Inside the Pressure Cooker: John Sutherland on the Fury and Bitchiness of the London Literary World. (the NS Essay)

Article excerpt

In September 2000, when Salman Rushdie announced his intention to leave for New York, he complained about the "bitchiness" of the London literary world. A few weeks ago, an expatriated Rushdie (still bruised, one guesses, from the reception of his latest novel, Fury) lashed out again in even harsher terms. Bitchiness, he alleged, had reached homicidal levels. British critics and reviewers did not merely want to do down his books or pry into his personal relationships: they wanted to destroy him. "They begrudge the fact that I have survived the fatwa and now lead a better life," he told Der Spiegel. "Unfortunately, the British press is going through a rather nasty phase. Their conception of journalism consists above all in setting up targets and then knocking them down with all their might."

There may indeed be something wrong with the cultural "tone" of the London literary world. When he retired from his professorship at University College London and his co-editorship of the London Review of Books in 1992, Karl Miller wrote a valedictory piece in the Guardian in which he warned against its pervasive "spite". It is not only Rushdie who has repeatedly criticised London as a place too unpleasant nowadays to prosecute a literary career; Martin Amis, too, has protested against the publication of literary gossip about his private life.

But does the London literary world really exist? Has it always been like this? Or has it deteriorated in the recent past?

London has a literary "world" in the same big-time way that Los Angeles has a film industry ("the industry", as Angelenos like to call it). It began in Paternoster Row - that area around St Paul's where 17th-century printers, authors, hustlers and booksellers would congregate to peddle, make deals and talk books (the site was destroyed by the Luftwaffe in the Second World War).

The seedy side of the London literary world - its underworld - crawled out of the primal slime of Grub Street's gutters, immortalised in Pope's Dunciad. Its more high-minded parts were formed and polished amid the salubrious aroma of 18th-century coffee houses, in publishers' congeries and opinion-forming organs such as Addison's Spectator. It has always been the uneasy conjunction of two literary half-worlds: gilded and bohemian.

In the 19th century, dynastic publishing houses -- such as Black-wood's, Bentley's and Macmillan -- melded into the gentleman's club world, the inns of court (failed barristers were, in Victorian England, the largest cohort of literary writers), circulating libraries, London University, parliament, the great reviews and Fleet Street (still irremediably grubby) to form an organic, multi-institutional nexus. Was someone like William Makepeace Thackeray a great author, an editor, a hack reviewer, a magazine editor, a penny-a-line journalist, a publisher, a newspaper proprietor or a "gentleman"? He was (at different times) all of them.

London enjoys unique advantages for this kind of thrivingly complex literary world. Because London is a Brobdingnagian capital in a Lilliputian country, the "national" and "metropolitan" media are, in effect, one and the same thing. Go to New York, and there is only one quality newspaper for the 12 million people who live there - and very complacent the New York Times is, in its Olympian cultural solitude. In London, there are five quality broadsheets, fighting like cats in a sack, to choose from daily. More importantly, from the literary point of view, there are (counting the Sundays and the magazines) around two dozen review-carrying publications a week. All are headquartered in London, as are, in most cases, the publishers and many of the authors who produce the books for review.

In London, a book of the day may be reviewed up to six times in the same week -- reviewed "everywhere", as we say. There is no everywhere in New York. …