Something New: The “LRB” Turns 40

By Colin MarshallJanuary 14, 2020

Something New: The “LRB” Turns 40

London Review of Books: An Incomplete History

I ALWAYS ASK serious readers which publications they find reliably interesting, and each year they struggle harder to come up with titles. Those who read print sources usually mention the London Review of Books, and an explanation of what keeps them coming back must, I suspect, begin with its headlines. Here’s Frank Kermode on Martin Amis’s The War Against Cliché: “Nutmegged.” Michael Wood on Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater: “I Am Disorder.” Jenny Turner on Rachel Cusk’s Outline: “I Blame Christianity.” John Lanchester on Don DeLillo’s Mao II: “Oh My Oh My Oh My.” The LRB’s first cover, dated October 25, 1979, bears a rambling headline about William Golding’s Darkness Visible. Forty years later, it published a much-circulated reevaluation of John Updike under the title “Malfunctioning Sex Robot.”

Surely one for the history books, that headline came too late to make it into this history book, published to celebrate the LRB’s 40th anniversary. However far the paper’s headlines may have stood out in the thoroughly analog late 1970s, they stand even farther out in our digital present. Many internet-native publications label every piece of “content” with a title engineered to maximize share counts and game search-engine rankings, and even legacy publications founded in the print era now exhibit online the same tendencies toward deadening explanation and formulaic provocation. Some surviving magazines and newspapers embitter the pill further, appending beneath the digital version of a piece the less intelligence-insulting headline under which it appeared in print.

An LRB headline usually comes straight from the piece, often from quotation of the book under review: Kermode includes Amis’s description of a goalkeeper looking “capable of being nutmegged by a beachball.” Sometimes the words are the reviewer’s own: Lockwood imagines Updike as not just a malfunctioning sex robot but one “attempting to administer cunnilingus to his typewriter.” The lack of context makes the headlines all the more enticing, as does the implicit assumption of our willingness to read the whole piece to discover that context. The average word count of the pieces named above exceeds 3,600, but others go far longer: the past few years alone saw 9,000 words from Lanchester on Facebook, 10,000 from David Bromwich on free speech, and an entire 60,000-word issue from Andrew O’Hagan on the Grenfell Tower fire.

Headline writing doesn’t figure into London Review of Books: An Incomplete History, but the more obscure art of word-splitting does. “We try to follow etymology,” writes deputy editor Jean McNicol, “and so ‘interest’ is split at ‘inter-,’ not ‘in-’ or ‘int-.’” Words with the suffix “-ion” get split after the consonant, as seen in the example of “nationalisat-ion” on the tea-stained page of notebook paper reproduced next to McNicol’s text. Its prescriptions, which still stand as LRB word-split policy, were originally scrawled on that paper by founding editor Karl Miller. Despite having retired in 1992 (he died in 2014), Miller remains the journal’s animating spirit, and the anecdotes involving him gathered in the book will inspire regret in those of us LRB readers who missed out on his years there as a living, curmudgeonly presence.

Whether we would have wanted to write for him is a more complicated question. “He gave the impression that the paper was a matter of life and death,” writes O’Hagan, “only more important.” In a collection of remembrances published after Miller’s death, O’Hagan recalls that “working to deadlines with Karl could be pretty hair-raising, but he stood up for the paper and for the people working on it.” Regular LRB contributor Neal Ascherson, another fellow Scot who first met Miller at Cambridge, remembers him as having “an Edinburgh, fencing sort of style in conversation, the advance of a dry-pointed rapier. Alarming to some. But not intended to wound, only to set you momentarily off balance.” Miller could “take the huff in a way which lasted for decades,” writes Ascherson, “but his loyalty to his friends — though never uncritical — was tribal and unshakeable.”

Lanchester remembers Miller as “not just funny but the funniest person I have ever known.” He also recalls the times when Miller went through a list of the paper’s contributors and “struck off the names we were no longer to use, drawing a firm red line through each of the people who’d been banished” (Miller “said, alarmingly, that he enjoyed [doing this] more than anything else”). This vengefulness kept the LRB on “an active, anxious quest for new writers,” creating a churn to which Lanchester credits Miller’s lasting relevance to British literary culture. But Miller reserved an even more bracing discernment for the work of writers not cast out: “All the points where you were on thin ice and hoped no one would notice, he noticed. You had no choice except to raise your game.”

After four decades of not just sustained existence but increasing circulation (not that that has meant profitability), the LRB must have figured out things that other, now-floundering publications haven’t. Lanchester explains one: “A paper has to have a tone, and it has to get that tone from its editor(s). What they are and aren’t interested in, what they do and don’t know, is the only reliable filter for creating a distinct editorial entity. To chase after what seems interesting to other people is a guaranteed recipe for failure.” The blind spots, over-emphases, and mistakes introduced by such a firm hand on the editorial wheel are part of a journal’s character, and “more papers go wrong through not having that character than do from having too much of it.”

A paper also needs values, and Miller’s had “to do with writing, and the difference between good and bad writing.” Intellectual substance mattered, “but the thing that mattered most was good writing.” Under current editor Mary-Kay Wilmers — who, after working for Miller at the BBC’s magazine The Listener went on to join him and Susannah Clapp in founding the LRB — the paper has upheld Miller’s commitment to good writing above all. That kind of commitment, abandoned or never taken up by most mainstream publications in the English language, brings readers back. One may object, as many have, to the arguments made or worldview implied in the LRB’s pieces, but not to their construction and craft.

At many even ostensibly respectable publications today, assuring “good writing” involves nothing more than fixing up spelling and grammar, shaping the piece into a recognizable narrative form, and heightening the qualities likely to propel it into online circulation fueled by approbation, loathing, or ideally a mixture of both. The struggle to appeal to the internet’s vast readership has rendered formerly well-differentiated publications nearly indistinguishable. What rigor remains is ideological: do the views expressed in a piece fall within the approved parameters, defined by the social-media zeitgeist of what we now call “the current year”? But if chasing after the imagined interests of others guarantees failure, so does fleeing from what they might find unacceptable.

“There are people who rely on the LRB, and people who rely on not liking it,” writes O’Hagan. Indeed, the LRB infuriates not just its readers but its writers, as evidenced by the correspondence reproduced in An Incomplete History. Offered as a representative choice is the publication in 1982 of a review of the late Al Alvarez’s memoir Life after Marriage — written by Ursula Creagh, the very wife Alvarez writes about divorcing. The chief objector was Frank Kermode, a friend of Alvarez as well as a regular in the paper since its first issue. “I have nothing against Mrs. Creagh and am not surprised that she dislikes the book,” he writes to Miller, “but it seems extraordinary that she should have been asked to review it in a journal which depends for its reputation on unprejudiced comment.”

“I do not believe in ‘unprejudiced’ reviewing — and I had gathered from your writings that you didn’t either,” replies Miller. “But I do believe in accurate reviewing” — in this case, an accurate assessment of “the histrionically self-serving and tendentious character” of Alvarez’s work. Miller concludes that “the time has come for us to have no more to do with one another”; but, lucky for LRB readers, the dismissal didn’t stick. Kermode went on to become the paper’s most prolific contributor, taking on everything from modernism to the Bible to Shakespeare to Thomas Pynchon, until his death in 2010 at the age of 90. A much-laureled professor, Kermode “provided the perfect model of how to hover as a writer between academia and journalism,” writes LRB editor Daniel Soar.

Though Kermode had the knowledge at his command, “it was the writing that did it — and the thought that lay behind the writing.” Critically, he could “give with one hand and take with the other, as when in his review of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty he praised her to the skies and then noted that she didn’t know the difference between Latin and Greek.” Soar does not call Kermode “the last man of letters,” though it would have put Kermode in good company. “He might have been, as a newspaper said the other day, ‘our last man of letters,’” writes O’Hagan in his tribute to Miller. Elsewhere, editor Joanna Biggs remembers longtime contributor John Sturrock for “the severity of his judgment and the playfulness of his intellect”: “I sometimes think of John as the last man of letters.”

The stack of letters discovered in Sturrock’s desk, missives from the likes of Iris Murdoch, Italo Calvino, and Jorge Luis Borges, is convincing evidence. They don’t appear in the pages of An Incomplete History, but the correspondence that does is hardly unimpressive. Inquiries and responses about potential contributions come from Oliver Sacks, from Angela Carter, from Richard Rorty and Martha Gellhorn and Harold Pinter. Irvine Welsh submits a short story, only to be turned down by O’Hagan “about ten minutes” before Trainspotting hit. Other writers turn down the LRB: “I seem to have given up poetry,” writes Philip Larkin, “or poetry has given up me, whichever way you like to see it.” David Cornwell (a.k.a. John le Carré) pleads a paranoid reluctance to step into “the minefields of the London literary scene.”

Whoever performs it, consideration in the LRB manner isn’t always a blessing. Kurt Vonnegut writes in to praise “the saintly Michael Mason” for Mason’s praise of his work. Niall Ferguson has a different experience: “I am, I repeat, owed an apology,” he writes after a pages-long enumeration of his objections to a review of his latest book. “The London Review of Books is notorious for its left-leaning politics,” he clarifies. “I do not expect to find warm affection in its pages.” But whatever their political differences, he might well agree with the playwright Alan Bennett, who writes that “ever since its inception the LRB has maintained a consistently radical stance on politics and social affairs” — a description readers outside the United Kingdom may have trouble squaring with the utter sobriety of the paper’s look and feel.

An Incomplete History puts it differently: “The LRB is still usually seen as ‘broadly leftish,’ and that characterization is accurate enough, but it has always been wary of having too close an affiliation with any political party and has tried not to restrict its contributors to those holding political positions with which it might be expected to agree.” O’Hagan credits this quality to Wilmers, “guardian of the paper’s subjectivity for forty years,” who writes like she edits: “The end product is clear as vodka, a clarity which is all the more striking since Mary-Kay is often in two minds about things,” writes Lanchester in the introduction to Human Relations and Other Difficulties, Wilmers’s first and only collection of essays, published just last year in the United States.

Wilmers the writer “specializes in seeing both sides of a question,” according to Lanchester, and many of the pieces in Human Relations deal with “the effect on women of men’s expectations, men’s gaze, and men’s power.” One face of Wilmers’s ambivalence shows a kind of team loyalty, and the other an acute awareness of that team’s frailties. Feminists, she writes, “have persuasively argued the case against looks, seeing them largely as a matter of men’s vanity and women’s collusion, but it may be that they do women an injustice in overlooking the question of women’s vanity and men’s collusion.” She later homes in on the consequences of that vanity: “Moderation, respectability, convention: good-looking women seem to have some special difficulty in bearing with them, as if life must be made to live up to the reflection in the mirror.”

Several essays start from the work of women writers like Jean Rhys and Marianne Moore, driven and tormented by their own perceived lack of beauty. In others, Wilmers takes on less well-regarded figures in no doubt whatsoever about their own powers of attraction. “It isn’t easy to tell from photographs why she was thought to be such a catch, but she wouldn’t have pulled such faces in them if she hadn’t thought she had something,” Wilmers writes of Barbara Skelton, memoirist and onetime wife of Cyril Connolly. Reviewing the bed-hopping travelogue Journeys to the Underworld by Fiona Pitt-Kethley (whose explicit poetry was a fixture in the LRB in the 1980s), Wilmers senses “something grim — as well as ideologically heartening — about Pitt-Kethley’s pursuit of sexual pleasure. (It might have been different if she liked men, say, half as much as she likes sex.)”

Wilmers’s own attitude toward men comes across in Bad Character, a Festschrift assembled to celebrate her 70th birthday — or rather, in the pages of one of its chapters, a glossary of Wilmerian terms composed by Jean McNicol, reproduced in An Incomplete History. These include “Autistic bubble: occupied by men and their computers,” and “Cross: people climb up on it, see ‘men.’” The entry for “female contributors” begins with a gesture in the other direction: they “tend to be unreliable,” but only because they have “too many other commitments, unlike men.” Halfway through a piece in Human Relations on the male-female balance of power, Wilmers admits that “however strongly I feel about the things I’ve been saying, I doubt whether anyone — i.e., any man — will find them upsetting. In fact, I wonder whether all my ironies aren’t simply one more way of sucking up to the ruling class.” Yet at her paper there is no question of who rules, and it isn’t the men.

Writers I know who have contributed to the LRB relate two salient qualities about the experience: the decent pay and the rigorous editing, especially by Wilmers herself, who has clearly upheld and probably raised the standards of her predecessor. She also saved the paper from probable oblivion. Conceived during a strike at the Times, and thus during an absence of the Times Literary Supplement, the LRB first launched as a supplement folded into and funded by The New York Review of Books (itself conceived during a strike at The New York Times). The arrangement wasn’t destined to last: “Karl had a sense of irony and the possibility of failure, which the Americans involved in the negotiations found unhelpful,” remembers Wilmers. After “a degree of ‘worry and tension’ about accumulating debts, the LRB was pushed out.” Having just received an inheritance from her father, director of a multinational utilities holding company, she “found a use” for the money.

“We never expected the London Review to make a profit,” writes NYRB editor Robert Silvers in a letter sent to Miller not long before the publications’ split in 1980. “We would have been very glad if it had broken even, or even shown a reasonable prospect of doing so.” The NYRB is celebrated for many reasons, not least its ability to operate in the black. So, too, did it stand out, during the famously hands-on Silvers’s reign, for the obvious presence of a guiding intelligence, the role Wilmers took over from Miller at the LRB. Despite Silvers’s having co-edited the NYRB alongside Barbara Epstein until her death in 2006, remembrances of Silvers drew little if any distinction between the publication and the man. “It was a monarchy,” contributor Ian Buruma told The New York Times after his ascent to Silvers’s throne. But Buruma envisioned under his editorship “a slightly more democratic operation,” a collaboration with the “very, very bright young editors who know more about certain things than I do.”

Buruma was replaced by two of those bright young editors a year later. He stepped down amid a social-media furor over a piece in the Review by the former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi, one of the first prominent men brought low by the current wave of high-profile sexual-misconduct allegations. Buruma sealed his own fate by justifying the decision in an interview with Slate, the furious social-media reaction to which the post-Silvers NYRB appeared institutionally unprepared to absorb. Though technically precedented, the subsequent installation of two editors in the top spot does not inspire confidence. That is due not to any shortcomings on the part of those editors, but to the difference in character — the diffusion of responsibility and, worse, personality — between individual and group decisions, however small the group.

It is impossible to imagine Silvers explaining his editorial decisions to the likes of Slate, and the same goes for Wilmers. To the online vitriol that greeted “The Tower,” O’Hagan’s issue-length investigation of the Grenfell Tower disaster, the LRB barely reacted at all. The problem for those posting that vitriol, O’Hagan wrote in a follow-up, “is not that I didn’t show compassion to the victims, but that I also showed compassion for the accused,” the public-housing bureaucracy accused of negligence in properly maintaining the building in which 72 people died. “I have received some of the most generous responses of my writing life, and, at the same time, I have been subject to terrible slanders on social media. This was one of the subjects of my piece, and it is not a surprise to see it become manifest in the response.”

“The Tower” exemplifies several virtues of Wilmers’s LRB, not just the long word counts it permits but also its contributors’ freedom to follow their ideas wherever they may lead. “I came with my agenda and I wrote to everyone and I briefed my colleagues — ‘Let’s get the bastards who did this’ — and I felt enthused by the general outrage, and by the people on the ground who appeared to be saying the right thing,” O’Hagan writes about the beginnings of his Grenfell Tower investigation. But the deeper he got, the more he understood that “a great many people, many of them appearing in the media every day, were spinning a series of beliefs and wishes into a great concatenation of ‘facts’” — including some whose side a “broadly leftish” publication might be expected to take, and whose “toxic brand of cheap compassion threatened, from early on, to distract us from finding out what really caused those deaths.”

Evidently not urged to save face by resignation from the LRB, O’Hagan appears in An Incomplete History to reminisce about its other past controversies, such as the “passing shower of cancelled subscriptions” that followed every piece by Edward Said (in line with an element of the LRB’s leftist image, an uncharacteristic consistency on the matter of Israel and Palestine). Now, on the internet, those showers have become “an international pitchfork-rabble” who read not the piece in question but the reactions of its detractors, “whose message is more to their taste.” But the LRB was forged by more severe pressures than that, including early criticism by what O’Hagan calls “literary hacksaws and jackdaws and Auberon Waughs, for trying to be good and for taking the positions it took.” And it did so in less-than-ideal material conditions: “It is raining here, inside and out,” reads a note sent to one office landlord by publisher Nicholas Spice. “Unless something is done about the ceiling in our office soon, it will collapse. Please help us.”

Of the mature LRB, O’Hagan writes that “it opposes certainty, it favors ambivalence, it knocks back group-think and the pride of the elect, and wherever possible it finds the world more questionable than the world finds itself.” It also exhibits a lordly disregard for the preferences of its own readers — which, as a reader myself, I find immensely attractive. This may owe to the paper’s rootedness in London, and therefore a society that, while politically democratic (if not a “social democracy” of the kind Miller declared the LRB would advocate), is free of the culturally democratic impulses that restrict the tone of life in the United States. “The gain in democracy has been achieved at the customary cost in style and idiosyncrasy,” Wilmers writes about the style of Times obituaries in the 1960s, though she could be writing about any number of cultural publications on either side of the pond.

Only one American print publication has inspired me the way the LRB has: the Los Angeles Times Book Review under Steve Wasserman, who edited it from 1996 to 2005 — a period overlapping the college years during which I seem to have pledged allegiance to the work of the long-form essay. The Book Review invited me for the first time into a world where a reviewer could begin by discussing a particular title and end up, one or two thousand words later, somewhere else entirely. At its best, it avoided the verbal and intellectual clichés that have struck book reviews dead on the page since the invention of the form, and which Wilmers diagnoses in a 1980 essay on “the language of novel reviewing.” Persistent disorders include a fashion for “triads of adjectives (‘exact, piquant and comical’, ‘rich, mysterious and energetic’)” and “adjectives coupled with adverbs — ‘hauntingly pervasive’, ‘lethally pithy’, ‘deftly economic’ — in relationships whose significance would not be materially altered if the two partners swapped roles.”

Even at its weakest, Wasserman’s Book Review brought to my attention books, writers, critics, and even entire subject areas of which I hadn’t previously been aware. For Wasserman’s detractors, though, that was part of the problem: “A local newspaper is supposed to reflect the interests, culture, and issues of the community it serves,” runs a typical complaint on the blog of thriller novelist Lee Goldberg. “The numbingly dull Book Review is written for some mythical populace of transplanted East Coast snobs who believe the books on the L.A. Times bestseller list (which is regularly dominated by mysteries and thrillers) reflect the reading tastes of illiterate heathens who need to be educated.” One commenter asks, rhetorically, “Why do you think the L.A. Times Book Review section only gets one or two ads and those are small box ads at that? It’s to highbow [sic].”

Wasserman never credited such criticism. “I wanted to treat readers as adults, to shun the baby talk that passes for book chat in all too many of America’s newspapers,” he writes in an essay published in the Columbia Journalism Review two year after his departure from Los Angeles.

I knew this ambition would likely incur the unremitting hostility of the samurai of political correctness, whether of the right or the left, as well as the palpable disdain of newspaper editors who had convinced themselves that the way to win readers and improve circulation was to embrace the faux populism of the marketplace.

With the culture “going faster, shorter, dumber, I was intent upon going slower, longer, smarter, on the perhaps foolhardy presumption that there were enough adults out there in Newspaper Land who yearned to be spoken to as adults” — the kind of “community of informed and interested readers,” as Miller wrote more than a quarter-century earlier in the LRB, “which used to be among this country’s claims to fame and which can’t have melted into the sea.”

Whenever I fished the Book Review out of the middle of the Sunday paper, I wondered how I would find my way into its corner of Newspaper Land — a domain Wasserman described himself as organizing in the same manner he would a dinner party. Even as the section grew thinner and thinner, clearly sickening unto death, I surely imagined, at some unacknowledged edge of my imagination, editing the thing myself one day: coming up with stimulatingly conceptual themes and then commissioning demanding pieces from my personal favorite writers to suit them. Only after the Los Angeles Times effectively killed the Book Review with the decision, as Wasserman vividly puts it, “to cut its twelve-page Sunday tabloid section by two pages and graft the remaining stump to its revamped Sunday Opinion section,” did I come to understand the adversity under which it had been produced.

“During the years I edited the Los Angeles Times Book Review, it lost about a million dollars annually,” Wasserman writes. (Digby Diehl, the section’s first editor, claims his Book Review brought in a million dollars annually.) Market research showed the Book Review to be the paper’s “single worst-read weekly section produced by the paper,” but “among the paper’s most well-off and best-read demographic cohorts — whose members arguably make up any book review’s ideal readers — the Sunday Book Review was among the more favored.” In theory, such readers can be profitably advertised to by “movie companies, coffee manufacturers, distillers of premium whisky, among others.” But whatever its business merits, this argument couldn’t have won over those who’d spent the previous decade calling Wasserman an out-of-touch elitist.

With its book and cake shops (and its tote bags, which not long ago enjoyed must-have status in South Korea, where I live), the LRB has established a lifestyle brand without sacrificing its dignity. The paper “occupies a privileged position,” Wilmers writes in An Incomplete History. “Unsparing in its criticism of Y’s policies and X’s book, it receives few criticisms in return.” Those criticisms seldom charge elitism, but then, none of its editors seem to conceive of their work in terms quite as missionary as Wasserman did at the Book Review, who sought to “answer a single question: Is serious criticism possible in a mass society?” The LRB has in fact succeeded on the back of ambitions not entirely dissimilar to the ones that earned Wasserman the scorn of self-styled defenders of the common reader and the higher-ups at the L.A. Times: exercising maximum editorial judgment, encouraging sustained argument, and prioritizing writing above all.

Prioritizing the writing entails ongoing refinement of the text itself. “You know it’s clever because it’s printed all close together,” says a character in a 1990 episode of Coronation Street, starting a verbal sparring match with the LRB-reading neighborhood intellectual. Before the paper had accrued enough cultural capital to become the stuff of soap-opera gags, readers complained about just how close together: “Couldn’t you make a slight concession to what the human eye can and cannot do with endless columns of text?” The solution has involved not reducing the length of the pieces but increasing the beauty of the page, making use of carefully placed poems, illustrations, and advertisements amid well-chosen typefaces. The result remains “essentially austere in design,” writes Ben Campbell, son of the paper’s original designer and illustrator Peter Campbell, “and the font and style settings are its most distinctive feature.”

Campbell also quotes Fred Smeijers, designer of the LRB’s signature font Quadraat, enthusing over an advertisement- and illustration-free page of the paper as “one of the most beautiful pages of text you can get these days, and it comes every two weeks!” The LRB has never, any of those fortnights, come out late, despite the attention to detail that routinely, as Spice remembered at a panel discussion on the paper’s 40th anniversary, sends phrases like “viable existence” — a redundancy given the Latin roots of “viable” — back for a rewrite. Those who can’t reconcile the mercilessness of the paper’s editing with what they see as the also-merciless length of its published pieces haven’t considered the possibility that the former produces the latter: saying something fresh, meaningful, and correct (or to use Miller’s term, “accurate”) is impossible at the length of a normal book review.

But the pieces commissioned by Miller and Wilmers have never been normal book reviews; the London Review of Books is no more strictly a review of books than it is a journal of London. Even the word “piece,” Lanchester writes, is “LRB-speak: the things it publishes are always known not as reviews, essays, or articles, but pieces.” The more descriptive term “review-essay” indicates a form that requires contributors to evaluate the book under review, but to use the better part of the word count to go beyond it, pursuing themes and asking questions that lead outside the author’s original purview. Wasserman, too, always seemed to be trying to cultivate the review-essay in his Book Review, but the readers who wanted him sent back to New York decried the results as instances of self-indulgent “authorial intervention”: Just tell us about the book already.

Few LRB contributors have done as much with the review-essay as Jenny Diski, who died in 2016 after nearly a quarter-century writing for the paper. “She wrote about herself a lot — almost never didn’t one way or another,” Wilmers remembers. But “she didn’t hijack the subject or intrude herself in the middle of it. At the same time whatever she was writing about — cannibalism (‘so far so goggable’) or Martha Freud (‘housekeeper of a world-shattering theory’) — the accounts she gave were ones only she could have given.” Diski’s work may stand out, but all the strongest LRB pieces are pieces only their particular writers could have written. That alone may explain their length: within the confines of a few hundred words, even the most astute critics follow familiar lines; only in a few thousand can they find their own way — or lose it — into more promising territory.

As a writer, Diski defined the LRB just as Kermode and Sturrock did the generation before, or Lanchester and O’Hagan have in the generation after. But the 21st-century “media landscape” being what it is, the LRB is increasingly distinguished by having a loyal stable of contributors at all. Today no few publications, even those that first made their names under more traditional models, seem to have given up investment in long-term relationships with individual writers in favor of dragging a net through the sea of cash-strapped journalists, stalled academics, and other freelancers unlikely to demand much in the way of remuneration (if liable to vanish at the first overture from a deeper-pocketed venue). That these publications are getting what they pay for has become difficult to ignore.

For my generation, “millennials” now in our mid-30s, the hope of a place at a beloved cultural institution has given way to an enervating mixture of panic and resignation about getting paid at all. Last year Jacob Silverman aired his woes in an essay about graduating into the Great Recession with “no entrepreneurial ability, an overriding fear that the economy would degrade into a more overt form of barbarism, and a desperate worship of all things intellectual,” along with the “petty, frequent, and almost numbingly ordinary” disappointments of the freelance grind he has since endured. As a self-described “failed journalist and downwardly mobile millennial,” Silverman looks back and sees “a foolish pursuit of an intellectually engaged life. As my friends became consultants, designers, and marketing experts, I thought I was going to be a book critic. It seems ridiculous, like announcing I was going to sell typewriters.”

Minimal production cost and non-zero potential for virality allowed such no-research-required personal reflections to flourish, relatively speaking, on the web of the mid-2010s. Silverman’s wasn’t the first cri de coeur of a twenty- or thirtysomething who finds that the place for which he spent his life preparing has somehow vanished. Its George Orwell–echoing title “Down and Out in the Gig Economy” also situates it in a tradition going at least as far back as Orwell’s own essay “Confessions of a Book Reviewer.” Even in 1946, the titular quasi-professional cuts a sorry figure: “He is a man of thirty-five, but looks fifty,” wearing a “moth-eaten dressing-grown” and unable to find room for his typewriter among piles of papers that may contain “a cheque for two guineas which he is nearly certain he forgot to pay into the bank.”

Silverman received $1,000 for “Down and Out in the Gig Economy,” a check for which many would submit to far more permanent abjection. It came from The New Republic, whose “back of the book” — pages of long-form literary essays overseen by editor by Leon Wieseltier — inspired others just as Wasserman’s Los Angeles Times Book Review inspired me. Before being washed out of public life by the same wave that hit Jian Ghomeshi, Wieseltier had already left TNR on his own steam, after the magazine’s announcement of intent to transform into a “vertically integrated digital-media company.” It was a momentous episode in the tragi-comic reign of Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder who purchased the respected but nearly bankrupt magazine in 2012. I imagine Silverman watching in the same horrified astonishment as I did as Hughes’s New Republic proceeded to go to pieces.

Those present at the time have said that Hughes seemed promising at first, with his humble North Carolina background, his well-documented cultural aspirations (the study-abroad in France, the home full of carefully curated book and magazine stacks), his concern about using his wealth for good, and his near-melodramatic appreciation of TNR’s legacy. He was a high-profile millennial, but one without the posturing aggressiveness or space-alien mien of the generation’s conquering tech heroes. By all accounts, he launched into his work with a Silvers-grade level of involvement, as well as a readiness to invest the kind of money the LRB has received from Wilmers. But soon he was overcome by the unprofitable century-old magazine’s unwillingness to turn into a Silicon Valley growth story, and within four years it was back on the market.

As a harbinger of this generation’s performance as stewards of literary journalism, Chris Hughes bodes poorly. But editors may take longer to emerge than writers, and even the pages of the LRB have only quite recently seen serious millennial contributions. In addition to a long piece on the AIDS epidemic, young editor Tom Crewe has also been a productive writer of short pieces, and unlike contemporaries at other legacy publications attempting to adapt to the internet, he hasn’t been relegated to the meager beat of his own generation’s trends and attitudes. The slightly older Patricia Lockwood, she of the malfunctioning sex robot, has made several big impacts, including a lecture on the deranging experience of life online whose publication is memorialized in An Incomplete History as the time “the LRB came as close as it ever has to breaking the internet.”

But the LRB stays the LRB because of its connections to its pre-internet origins, especially the living connection that is the 81-year-old Wilmers. Every single issue credits her with editorial involvement, and the latest ones evidence no slackening of her standards. I suspect new contributors must steel themselves against not just her edits but also a conversational weaponry more fearsome than Miller’s Edinburgh rapier. In Human Relations, she quotes the Dominica-born Jean Rhys writing that “most English people kept knives under their tongues to stab me,” and a cutting English witticism from Wilmers herself would surely destroy an already insecure American millennial. “I miss the wit,” the now Brooklyn-based Martin Amis (an occasional contributor to, and object of wit in, the LRB) said of his native England. In the United States, “no one will dare say anything for fear of offending someone else. That’s why Americans aren’t as witty as Brits, because humor is about giving a little bit of offense. It’s an assertion of intellectual superiority.”

The LRB has a sense of humor, which now sets it well apart not just from the general run of English-language literary publications but from most publications of any kind. “Watch the humorless closely: the cocked and furtive way they monitor all conversation, their flashes of panic as irony or exaggeration eludes them, the relief with which they submit to the meaningless babble of unanimous laughter,” Amis has written elsewhere. The humorless, in his view, are “mentally ‘challenged’, as Americans say (euphemism itself being a denial of humor).” This more or less describes the attitude of many of the other newspapers, magazines, and web sites I regularly read. They present themselves as if possessed of a sense of humor when they have something else entirely — a penchant for moralistic sarcasm, a heightened awareness of memes, contributors expressly hired to produce bland satire — and the absence hardly goes unnoticed.

It would today take a bold literary journal indeed to publish a review of a promising young female novelist that implies something amiss in her conflation of Latin and Greek, doubly so in the case of a novelist from an unconventional ethnic background covered by a white reviewer in his 80s. For the general preponderance of white men in its pages the LRB has been repeatedly taken to task by organizations dedicated to tabulating such things. According to the 2018 VIDA survey, the LRB’s issues that year contained 258 pieces by women and 504 by men. This past summer, a poetry-focused study by the Centre for New and International Writing at the University of Liverpool found that, between 2011 and 2019, the LRB “published 70 articles by 33 different critics. All 33 were white. Those 70 articles reviewed 86 different books. All 86 were by white poets.”

To some, it will not be obvious what to make of these figures, but to others they constitute a self-evidently damning indictment. The most plausible argument that the LRB must change its ways, to my mind, holds that the composition of a literary paper ought to reflect the composition of the society around it, premised though that argument is on the bold assumption that the inclination to write long-form review-essays is distributed as predictably across populations as fingers and toes. The LRB’s explanations usually just make the paper’s critics angrier. Even an audience member at the celebratory 40th-anniversary panel asked how the LRB will redress its gender imbalance. “Not all women who are writers actually, if they think about it, want to write for the London Review of Books,” Wilmers replies. “When you say that you sound so snotty, but you just run out of ways of dealing with it.”

Wilmers urges critics to look at “the impact and the influence on the paper” creditable to women. “I’m a woman. Jean McNicol is a woman. There are two assistant editors who are women. So why don’t we count?” She credits the LRB’s sensibility to writers like Anne Enright, Hilary Mantel, and Marina Warner. “I mean, the men mostly contribute opinion” — at this, a gale of laughter passes through the room — but “the tone comes much more from Terry Castle or Jenny Diski.” This argument may not persuade those mounting the indictments, who would no doubt be even less convinced by the starker fact that a publication dedicated to good writing cannot, by definition, dedicate itself to anything else. As in any enterprise, aiming toward a second mark compromises its ability to hit the first.

“It is the writing it publishes that is the heart of the London Review,” declares O’Hagan, a priority that may strike some of us today as myopic, excessive, even anachronistic. To that last charge a fair few of the paper’s editors and writers would surely plead guilty. The LRB’s intellectual roots run deep: in a 1981 letter to Miller, Open University literature department head Graham Martin praises the paper for its “impressive subject range and its demanding standard,” calling it “another fine fruit of the Scottish Enlightenment.” Clear predecessors of the LRB-style critical literary review-essay take shape in the pages of the Edinburgh Review, an influential journal of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and its even longer-lived rival Blackwood’s. In An Incomplete History, Lanchester quotes Miller sounding not unlike one of his countrymen from that period: “My ambition is to have the paper with the least nonsense in it of anywhere in the world.”

If a publication benefits from leaders out of time, steadfast against the winds of trend and fashion, so too does it benefit from leaders out of place. Miller, whom O’Hagan remembers as “a Scotland of the mind,” never assimilated to London, and Wilmers, for all the Englishness she exudes, is technically American. Born in Chicago to a Russian mother and a German father, she spent most of her childhood in the United States, leaving only when her family relocated to Brussels. “You could say that a place that worships an undistinguished statue of a little boy urinating deserves to be held in contempt,” she writes of that city in Human Relations, and entering an English boarding school at age 14 liberated her from that “dystopia of a mild and unthreatening kind.” She read French and Russian at Oxford with an eye toward becoming an interpreter at the United Nations, but she began her professional life as a secretary at Faber & Faber (publisher, nearly 60 years later, of An Incomplete History) under T. S. Eliot, another of literature’s notable not-exactly-Americans.

The Long Island–born Robert Silvers is remembered first for his editorial acumen, and second for his not typically American personal qualities: his courtliness, his dress sense (shared with Steve Wasserman, who in Los Angeles drew faint disapproval for it), his mid-Atlantic accent, his tendency to turn up not just in London but on the Continent. Sent to France by the US Army, he studied at the Sorbonne and Sciences Po, later editing the Paris Review; much later he was named a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur et de l’ordre national du mérite, confirming his grounding in a Europe-oriented idea of civilization. France would seem to connect him and Chris Hughes, but Hughes appears to have lacked Silvers’s brand of perfectionistic yet semi-detached savoir faire, laboring instead under a surfeit of American earnestness that would have destroyed him sooner or later.

The self-described “Anglo-American” Christopher Hitchens fell victim to a different kind of American earnestness, or so An Incomplete History claims. For nearly two decades, he wrote with characteristic vigorousness in the LRB against figures like Henry Kissinger, J. Edgar Hoover, Conrad Black, and the Clintons, but “in or around 2002, things changed.” It seems that, “on Bush’s war on terror, on the invasion of Afghanistan, on the war in Iraq: the politics of the paper and the politics of the Hitch had diverged.” Even so, he continued to receive insightfully mixed praise from the LRB. “Hitchens is one of the best contemporary examples of a species we tend to think of as flourishing in the 19th century rather than the 21st, the political journalist as man of letters,” wrote Stefan Collini in 2003. “He would have been entirely at home with the slash-and-burn style of the early partisan quarterlies, such as the Edinburgh or the Westminster.”

Collini’s review of Hitchens’s book on George Orwell (“‘No Bullshit’ Bullshit”) brings the two advocates and masters of the review-essay into the same frame. In “Confessions of a Book Reviewer,” Orwell advises editors “simply to ignore the great majority of books and to give very long reviews — 1,000 words is a bare minimum — to the few that seem to matter,” articulating a view that Miller might have had in mind while drawing up the LRB’s statement of intent: “The usual middle-length review of about 600 words is bound to be worthless.” An Incomplete History includes a 1996 fax from Hitchens to Wilmers (addressed as “Sweetie”) in which Hitchens precedes an apology for publishing in a Rupert Murdoch–owned paper with an explanation for how long he’s taken, writing his latest for the LRB, to strike a balance “between a piece for the time and a piece for ‘all time.’”

Writing for both the time and all time, long an LRB specialty, should thrive in the eternal present of the internet. Access to the paper’s archive, fully digitized in 2009, is indeed a more enticing return on the subscription price than even all those beautiful columns of Quadraat. This condition of simultaneous “immediacy and permanence,” as Lanchester once put it, has diverted emphasis from the “paper” to the “piece,” each of which now effectively goes out in isolation to the entire world. On the 40th-annversary panel, O’Hagan lamented this: the founders of the LRB, to his mind, “thought of themselves as literary journalists, and thought of the relationship between the pieces across the magazine,” the way they “relate to each other, suggest each other, maybe rub up against each other,” all obviated by internet reading habits. But then Wilmers, one of those founders, adds nuance by bringing up the “tradition of saying nobody noticed.”

Whatever their in-house terminology, the whole has lost ground to the part at most print publications. All have suffered from the grand 21st-century “unbundling” of content, losing over the past two decades the time to invest in curating and packaging selections of pieces and the money to invest in decent long-form writing. Viable new business models, hand-wringing think pieces inform us, have not been forthcoming; publications intent on running nothing but serious writing may simply require the support of wealthy benefactors. (Even the Los Angeles Times, though free of the million-dollar-a-year burden of the Book Review, survives today thanks to Patrick Soon-Shiong, the multibillionaire surgeon who purchased the newspaper in 2018.) Ideally these benefactors will have the ear for prose and the consistent editorial vision of a Mary-Kay Wilmers rather than the shapeless and unstable ambition of a Chris Hughes.

This guiding intelligence must also be a tastemaker, an unfashionable word in an age with a bottom-up view of culture, personalized streams of entertainment, and a suspicion of established canons. But the LRB sets an example as unfashionable as it is salutary. “The London Review of Books is something new,” Miller announced in its first issue, and compared to the publications that have more strenuously bowed to the attitudes of the moment, it still feels that way. What O’Hagan calls its “spirit of invention, astringency and critical freedom,” along with its belief in the primacy of writing — not the rule in an age more concerned with rapidity, identity, relatability, and virality — have made it a rare institution. As long as other publications are unwilling or unable to learn from its example, a rare institution it will remain.


Colin Marshall authors the Los Angeles Review of Books Korea Blog and is currently at work on the book The Stateless City: A Walk Through 21st-Century Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall hosts the Korean-language podcast 콜린의 한국 (Colin's Korea) and is at work on a book called The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his website, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.


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