-wracking guest. But the essays are the chief boast. Lowell’s piece on John Crowe Ransom was a much weighter contribution than some of his later poems, which Hamilton politely greeted without obvious signs of diminishing excitement when they arrived in Greek Street by the cartload. John Carey’s ‘Down with Dons’ is a locus classicus of the odium theologicum, boiling with the deep-down unreason which so often underlies, and possibly fuels, the ratiocinative dazzle of the star dons, but wonderfully entertaining in the texture of its prose. What makes Carey the most rewarding of the nutty professors is that he writes so well. He has wit, for example, where Professor Ricks can only pun.

Yet not even Professor Carey can do without a good editor. Ian Hamilton might not have actively interfered in the composition of ‘Down with Dons’ but his own example helped set the mark, as it did for every other contributor to TNR, the old Review and the TLS, when he was one of the assistant editors. Hamilton wields a meticulous blue pencil. When he goes through your typescript he gives you a free writing lesson. But he also gives you that when he writes. Of all the critics in his generation (there were droves of them to start out with) none commands a prose so supple, pointed, acidly laconic. When TNR packed up he was free again to fulfil his best gift, and mellow for the experience. The excellent biography of Lowell duly followed. His ‘Diary’ contributions have been among the highlights of the LRB, which perhaps also benefited from the general lesson provided by TNR’s short career. In the music business the same general lesson is sweated down to one piece of advice: don’t give up your day job. A British critical review should be edited as a sideline and look austere. The culture demands it. But the culture also readily forgives a business failure. Artistic integrity is rightly valued above financial acumen, although it can’t hurt to point out that the first is not automatically acquired by despising the second.

Justly legendary and now usefully anthologised, the pre-war high-life weekly Night and Day adumbrated TNR’s touching good faith by making the same miscalculation four decades earlier. Its editors assumed that a certain number of well-off, well-informed, artistically inclined people must want a magazine reflecting their interests. It was painfully discovered that the number is uncertain and there is no must about it. Knowledgeably editing this selection, Christopher Hawtree dismisses the cosy idea that the magazine’s early demise was due solely to the libel suit brought by Shirley Temple after Graham Greene, the magazine’s cinema reviewer, suggested that she knowingly flaunted her precocious sexuality. It would be nice to think that the asinine law put the magazine out of business. But it put itself out of business. Under-capitalised from the start, it was a luxury magazine short of money — a contradiction in terms. Properly funded, it might have survived. Though it smacked of Maytime in Mayfair, it was a lot more than just a home-grown New Yorker and there was no real competition from Punch, which it far outstripped in its writing. As with the New Yorker before it got fat, Night and Day’s strength was in its departments. The personnel sounds like a dream roster, an all-time heavenly cricket team. Greene on cinema, Osbert Lancaster on art, Elizabeth Bowen on theatre, William Empson on travel ... and Evelyn Waugh on books. Waugh’s lambasting of the milquetoast Left sounds like mere common sense now, but by making truthfulness of prose his first criterion he achieved a permanently refreshing generosity of taste. With poetry he gave way to rant, calling the poems in Letters from Iceland ‘rough Byronic verses’. Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ is less rough than anything by Byron himself. But Waugh must be allowed his prejudices. What startles is how few of them he allowed to show. The magazine made him well-mannered. It brought out the best in all its contributors, some of whom — Hugh Kingsmill and Malcolm Muggeridge are two examples — came fully alive only in such a context, where they were, in Cyril Connolly’s phrase, praised on the nail. Cheaply bound but breathing value for money, this compendium should do good business as a Christmas present and bring in for its publisher the kind of revenue which might have saved the magazine at the time. Fifteen years ago, I bought the complete run of Night and Day, in two volumes buckram bound, for twenty pounds. Since then it has appreciated alarmingly. The unwitting possessor of a rare book, I have been afraid to handle it lest the uric acid in my sweaty palms diminish its value.

Where Night and Day failed, Lilliput lasted. On a smaller scale it had something of the same urbane look, but it was more down-market. Down-market is bigger. This probably explains why there was backing available at the crucial moment. Lilliput goes to war is only one of the many possible anthologies which could be made out of the complete run, much of which as a pre-teen in Australia I read until the covers frayed. I was particularly attracted by the retouched nudes but it was clear even to me that Lilliput represented a whole view of existence. From this distance, it is easier to see what that view was: it was the refugee’s view, cherishing the free variety of British life while the Nazis rampaged in the old homeland. Lilliput was not strictly a literary magazine, but Stefan Lorant, the Hungarian who was its driving spirit, had a cultural gusto of a type well-known on the Continent and which Hitler did the rest of the world a tragic favour by scattering to the winds. Younger readers now will be surprised to find how accurately the magazine’s editors and contributors saw what Hitler was up to.

Penguin New Writing, although it ran pictures later on, was the literary magazine pure, simple and austere. The war made it a popular hit, in the same way that water gets popular in a drought. John Lehmann does not emerge from his three-volume autobiography as the most charismatic of editors, but obviously he was the right man at the right time. Apart from Cyril Connolly’s Horizon, Lehmann’s Penguin New Writing was the only game in town. It was almost the only game in Europe. Thus it had everything to choose from, so there is no reason to be astonished by the roll-call of contributors in this anthology, although the fame of some of the poems might give even the prepared reader a prickly neck if he can imagine them hitting the editor’s desk. lay your sleeping head, my love ...’ Yes Wystan, we’ll be glad to print that one. Got anything else? Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’ and Isherwood’s ‘A Berlin Diary’ are among the prose. It’s an era in nuce. But it isn’t just a British era. The European names bulk large. At a time of national crisis, the magazine had the international outlook, the world view.

Now that the country faces a different crisis, or a later phase of the same one, a critical paper is more than ever enjoined to take the world for scope. The LRB does gratifyingly well in this respect. Without belittling its politics, one can say that its cultural politics are the politics that matter most. Social democrats avant la lettre were glad to be rescued from limbo by the formation of the SDP. Now, in the columns of the LRB, they can talk to one another as Brian Magee and Bernard Williams no doubt talk in the Garrick. It is comforting to hear the bright minds of the political centre being so clubbable. Further to the left, space is made for Tam Dalyell to pursue his Belgrano studies. Things are a bit thin on the right, but perhaps the editor believes the Right to be a bit thick. More important is the supervening realism, the devotion to the world as it is, to what is the case. This is the tone for which Goethe and Eckermann took the Edinburgh Review. It is not just a matter of keeping the paper free from the lively copy which Coleridge, in his ‘Remarks on the Present Mode of Conducting Critical Journals’, called intrusive personalities. Grub Street has always had an open sewer running down the middle of it. The stench is probably less toxic now than in the last century, and certainly than in the century before that. Hacks have always, been vindictive, but unless habeas corpus is suspended they can hurt only your feelings. Oxbridge baby dons cutting a dash in the glossies would do more damage if denied the limelight. The fashionable literary glitter-girls would rather meet Boy George than George Eliot, but they brighten life and Pope would have written a poem about them. Come to think of it, he did: ‘The Rape of the Lock’. New, however, or at any rate returning in a more insidious form, is a certain cocksure, know-nothing Little Englandism. Marginally talented writers find cachet, and credibility along with it, by flaunting their parochialism. Ignorance has become aggressive. Grub Street is infested by unfunny Beachcombers, Chestertons without magnanimity, and — a truly sinister development — Bellocs bedewed with the same cold, xenophobic sweat. Migrants customarily spot signs of decay in their adopted country; perhaps I have been here too long, or am just growing old. But deluded or not, I can’t imagine a bigger danger for Britain now than to shrink under its shell. There is no shell. The only safeguard lies in the country’s peculiar intelligence — empirical, proof against big ideas, uniquely sensitive to its own language. The critical papers help keep it unclouded. This kind of wealth is still well worth coming here to seek, even if the more usual kind has become harder to get hold of. The best reason for being in London is to get a paper like the LRB on the day it comes out, or in my case — the dubious privilege of a subscriber — a couple of days later.

London Review of Books, 7 November, 1985