Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Blame the Literary Monkeys, It's the Organ-Grinder Who Calls the Tune

Magazine article The Spectator

Don't Blame the Literary Monkeys, It's the Organ-Grinder Who Calls the Tune

Article excerpt

An aspect of journalism little known to the public is what goes on behind the books pages. It is an important aspect. Literary editors decide not only what books are well or ill received but to some extent what books, and authors, are published. Let us not exaggerate their power. They cannot keep down a writer of real merit or promote, except briefly, one who lacks it, but at the margins they are determinant. And never believe them when they disclaim responsibility for the thrust of a review. On books or authors they care about, literary editors always get the reviews, good or bad, they want. To a great extent, the reviewer is merely the monkey: it is the organ-grinder who determines the tune.

Some secrets of literary editing are disclosed in two recent books: Lit Ed. by Anthony Curtis (Carcanet, 25) and Dark Horses by Karl Miller (Picador, 16.99). Anthony Curtis was a literary editor for 30 years, first of the Sunday Telegraph, then of the Financial Times. Karl Miller was in the business even longer, at The Spectator, the New Statesman and the Listener, and then as the inspired creator of the London Review of Books, which he ran successfully for many years and which has withered under his nonentity-successor (who owns it).

These works are not caviar for the general; rather, required reading for the literary profession. I found both fiendishly difficult to buy, a sign of the times: only last month an assistant in a branch of W.H. Smith told me, `Oh no, we don't stock the Times Literary Supplement any more, we need more space for girlie mags.' Curtis provides a huge amount of information, not always accurate, about literary journalism during the past half-century. Miller's book is `less accessible' (as he would put it): one must read between the lines to get the often dark and disconcerting message.

Miller was one of the two lit eds I most admired. When I took over the New Statesman in 1964 I inherited this saturnine genius, and in due course lost him. I account that one of my failures. Miller was argumentative and coping with him took up a lot of time. I was overworked and harassed, preoccupied with affairs of state which seemed to me more pressing than literary niceties. Nevertheless, I should have been more patient and understanding. It is the job of an editor to put up with difficult people who have much to give. Mea culpa.

The other man I not only admired but loved was John Raymond. Curtis rightly devotes much attention to his superb reviewing, which was in the Cyril Connolly class -- sometimes above it - and his skills as a literary strategist. He taught me an immense amount about books, French as well as English and American. He was also my Best Man. Curtis laments his lost promise and early death - a melancholy reminder to me that of the dozen ushers at my wedding in 1957 only two are still alive. Drink was the great destroyer of literary talent in those days. Now it is Aids and drugs in addition.

The great difference between reviewing in the 1950s and now is the virtual disappearance of the jack-of-all-trades men of letters, polymaths like Maurice Richardson and John Davenport, Philip Toynbee and Harold Nicolson, who could write about anything with magisterial authority and an enviable command of language. There are still a few around - John Gross, Auberon Waugh and Ferdy Mount, for instance, and younger fellows like A.N. Wilson, David Sexton and Alain de Botton. But most of the more portentous reviewing is now undertaken by academics, often log-rolling and self-serving. …

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