Posted Under: Culture,Features,Interviews,Literature,Media
Marking 30 years of the London Review of Books, The Third Estate talks to Senior Editor Paul Myerscough and attempts to condense three decades into three thousand words
On Friday the London Review of Books will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a bumper length edition and the launch of the magazine’s online archive comprising no less than 30 million words in 12,000 essays by more than 2,000 contributors.
I started reading the LRB the year after I left university, while working in Hong Kong as a secondary school teacher. With no marking to do, few lessons to teach and no extra-curricula activities to oversee, my timetable might have been gratifyingly blank but for the school’s draconian (at least as it seemed to me at the time) working culture. Teachers, when not in the classroom, were forbidden from leaving their desks in the staffroom, much less the school, during working hours. It was bad form to turn off your computer or to use it to play videos or computer games (though such programmes were far beyond the capabilities of my laptop which wheezed whenever asked to load so much as a picture or the bright, gurning dragon school logo on the screensaver). ‘You have to appear to work at all times’ an experienced TEFL teacher had counselled me, ‘which is why I choose a desk at the back of the room. They can’t see the screen that way.’
But I couldn’t get my desk moved and with the Head of English seated behind me I had to be careful what I looked at. Too long surfing the BBC Sport’s website inevitably led to the questions like, ‘Hey what you doing?’ or ‘Hey, Lazy, you want do some marking?’
Mercifully at some point I stumbled upon the LRB’s website. It remains one of the best presented and easy to use sites on the net and, wondrously, it had no slow to load, easy to condemn, pictures. Reading the LRB I looked like I was working. Sometimes I even felt like I was, but not too often. Plus I learned stuff, stopped reading my father’s Spectator, made ill advised friendships with people like Salman and took my first steps towards apparently continuous, unemployability…
To mark 30 years of LRB, I spoke to Senior Editor, Paul Myerscough, about where the magazine stands politically, how significant political essays can be, whether he’d noticed any changes to government policy following articles written in the magazine, the sensitive issue of ‘snark’ and whatever happened to Christopher Hitchens.
The Third Estate: So how are you marking the 30th Anniversary?
Paul Myerscough: It’s an occasion when you roll out the people who are seen as your key contributors. We have pieces by Hilary Mantel, Andrew O’Hagan, John Lanchester, a huge piece by Jacqueline Rose on honour killing, Jeremy Harding and so on. It’s an occasion to show the kind of writing resources we have available.
Early next year there will be a series of lectures at the British Museum by Neil McGregor, Frank Kermode and Rory Stewart. We are about to launch the archive, the whole 30 years online. Next year we’ll have the anniversary of our independence from the New York Review Books. We started out as an insert and became independent after six months.
The Third Estate: The archive must have been very time consuming and expensive to organise so why have you chosen to put it up now?
Paul Myerscough: In a way all magazines of any status seem to be doing this, and quite right too. Technology and culture have brought us to a point where I’m not sure that any magazine or periodical can be excused for not doing it. I think you need to be able to trace the history of a publication―not least as a matter of pleasure: it’s such a lovely thing to go back through the history of a magazine to see how it’s contributors have changed, how its thinking might have changed―if a magazine can be said to have a consistent line of thought―and to build a cross reference, in so many ways: across personalities, across historical periods, across places to tease out a paper’s identity. If you can do this with the Economist, or the TLS or the Guardian, or the London Review of Books, then an archive seems to be indispensible. Magazines no longer live in the present moment. They live in the past too. We want them to do that, especially during an age in which information is processed incredibly quickly. Magazines now seem to be engaged in curation.
The Third Estate: That idea reminds slightly of Jonathan Franzen’s essay on the social novel, where he suggested the novel was incapable of keeping up with the contemporary world. There’s seems to be more reportage in the LRB nowadays and I wondered whether it sees itself as filling a gap which novels about contemporary events might have covered but aren’t able to any longer―or whether it may be facing the same problem as the social novel, that it can’t keep up with the 24 hour news cycle?
Paul Myerscough: It’s certainly true we have more reportage than we used to. We have more long essays on political and cultural subjects. We do think of ourselves as responding to an absence elsewhere―but the absence is not of coverage so much as simply of depth. It’s the length of the LRB articles that make things possible. Some of the broadsheets do a very good job of commentary alongside news, but they always have to compress it into spaces of no more than a thousand words. And that necessarily forces them into certain modes of speaking, certain ways of presenting an argument. What the LRB and some other magazines do is give their writers space to breathe. This makes certain kinds of argument possible. To take one example it makes historical argument possible, so when Ross McKibbin writes for us on politics he’ll very often set Labour thinking in the context of Labour thinking over the past ten, twenty, thirty years― sometimes fifty or a hundred years. It’s very difficult to do that except in a gestural way at a shorter length. What I think we’re doing is making available an old journalistic mode; the long 19th century essay. So your reference to the social novel may not be a coincidence. There’s something about the length that makes it possible to examine the social in a way that we tend to identify with the 19th century essay or novel, and that doesn’t fit very well into the other sources from which we get our news.
The Third Estate: It seems to be having more of an impact―I noticed Rory Stewart’s article got picked up recently and I wonder how much you consciously try to influence the news agenda.
Paul Myerscough: OK, where did you see it picked up?
The Third Estate: BBC Newsnight, and I’m fairly sure the Daily Mail ran a long extract.
Paul Myerscough: Possibly, possibly. I have thought about this… getting picked up: where you can expect to get picked up? I don’t think any of us imagine, do we, that Barack Obama after an eighteen hour day at work goes to the West Wing and reads the New York Review of Books? We don’t imagine either that Tony Blair or Gordon Brown do, even though both have written for the LRB in the past. Are their advisors reading magazines? I’m not sure how far down the chain you have to go before you get people, young people probably, in lower levels of government, who are reading everything. But that process of filtration begins at that lower level and gets honed and honed until at a senior level you really can’t expect to be having an impact in that sense. So you have to rely, as you say, on other media sources. It’s in those places you hope to make an impact. Even then it’s initially disappointing. When you’ve being doing this for a while, you just have to be sanguine about it. It just doesn’t happen very often. It happens with Rory. Rory is a prospective Tory MP, already a very significant figure in his own right, one of the few authoritative voices on Afganistan we have in this country and so it’s not surprising when he makes a statement in the LRB that it will get picked up by other sources. It would get picked up wherever it was. But what happens when Gareth Peirce writes about the al-Megrahi case for us? She publishes her essay and you think my God, this surely has to be answered at some level―and nothing happens . The Independent reprinted it in entirety, but it just doesn’t make the same sort of impact. You want to cry that it doesn’t, because in a sense the case she’s presenting is so extraordinary that it can’t be addressed in a culture in which there’s consensus: every time al-Megrahi is referred to he is the Lockerbie Bomber―and that’s in news sources. So what happens when you have piece that says he didn’t do it, actually it was someone else? You can’t really expect that to be picked up at―except that it’s Gareth Piece, the most respected defence solicitor on miscarriages of justice this country has. So I think you have grounds to influence whoever by publishing it. All you can really do is put these things into the public sphere and hope that they get picked up. Very often it doesn’t happen.
The Third Estate: It seems to fall on one side of the mass civilization, minority culture side of the debate. Does it consciously pitch itself there or is that an inevitable consequence of the way it’s written?
Paul Myerscough: No, it’s not done consciously. You have a magazine which if you set out to publish long reviews and essays on a full variety of subjects you do so hoping to bring―not a seriousness, though often that―but a depth, an angle, an originality and a style―and you’re doing that with 70,000 words per issue―then you really can’t expect very many people to engage with that. It’s a real demand, a demand which we don’t expect a lot of people, younger people in particular, to meet any more. Which, again, is why the archive has been made available online, why, also the blog. You have to find new ways of presenting the mode of thinking in technologically more accessible forms. The paper will always be there for people who want to read. We’ve always made quite a lot content available for free and that’s helped our traffic and helped us put our major intervention pieces up there in a way that helps them circulate
The Third Estate: Perry Anderson wrote in the introduction to one of the LRB’s anthologies that ‘the style of the writer comes before the importance of a subject or the affinity of a position’ is that true?
Paul Myerscough: Did he say that so concisely? That’s interesting. I’m glad we got Perry to do that knowing that Perry will not bend himself… It’s an accusation that’s been made of us. But it’s not true of course. Yes, we try to publish writers who are as stylish as possible in the field they write about. But the point of the style is not as some sort of decorative accessory and if the style is obfuscatory, that is a disaster. The point of being a stylish writer, of being a good writer is to bring alive the subject you’re writing about, the idea you’re trying to convey, in such a way that the reader is carried along with them. When you’ve got an essay of three or four thousand words, you’re hoping the reader will find their way to the end of a piece. Most people are going to give up on a piece that long unless it is well written. Style is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Style has to be in service of content. Maybe we used to publish articles like that, not anymore.
The Third Estate: Has that changed since 2001, since 9/11?
Paul Myerscough: In a way you’re speaking to the wrong person. I joined the paper the week after and was interviewed here the day after 9/11. You can imagine what the interview was like, essentially an editorial meeting on how the event was going to be covered… I don’t think it was a watershed for the paper in terms of its political thinking, because you’re able to go back to the beginning of the paper, certainly back to the Falklands and the Miners strike, and see very engaged political coverage of the news events of the day. Of course it had already been involved with Israel, Palestine so in terms of its thinking, coverage and way of doing things―no 9/11 was not a watershed. But it was in the kind of attention given to the paper, turning people’s eyes towards it, both in terms of people newly admiring and also newly suspicious.
The Third Estate: I think at this point I’m going to ask about Christopher Hitchens. He hasn’t written for the LRB since 9/11 and his last two books weren’t reviewed particularly favourably.
Paul Myerscough: At the level of reviews that’s not by design, we almost go in the other direction. I’ll come back to Hitchens I don’t want to avoid that. The Believer, a magazine in the States, launched a good few years ago with a manifesto against ‘snark’, which said they would avoid ‘snark’ and as one of their examples of ‘snark’, they chose a particular review published in this magazine by James Wood, of a Zadie Smith novel. Now we just don’t commission people to write that kind of review. That kind of review very rarely appears. Of course occasionally someone will write a piece that is deeply negative because, when they get the book, they feel that way about it. But we really don’t set people up. So if Hitchens has had negative reviews from our contributors it’s absolutely not because we’ve decided to give Hitchens a kicking. And we absolutely don’t want to because there’s actually quite a lot of love for Hitchens here. He wrote many wonderful pieces for this magazine. On certain subjects we wish we could still have him but over the question of 9/11 and American foreign policy, in relations to Iraq and attitudes towards Islam, I think at that time, it became more difficult for us to carry his articles. They wouldn’t have sat very well in the London Review’s pages.
The Third Estate: With the editors or the readers?
Paul Myerscough: Well, I suppose people will always want to ask about the relationship between the magazine and its editors. Contrary to what many people think this is not the kind of office where it’s understood what kind of line the magazine will take before we do anything, there is no consensus on many things. None the less, in the way that any magazine has a more or less defined political identity, the LRB is not the Spectator. Clearly it is left-of-centre. Clearly it is more interested in talking about certain issues in one way rather than another. We actually crave finding people who disagree with us, who present their arguments cogently and coolly, in the same kind of prose we hope our writers consider political issues. We often don’t find that our opponents do that. It’s quite hard to find rightwing thinkers who write in a way we feel we can publish, when we do we will publish them; Edward Luttwack for example and Ian Gilmour. A lot of our writers simply wouldn’t identify themselves as coming from the left. I’m not even sure some of our writers on British Politics would identify themselves as being from the left. But, Hitchens, it wasn’t so much his position (although I doubt it was one anyone here would have agreed with) but it was also the case his writing seemed to us rhetorically enflamed in a way that offered―more heat than light.
The Third Estate: Are there any personal favourites coming out in the archive?
Paul Myerscough: Quite a lot of pleasure will just be clicking on a name and seeing what they did. One of the pleasures for me will be going back to particular events. So, go to 1984 and see what the LRB had to say about the Miners Strike, go to 1982 and look at the Falklands War, go to important moments in the recent history of Israel and Palestine and see what Edward Said had to say about them. Or to take an example that leaps to mind, look at an article that by someone few people have heard of, Norman Dombey, about the state of the Iraqi arsenal before the Iraq war and find out just how many things he said came to be true in the light of events. But there’s so much it would be quite an obsessive job to get a grip on the whole 30 years.
The Third Estate: I have a not entirely formulated question on how the LRB sees itself as promoting more sophisticated literary fiction. Do you worry that its message is getting trampled out by things like the Tesco Top 40 or Richard and Judy’s book club?
Paul Myerscough: No, I think we’d always sit on one side of that. Part of the point of opening a bookshop was to give a spatial possibility for people to curate their reading in a different way. What the supermarkets and Richard and Judy do in terms of selecting and producing a kind of hierarchy of books has little to do with what we do. These days we don’t publish negative long reviews. We publish at most two novel reviews an issue, fifty in a year. We get sent fifty novels in a week sometimes. So there isn’t much point reviewing novels which you don’t think deserve the reader’s attention. You try to pick the ones that have a chance of being good and send those out to get reviews. It’s hard, you’d actually like to be reviewing literature in translation more, you’d hopefully be making your novel coverage more abstruse, not less. Making it less tailored to the British publishing market. It is still interesting to have reviews of the latest novels of major figures writing. Even so we aren’t going to review every novel by AS Byatt or Martin Amis. You go back to these writers every so often, to see whether there’s a good revisionary account to be made. In the end you hope to be able to say you have given some attention to most of the writers who people might want to read. But it’s hard finding as much space as you would like, never mind finding the writers you want to write about them.
The Third Estate: Was it a good year for the Booker Prize? Does the prize have too much influence?
Paul Myerscough: It was a good year for us in the sense that Hilary Mantel won. Hilary has been writing for us for a long time. Just because of that prejudice it was easy to think they’d made the right choice. There are all sorts of prizes which are given disproportionate amounts of attention in different fields. The Turner Prize would be one for example. But again it’s a similar situation to supermarkets. The Booker Prize is a matter of the logic of publicity and sales. Its impact is massive in that area. Look at the statistics about the sort of difference it makes to be on the shortlist on the one hand and to win on the other. It makes thousands of percent difference. We used to carry ‘Shortcuts’ in my early time here. James Francken would read all the Booker Prize shortlist novels and write a short article going through them. We haven’t done that in recent years. We’ll pay attention to the individual works but we don’t prioritize. You have to exist on one side of the prize culture and the mainstream. You either have to give an original take on the things everyone else is paying attention to or you have to pay attention to texts no one else is paying attention to. We try to do both.
JW Arble’s pick of the LRB archive