The editor of the Literary Review deserves praises for giving its writers a free hand — as long as they do not succumb to puffery and hype
The Literary Review is 30 years old. It was started by Dr Anne Smith when Times Newspapers were closed down and the TLS therefore didn’t appear. An academic, she edited it from her flat in Edinburgh’s New Town where I remember discussing it with her and regretfully concluding it wouldn’t last six months. Indeed, it soon ran into difficulties from which it was rescued by Naim Attallah. Dr Smith and he soon parted company, though she is still commemorated in the magazine as its “Founding Editor”. Emma Soames then took over the editorship before Attallah surprised everyone by offering the post to Auberon Waugh. People were equally surprised, given his other commitments, that he accepted the offer, and still more so when his complete and even jealous devotion to it became obvious. He surrounded himself with bright young people, cajoled distinguished writers into reviewing for him for next to nothing, and delivered vigorous and characteristically contentious judgments from his “Pulpit”. He made the Literary Review great fun and enjoyable reading.
When he died in 2001, many thought the magazine would expire with him. Attallah sold it to Christopher Ondaatje and Nancy Sladek. Born in London of Czech parents who had emigrated in 1950 after the communist takeover and later moved to Canada, where her father was first an academic, then a successful businessman, Nancy attended university in Geneva and London. (She now has three passports — British, Canadian and Czech.) After freelance work in London, she was Waugh’s assistant editor for ten years, and it was natural for her to succeed him. With money invested by her father, she subsequently bought out Ondaatje and is therefore both proprietor and editor. Far from folding, the Literary Review has gone from strength to strength, with an estimated readership of at least 60,000. It has become the best magazine in the country for what Virginia Woolf called “the Common Reader”, for people who like books and good-humoured but serious discussion of new work.
How has Nancy Sladek done it? She has changed little. The magazine still has its poetry competition, which attracts amateur versifiers, and its Bad Sex Prize, which adds to the gaiety of the nation. The “Pulpit” is now written by different hands every month, Nancy modestly declining to take over the role herself — though I am sure she would do it very well. Whereas in early days it had TV and film reviews, it now austerely confines itself to reviewing new books, with the occasional author interview. Nancy lays down no editorial line, but the magazine is conspicuous for eschewing personalities and bitchiness. Reviewers are given no instructions at all and Nancy has the ability to match reviewers with books. This is one of the secrets of her success. As a consequence, most reviews are knowledgeable and tend to enthusiasm and just appreciation rather than to denigration. Academics such as Richard Overy, Felipe Fernández-Arnesto, David Cesarani, Robert Irwin and David Watkin are as happy to write for the Literary Review as indigent novelists and expensive journalists, and to do so in a manner that is informative, readable and free from jargon. Where else would you find an enthusiastic review of an edition of Landseer’s Private Drawings by Paul Johnson, nestling beside Tom Nichols on Titian?
People enjoy writing for the Literary Review because they are given a free hand. If they exceed the recommended length, they rarely find heavy cuts being made. In general, reviews are printed just as they are received from the reviewer. As a result reviewers are seldom dissatisfied. They are still paid just £50, but at least this arrives as a cheque pinned to the copy of the magazine in which the review appears.
Some years ago in “Pulpit”, Waugh explained the absence of a review of Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters: the publisher had placed an embargo on copies being sent early for review. It is one of the boasts of the magazine that books are not reviewed late. This means that reviewers are often required to read books at proof stage. This is less agreeable than reading finished copies. Nevertheless we submit to it to please Nancy.
She has kept the magazine proudly independent of the celebrity circus. If most reviews are generous, even enthusiastic, they never descend to puffery and hype. The Literary Review exists for its readers, and the assumption is that they want to be informed and entertained. I find that almost every month I read every review — this is not a boast I could make about the TLS or the London Review of Books. Nancy never, it seems, forgets that, while some are compelled to read for professional reasons, most people read for pleasure — and this is what the Literary Review offers. In sour and often philistine times, its message is that you can be serious without being dull or solemn, and that good literature still matters.
Nancy’s watchword is appreciation, not denigration. Reading the Literary Review, you can believe that we still enjoy a common culture. Our world would be poorer without Nancy Sladek or the Literary Review.